All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
Fontana’s has been around for about 10 years, says Marshall, the bartender — but the cursive, neon sign in the window looks more old-school than that. Inside the cavernous, wood-paneled room, the red pleather booths are scuffed to reveal beige underneath. The bathroom is full of graffiti that says things like “Heather took a hit here.”
Hanging above one of the booths is a painting of a man in a suit, pointing a gun off to the left bottom corner. Because of the perspective, there is no place you can sit where you feel the gun is pointing directly at you.
Another painting behind the bar has a play on perspective: a Betty Boop-like figure does a deep twist that enables you to see both her front and back almost head on.
Sexy women and guns — they are appropriate interior decor for a building that had the distinction of being one of America’s early police stations, in the heart of New York City’s red-light district. The station opened just 25 years after New York City hired its first full-time police force, and the officers there were never short of work. But just because the Eldridge Street police were tasked with shutting down dens of corruption and vice — as they called gambling and prostitution establishments — doesn’t mean that they actually did so. Eldridge Street was among the most notorious stations in a corrupt department from the time it opened in 1869, until it closed in 1912 — despite several attempts at reform in between.
The policemen of Eldridge Street station would have been a somewhat haphazard and ragtag bunch. Early police were understood to be servants of Tammany Hall politicians, not the public. They thus garnered little respect, and the patrolmen relied on their own personal authority — mainly corporal — to extract obedience. Disciplining the officers themselves was also difficult — captains had no technology to help them track the whereabouts of their patrolmen, who were not necessarily self-motivated. Few saw policing as a career. It was a temporary job for unemployed skilled laborers, and it consisted of tasks like hauling a drunk two miles in a wheelbarrow to the nearest station house.
It was for this reason, then, that by 1910, Captain Day of Eldridge Street station had hit on one strategy to get his force to take their job more seriously: marriage. Reportedly, within a year “twenty-six out of forty-five unmarried patrolmen have followed his advice.” Only one odd-man-out Lieutenant admitted that his intentions of getting married were “remote.” According to the Times, Captain Day said that “a married cop is never late in reporting, thanks generally to the punctual wife. He pays more attention to his duty because he is interested in his family, has greater responsibilities resting upon his shoulders, and does not want to do anything that would cut his salary or bring disgrace to his family. He has not the spirit of ‘don’t care,’ too common among unmarried policemen.” Certainly, it was a heteronormative time. Day also added that “policemen make good husbands.”
And occasionally, they did catch real criminals. The Eldridge Street police were able to capture a wanted man from Chicago when a woman reported him for beating her. She said the man had promised to marry her, and then reneged. She then tracked him down in his apartment with his new girlfriend, where they both beat her. When she reported him to the police, she let it be known that he was in possession of a very nice violin, which matched the description of a $2,000 violin that had been stolen in Chicago. For days the police combed the neighborhood listening for the strains of live classical music. When they heard some and found its source they encountered the 5’, 140-pound suspect, 32-year-old Samuel Cohen. He was not charged for harming the woman, but he was for stealing the violin.
But mostly the police’s work consisted of rounding up drunks on the street, and the occasional raids on dancehalls, saloons, and other legal and illegal houses of pleasure.
For instance, on March 14, 1887 the New York Times reported that Eldridge Street officers busted a Chinese gambling house and opium den on 39 Bowery. Since “none but Chinamen were admitted” one of the officers “was rigged up in Chinese costume.” Not surprisingly, this yellowface did not fool the Chinese bouncer, who “gazed searchingly into the face of the visitor” before “immediately the wicket was closed with a slam, the bars on the inside of the door were put up and the lights were extinguished.” The 34 remaining officers who had come to raid the den then hacked down the door with an axe, and arrested “68 panic-stricken Chinamen, of all ages and conditions in life.”
But as time wore on, critics began to suspect that these raids were just for show. After the busts, the same dancehalls and saloons would be up and running a few days later, and nobody seemed to get charged. A previous raid on the same opium house, for example, had resulted in no arrests.
That was exactly what the police’s fiercest critic, Doctor Reverend Charles Parkhurst, picked up on when he wrote an angry letter in October 1893 to Captain William Devery of the Eldridge Street station, CCing Mayor Gilroy: “The spasm of zeal exhibited by your subordinates on the appearance of our complaint has never, for a day, deluded the gamblers or the bawdy-house keepers of the precinct into the supposition that their business was imperiled. However you may see fit to explain it, the criminals in that precinct expect more from the protection of your department than from its inflictions.” His letter also listed the names and locations of 44 “known” prostitution and gambling venues that he wanted to see shut down. Parkhurst closed by saying that his letter was meant to show “not what kind of women keep the houses, but what kind of a Captain keeps the Precinct.”
Police captains of the time typically defended their practice of regulating rather than punishing certain types of crime by saying that concentrated areas of vice made it easier for them to track down real criminals, when they needed to.
That argument wasn’t enough to dissuade Parkhurst’s supporters, and thanks to his letter the court system conducted a thorough investigation of Devery’s morality. On November 29, Captain Devery was indicted on four counts, thanks to Parkhurst’s accusations. He was released on a bail of $5,000. The police quickly disassociated themselves from him, with Superintendent Byrnes saying, “If an indictment for willful neglect of duty has been found on proper testimony, the accused Captain should be punished in accordance with the law.”
While Devery and the other indicted captains awaited trial ; on Dec 6, 1893, the New York Tribune reported that 13 police captains were to be shuffled. It’s unclear whether this was meant to keep them from continuing corrupt practices, punish them, or protect them from an angry public.
Captain Devery “partly saved himself from the impunity of being transferred” by preemptively requesting a transfer, to the annoyance of Commissioner MacLean, who seemed to feel that he made his bed, and now he should lie in it. But MacLean was outvoted by the other two commissioners, who considered his request a “manly” way of taking responsibility for his actions, and they moved him to Old Slip Station.
It so happened that Devery’s “manly request” coincidentally meant being moved to a much easier post, and the captain that he switched places with . Captain Moses W. Cortright reportedly was “the most dissatisfied” of all the captains who were transferred because he would be leaving “the quiet of the Old Slip station for the turbulent scenes of the Bowery,” per a Dec. 7 1893 article in the New York Times.
The most vocal critic of the transfers was, not surprisingly, Reverend Parkhurst, who was calling them a “childish attempt to evade the real issue.” What he sought was not transfers but “compelling of the captains to enforce the law in their precincts,” he said. He alleged that before the transfers, the police officers warned prostitutes and madames to “go into flats” to “wait until this storm blows over.”
Some members of the public expressed sympathy for the prostitutes because they believed that “the women who had been driven out of the houses” would have to sleep on the streets. Parkhurst dismissed this concern by saying “there is enough Christian charity in the city to provide homes and employment for those women who wish to give up their wicked business and lead honest lives.”
The trial against Captain Devery began the following year, in April 1894. Not only Captain Devery, but multiple Captains who led the Eldridge Street station, came under serious scrutiny, as part of a review by Senator Lexow.
Charles Priem, a former owner of a “house of bad character,” on 28 Bayard Street, testified that Captain Cassidy of the Eldridge Street station demanded $25 a month in bribes to leave Priem alone, “and when Captain Cross took command the price was raised to $50.” His “disorderly house” survived, and funded, the leadership of Captain Cassidy, Cross, McLaughlin, and Devery.
Another owner of “disorderly houses,” a Mrs. Sanford, admitted to paying money to officers of the Eldridge Street Police station to be left alone. Before stepping down from the witness stand, Mrs. Sanford took a jab at Reverend Parkhurst, saying he was not such a good man, because when a hungry woman came to him, he only gave her tea and toast. “I didn’t think that was much for an empty stomach,” she said. Apparently, Parkhurst, who was present, “joined in the laughter.”
The police actually did something similar to what Parkhurst did for destitute women. A surprisingly large percentage of the station’s budget was apportioned to providing food and lodging for homeless women. Eldridge Street was one of several stations that contained a shelter, led by Matron McCarthy from 1892 until at least 16 years thearafter. Running women’s shelters was one of the only jobs that a woman could have in the police department at this time. On the anniversary of her 16th year of service, Matron McCarthy was featured in a New York Times article in 1908. It was an especially harsh year. “I’ve never seen them die the way they do this winter, on the streets and sometimes in the station,” Macarthy told the Times reporter that winter. One of her charges attempted suicide by trying to choke herself, saying “my man don’t love me anymore. He wants me to go away. I do not care for my life. I think I die sure in a few weeks,” to which Macarthy responded, “Arrah then, if you’ll be dying so soon anyways, why do you be trying to kill yourself here and make me such a lot of trouble.” Then she gave her a cup of tea.
The tough conditions McCarthy described were echoed by photographer Jacob Riis, who was a police reporter for the New York Tribune. One of his photos shows eight women with hunched postures, several of them wrapping blankets or shawls around their shoulders. They huddle close to each other, but for the most part they’re not engaged in conversation. Rather, they look like they’re waiting for something, as they sit on long wooden benches that likely served as beds as well as seats.
It’s possible the scenes he witnessed at the station sparked his desire to photograph How the Other Half Lives, the influential book of photojournalism that exposed the harsh realities of tenement life and was instrumental in later policy changes.
If local poverty was evidenced in the police station, so were ethnic tensions. Some nights, as many as 40 babies were kidnapped and brought to the station as part of an ongoing battle between rival Irish and Jewish gangs. The teenaged gang members used to nab unattended toddlers from the other group and then drop them off at the police station. In 1903 these kidnappings were almost enough to make Sergeant Stephen McDermorth lose his mind. An American Israelite article documents his distress: “‘By the spiked horn of the great march moon,’ cried Sergeant McDermorth, as he pounded the desk of the Eldridge street station, last evening. ‘It’s a happy day that brings me a transfer…If I stay here much longer these kids will have me in the bug-house.’” The article goes on to quote him saying that the perpetrators were harder to catch “than a rocky mountain goat in the bock beer season.”
Despite the hard times and corruption that haunted the Eldridge Street station, local papers recorded hilarious, heartwarming, and bizarre incidents. Many of them involved animals.
Sunday tranquility reigned in the Eldridge Street Police Station House at 11.30am yesterday. Capt Devery was booked as home to dinner in West Twenty-eighth Street: Sergt. Stephen McDermott was busy with the clerical work behind the desk; Sergt. McAdams was taking the pedigree of a thief, Louis Moschkowitz, who was at the railing with Detectives Foley and Burns, and near them were Roundsman Goodrich and Policemen Arfken and Haugh. The front door of the station house was open.
A minute later excitement and trepidation reigned, and each man, even the prisoner, was hustling for personal safety. The open door was to blame, for it admitted a huge black Newfoundland dog, which frothed at the mouth and acted erratically.
(Note that Captain Devery had gone for a very early dinner, even considering the fact he was eating what we today would call “lunch.”) The article goes on to describe the various antics the officers used to defend themselves: “McDermott…had time to jump on the desk out of harms way,” “McAdams protected his legs by putting them on the desk,” while the dog “made a frantic effort to jump through the window into Eldridge street” before he “took a sudden aversion to sergeant McDermott and putting its fore feet on the desk snapped viciously at him.” One of the detectives shot the dog at short range.
In a happier encounter with animals, the station briefly had an eagle as a mascot. It was “chained to the desk in the station house and fed on raw beef,” according to an article in the New York Times from 1894. One of the patrolmen had grabbed the bird by the legs after it perched on the window of an tenement house down the street and the frightened resident called the police.
By 1912, the year the station was sold at public auction and the officers merged with their Delancey Street counterparts , their mascot was a large white cat named Topsy. This apparently became a source of tension between the two cohorts, as the Delancey Street officers had their own cat, named Buster. According to a New York Times article, “Inasmuch as Buster is very little and Topsy very big, Buster has been spending most of his time of late on the streets, picking up a precarious peddler’s livelihood, while Topsy grew bigger and fatter and more police-like than ever.”
The Times’ subtle smear suggests that even by 1912 the police were hardly respected. In any case, when the officers moved to the new station, the building was leased by the city to Moritz Tolk, who was, appropriately, the owner of a saloon.
The Austrian-born 49-year-old lived on 288 Grand Street with his Russian-born wife, five children, and a servant. His oldest son took over the family business. He became a citizen in 1888, just six years after he came to the United States. Though later census records list his occupation as “liquor dealer,” on his naturalization application he listed it simply as “soda water.” He served two terms as an alderman in Manhattan, and he died in 1918, two years before the start of Prohibition.
Tolk leased out part of the space to cotton manufacturers Poch and Rubin, who promptly went bankrupt in 1914, with ten times more liabilities than assets. Their goods, including cotton pieces, woolens, silks and curtains, were sold off in January and again in April, and their creditors got back 30 cents on the dollar. The following year another cotton dealer who’d leased space at 105 Eldridge, Max Kramer, went bankrupt, with assets of 500 and liabilities worth 1,600.
In 1917 Francis B. Riggs traded a 20-acre tract of land in Inwood Heights for 105-107 Eldridge Street and eight other downtown properties owned by the city that were meant to be of equal value to the land uptown. The nine properties owned by the city were appraised at about $560,000.
Riggs then resold 105-107 Eldridge to Arthur A. Goldstein, who again sold it three years later to an anonymous client of Charles S. Rosenthal.
In 1923 the building was continuing to be used as a saloon — but this time it was during Prohibition. Theodore Neckels, proprietor of the saloon, was caught and granted a six month injunction. During the raid, which was on Neckels and 14 other saloons, the police confiscated $10,000 worth of alcohol.
In 1926 a neighborhood loan and investment company was authorized at 105 Eldridge, which had capital of $125,000 and surplus of 50,000.
Meanwhile, other businesses in the building continued to go bankupt, including Henry Miller’s silk shop in 1929, and Osip Polowinchik’s house dress company in 1931.
By 1934 Nathan Randeman of Trenton, New Jersey owned the building, and he leased it to stores on the basement and first story, a restaurant on the second story, and a light manufacturing company on the third and fourth story.
In 1957 the neighborhood was affected by an upsurge in juvenile crime. A 15-year-old dropped four packets of heroine in front of 105 Eldridge.
By 1964, two artists, Nancy Grossman, and Dallas F. Haynes, occupied the third and fourth floors, respectively.
Grossman is an artist born in 1940 who works in three dimensions and whose precision in her art may be a relic of her labor in the garment industry. Her carved heads with leather casings were featured in a solo exhibit at MoMA in 2011. Moving her studio to Eldridge Street allowed her more space to experiment with larger sculptures.
A different sort of relic of the area’s garment-industry history was a store called BZ1 distributors at 105 Eldridge. It sold window-related items and was referenced by the Times on three separate occasions, in 1981, ’87 and ’96, as the place to buy imported trimmings, and an L-shaped curtain rod for New York City’s most coveted curtains, designed by Mary Bright.
Today Fontana’s takes up three floors of 105 Eldridge. One door down, at 107 Eldridge, is residential apartments, and what appear to be a couple of Chinese businesses as well. Next to one of the buzzers, for example, there are Chinese characters and a picture of a silver car. Until recently, there was also a Chinese food restaurant called Fen Yang at 107 Eldridge, but that closed four months ago, Marshall, says. It only had two-and-a-half stars on yelp, but Marshall said it was good. “They had the cleanest fried rice I’ve ever had,” he adds. No grease.
Inside the bar, Marshall is playing a Pandora station that combines Hank Williams and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Most of the patrons seem to be in their twenties and thirties, and wearing thick glasses, backpacks, and plaid.
Many of these head to the back of the bar, in a room partitioned by curtains. Tuesday is Comic Book Club night. About 15 patrons are listening intently to three men talk shop about comic books. At first, I think I mishear it as “Comedy Club” not “Comic Book Club,” but I realize the mistake because nobody’s laughing, and they’re talking about Spiderman. Afterward, they take questions from the audience.
“I had this question last week but I didn’t get the chance to ask,” one of the audience members says.
“Do you have a chip on your shoulder?” the host asks.
He also wants to direct a question to just one of the hosts. “Can I do that?” he asks.
“Yes, but we’re going to answer too!” the other hosts jump in.
Aside from Comic Book Club Tuesday, Fontana hosts Monday Night Fan Fiction, Wednesday night trivia, and a monthly drinks meet-up for vegans.