Subway sticker anachronism: The forbidden boombox

Today’s iPod generation may understand this sticker inside subway cars to mean: No smoking, no littering, no … what?

The third symbol, of course, represents a “Boombox,” a suitcase-sized precursor to the iPod, as ubiquitous in subways and on the streets in the 1970s as Apple’s miniature music player is today.

Text and photos: Jefferson Siegel

Jefferson Siegel is a New York-based photojournalist and a contributor to The Retrologist.

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It’s a supermarket now, but this night depository box (which you’d open with a nickel) is a window into a Manhattan building’s former life as a bank

On Park Avenue South between 21st and 22nd streets is a remnant of a once-powerful bank. The Bank For Savings was chartered in 1819. This branch, opened in 1894, ran through the length of the block. Its interior soared several stories high. One attraction was a machine with a combination of real and counterfeit bank notes. Children especially delighted in pressing a button next to each bill to learn if it was real or fake. It was also one of the few banks with a coin counting machine.

The bank would go through several mergers, becoming the New York Bank For Savings, then Goldome before this branch closed in 1982. The bank moved to a nearby building, merging with Manufacturers Hanover and finally Chase. After this branch closed, the space was subdivided, with the largest portion becoming an Associated Supermarket.

The day and night depository box would be opened by depositing a nickel in the slot at the top. The 5 cents would be credited to the depositor’s account the next day.

Text and photo: Jefferson Siegel

Jefferson Siegel is a New York-based photojournalist and a contributor to The Retrologist.

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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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A sign for a foot-rub parlor in Bensonhurst conceals an old one for Stride Rite, which is in a different branch of the foot-service business

One of New York City’s greatest treasure troves of mom-and-pop shops, complete with wonderful vintage singage, can be found along 18th Avenue in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. 

But not all of the retro signs are out in the open. This one is hiding beneath an awning at 6517 18th Ave. Once upon a time, this was a Stride Rite, which longtime New Yorkers recognize as a popular chain of children’s shoe stores. The mix of colors and font on this particular sign screams 1980s to me.

These days, this storefront is still in the business of caring for people’s soles, but visitors aren’t trying on shoes — they’re kicking them off. This is now Bao Kang, where a weary traveler can find respite with a foot or back rub.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol

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See, there IS a future for phone booths …

… as storage shelves for cleaning products. This Bell Atlantic-branded booth is the height of 1970s sophistication. It’s got that “wood-paneling/rec room” thing going on, and comes complete with a storage shelf for the Yellow Pages. And indeed, the phone book is still there, but the phone itself is long gone.

This curiosity survives at Bellas Restaurant, a wonderful diner in Tarrytown, New York, on Broadway. Drop in the next time you’re up in the Hudson Valley visiting nearby attractions such as Sunnyside, Lyndhurst, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Text and photo: Rolando Pujol

At Grand Central Terminal, the bell tolls for this group of pay phones

In the three months The Retrologist has been around, I’ve been periodically documenting the slow death of the pay phone.

I submit another example. This row of pay phones at Grand Central Terminal once housed 11 units. Clearly, the demand isn’t there.

Only six remain, and it’s not hard to imagine this will be a blank wall soon. It’s interesting to think of the countless conversations that have been had along this wall.

And there are certainly fewer every day.

Text and photo: Rolando Pujol

Forever The Towers: A sticker in TriBeCa recalls the days after 9/11 in a stricken neighborhood

This sticker, simply put, is worthy of inclusion in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. It dates to 2002, and survives on the door of a TriBeCa store that is a block or so away from the World Trade Center.

When this sticker was affixed a decade ago, the neighborhood was still shell-shocked — it captures a moment after 9/11 that is hard to describe. The grief and shock over the attack’s barbarity and human toll mingled with a deep desire to erase the scar on the skyline.

Stickers of this sort were visible on car bumpers all around the New York area in the months after 9/11, along with the American flags affixed to cars. 

Today, the sticker sits in the shadow of the new 1 World Trade Center, surrounded by a thriving, vibrant neighborhood that only the rosiest of optimists could have imagined in 2002.

That, of course, also presents an argument to keep the sticker just where it is.

To remember.

Text and photos: Rolando Pujol 

Radio Row was wiped out for the Twin Towers, but you can still pick up the frequency on Canal Street

Long before the original World Trade Center complex was built, Cortland Street was the epicenter of several downtown streets that were home to electronics stores.

Dubbed “Radio Row,” that area vanished with the construction of the Twin Towers. Most of the stores migrated several blocks north to Canal Street. As that thoroughfare developed, most of the stores either moved away or vanished.

One store stands against the onslaught of development, its front stoop filled with bins of cables, switches, printed circuits, electrical tape, soldering irons and other ephemera of an earlier, “do-it-yourself” era.

Argo Electronics, on the north side of Canal Street, just off Sixth Avenue, is a microcosm of what Canal Street looked like just years ago.

Text and photo: Jefferson Siegel

Jefferson Siegel is a New York-based photojournalist and a contributor to The Retrologist.

Hello? They took away the pay phone, but left behind the sign

The metal sign for Verizon is still in place on the downtown platform of the No. 6 train at 23rd Street. But where is the pay phone?

Well, if you’re a Retrologist regular, you know the drill. It’s gone and it isn’t coming back.

But I’m happy the Verizon sign was left behind. If it’s left there for years, as it may well be, it will become an inscrutable totem that will puzzle tomorrow’s straphangers.

It’s probably already puzzled the yung uns, if they even notice the darned thing.

Text and photo: Rolando Pujol

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.