Cryptic ghost letters that haunt a lower Manhattan building have a fascinating story to tell about the neighborhood’s transition from business to residential

Countless office workers hustle in and out of Hanover Gourmet Deli every day, but well before this was a place for an overpriced lunch, these walls cradled a different sort of commodity exchange. 

This building was once home to the New York Cotton Exchange, and you don’t have to refer to any history books to confirm this as fact. The ghost of its past is imprinted in stone just outside the deli.

One entrance to the deli, above, has the cryptic fragments “YORK” and “EXCHANGE.”  Another entrance, below, fills in the blanks with “NEW Y” on one line, and “COTTON” on the next.

Our urban archaeological dig is complete: We are standing before the former home of the New York Cotton Exchange.

What these ghost letters won’t tell you is that the cotton exchange is Wall Street’s oldest commodities exchange. They also won’t give away that the exchange eventually moved to 4 World Trade Center, and was destroyed on 9/11. Nor will the letters reveal that this building became the first major residential conversion in lower Manhattan, back in the late 1970s.

Today, of course, so much of lower Manhattan’s future is tied to the residential resurgence that took off after 9/11, but had quietly begun decades before, at places like the old Cotton Exchange building at 3 Hanover Square. This building’s history encompasses competing tensions in the life of the Financial District: it reflects the transition from a neighborhood that was largely focused on business, to one that is becoming a residential boomtown.

Those ghost letters are a fascinating window into an important part of the story of lower Manhattan.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

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The neon ‘Miracles on 34th Street’

Where Murray Hill meets Kips Bay, there is a corner where mid-century New York meets the present.

For starters, the Clover Delicatessen has been holding the fort on the southwestern corner of East 34th Street and Second Avenue since the late 1940s, and its neon sign is one of the finest you’ll see on any street corner. To be sure, it’s the most glorious neon sign left on all of 34th Street, river to river. [Well, with the possible exception of Macy’s.]

But walk next door, and your trip through storefront time continues. This liquor shop has an amazing neon sign in the window.

Notice the “LE” in the telephone number — short for "Lexington exchange" — happily preserved in neon.

That means this sign must date, at the very latest, to the early and middle 1970s, by which time the use of exchange names was being phased out. Today, the store would write “532-0980,” and probably not in neon!

Interestingly, a few people to this day hang on tenaciously to their exchange name. It certainly adds poetry to the common phone number.

You can join the club by figuring out what your exchange name might have been by Googling the words “telephone exchange names” and clicking on the first result.

And then start giving out your cell number in this archaic format: KLondike5-5555.

People might think you’ve had one too many, but you’ll know better.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol 

A version of this post originally appeared in amNewYork’s Urbanite blog.