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.
I’d only been in New York two months when I first saw Knickerbocker Village. I was standing on the East River Bikeway facing Brooklyn marveling at the enormity of it all when suddenly a splash in the river interrupted my daydream.
I turned quickly and caught sight of a middle-aged Asian woman hurrying back across the street, her metal wheelie cart dragging behind her. She had apparently just lobbed a bag of trash over the railing. Not a small bag, either – a big, full, bag. A smiley face winked up at me from the plastic. “Have a nice day,” it said and bobbed downstream.
Confronted, I was suddenly confused as to what to do. Should I follow the woman and demand she fish out her refuse from the river? Was she in need of instruction on proper disposal practices? Before I could decide, she disappeared behind a security gate into the buildings ahead of me. Knickerbocker Village, read the green awnings.
I walked past Cherry Street and peered into the landscaped courtyard. Hundreds of apartment windows glared down at me in the greyish winter light, each fixed with a now silent air conditioner. A guard glowered from inside a glass watch house. What was this place?
Knickerbocker Village is one of New York City’s biggest housing developments. Built in 1933, it replaced two whole city blocks of working-class slums and tenement housing with 1,590 apartments originally intended for New York’s growing middle class. Its 12 buildings are arranged into two fat towers with a landscaped courtyard is in the middle of each. Although the block it sits on was once a part of the European immigrant community, today the Two Bridges neighborhood is largely considered part of Chinatown and KV’s residents are mostly Chinese.I already knew about the Lower East Side and its long association with impoverished working-class communities, about the immigration waves of Germans, Jews, Irish and Italians that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. But I didn’t realize that before all that, the Lower East Side had actually been the center of early New York’s high society, and that where I was standing now, directly outside Knickerbocker Village’s south entrance, was where Colonel Henry Rutgers might once have gone shopping for his underwear.
In 1728, Harmanus Rutgers, from one of New Amsterdam’s prominent brewing families, bought 56 acres of land between the Delancey Farm on Corlears Hook and Catherine Street, named after his son Hendrik’s wife, Catherina de Peyster. Rutgers settled with his family in a mansion on the northern end of his property. Hendrik Rutgers was born there as was Hendrik’s son, Henry Rutgers, who later went on to become a war hero in the American Revolution.
When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, waves of settlers had already begun to move north outside the confines of the old Fort Amsterdam. Henry Rutgers saw the migration wave as an opportunity. He began to parcel off bits of farmland for rent, starting with the southern end of the property farthest away from his mansion. He petitioned to have Catherine Market built in 1786 as a way of making the area attractive to newcomers. Within a few months of its proposal, the market began to flourish on the riverfront, selling everything from fruit, vegetables and slabs of meat to fish, oysters and eels.
Catherine Market (right next to where Knickerbocker Village stands now), was where the famous Dancing for Eels contest took place amongst the African American slaves who came from Long Island to sell their wares. White patrons paid slaves to perform a style of dance that, according to W. T. Lhamon, can still be seen in African American dance today. Remnants of the Catherine Market Eel Dance are particularly evident in M.C. Hammer’s music video U Can’t Touch This. The prize to the best dancer was a live eel.
The area around Catherine Market continued to develop as more people moved in. It was especially attractive to wealthy landowners and the most genteel of high society. The blog Manhattan Unlocked details how Brooks Brothers opened on the corner of Cherry and Catherine Street in 1818 and how in 1826 Lord and Taylor opened its first store at 47 Catherine Street.
In the summer of 1822, Cheapside, the street that ran across the two blocks between Catherine and Monroe Street (the blocks on which Knickerbocker Village squarely sits today) became the epicenter of the last yellow fever outbreak in New York City. In comparison to the numbers killed by tuberculosis and smallpox, yellow fever was not that big of a threat. But when it did strike, starting in 1793, it came on the blood of men working in the tropical West Indies, and killed so many people in city centers that the thought of it became very frightening indeed. The epidemic is chronicled at length by Peter Townsend in his 1823 publication, An Account of the Yellow Fever, As it Prevailed in the City of New-York, in the Summer and Autumn of 1822.
The Cheapside epidemic was traced back to a man named Samuel Ward who had returned to his father’s home at 20 Cheapside after having recently contracted the disease elsewhere. Once the disease began to kill, it didn’t take long for people to panic. Infected streets were cordoned off, responders coated the city gutters in quicklime and coal dust and set fires in attempt to keep the fever from spreading.
In a rush to get out of the neighborhood, people fled north to Greenwich Village, which at the time consisted mostly of farms and a few scattered houses. In the end, the epidemic only killed about 200 people and once the first frosts of fall came and it was safe to return, many people went back. But most continued to live in Greenwich Village, transforming it into a part of Manhattan. Five years later, Cheapside Street was renamed Hamilton.
By this time the Lower East Side was becoming more and more crowded. Between 1820 and 1840, the population of Manhattan grew from 123,000 to over 310,000. Immigrants came from all over Europe and the Rutgers Estate and this residential choice of the well-heeled gave way to the working class. As the New York Times described the shift in 1872 (also mentioned in Manhattan Unlocked) what had been “the abode of fashion, and the centre of a commercial aristocracy” had now fallen “almost without intermission, into the hands of boarding-house keepers of low grade.” The tenants, the article said, were now “for the most part, mechanics and emigrants.”
“Cheek by jowl,” the article went on, “will be found the German shop, where they sell ‘delicatessen,’ which, it may be said en passant, do not look very delicate, and the Jewish butchery, adorned with cabalistic letters, signifying that all the requirements of the Mosaic law have been satisfied as regards that meat. It is unnecessary to say that at the corners are the whisky palaces beloved of the Irish race, and that lager-beer saloons are sprinkled with a free hand throughout the locality.”
Indeed, by the 1850s Hamilton Street had started to develop a reputation for being a place of considerable disrepute. Since its glory days not too many decades earlier, it had become the location of at least eight barrooms, five brothels and several boarding houses patronized by the seamen debarking on the nearby waterfront.
In 1854, an 18-year-old seaman named George Field from Dorchester, Massachusetts was stabbed in the chest while sitting by the stove in Mr. Harris’ barroom at No 46 ½ Hamilton Street. He died of his wounds several days later. The murderer, Archibald Murphy, also a seaman, was determined by the courts to have been “laboring under insanity” and pronounced “not guilty.” Seven years later, Mary Ann Webber, an Irishwoman, was also mortally injured on the same street, this time by her German husband striking her with his hatchet. The New York Times notes that “her skull was fractured in several places, and that one of the blows from the hatchet penetrated her brain.”
As the Lower East Side grew in population and in squalor, the nicer establishments began to move away. Brooks Brothers left in 1857 and Lord and Taylor remained open only on Grand and Chrystie until 1902. By the turn of the 20th century, the population had reached 986 people per acre. “One-and-a-half times that of Bombay, India!” notes the Lower East Side historian, Gerard Wolf.Such population density did not come without its side effects. By 1903, some of the city’s most squalid tenements pocked the two blocks where Knickerbocker Village now stands, an area that developed the highest concentration of consumption cases in the city. The New York Tribune on September 13, 1903 features the damning descriptions and complaints of Ernest Poole of the Charity Organization Society for the committee on the prevention of tuberculosis in a pamphlet entitled, “Lung Block.”
The “Lung Block” alone holds nearly four thousand [humans], not to mention dogs, cats, parrots and one weazened old monkey. Of the humans, some four hundred are babies. It is a block packed close with huge, grimy tenements; these tenements are honeycombed with rooms; these rooms are homes for people. To squeeze in more homes, light and air are slowly shut out. Halls, courts, airshafts, are all left ramped and deep and sunless. In a block so congested the plague spreads swiftly. In the last nine years alone, this block has reported 265 cases. From doctors, druggists, and all others who know, I gathered that this is but half the true number . . .
Poole went on to describe the way tuberculosis spread. A single room could pass consumption germs onto the next tenant long after the previous inhabitants had died. Two days in the sun and air might have disinfected a room, but the slums were so dank and crowded that they remained infectious for many years. The diagram below was displayed in the New York Tribune article and shows exactly how many people died in each “plague room.” Sometimes the disease wiped out entire families in only a few months.
As long-winded debates on what to do about the situation took place, the area gained an even worse stigma. Landlords began to sell off the tenement buildings. This was when Fred Fillmore French, a “swashbuckling” real estate developer, saw his chance to make it big.
Born in Manhattan in 1884 to a cigar maker and a university-educated mother, Fred F. French worked many low-paying odd jobs until one day in 1907 he found himself without employment, broke, tired and hungry in the middle of City Hall Park. Unwilling to get yet another temp job, he borrowed $500 from a friend on the Board of Education and used it to make his first down payment on the home he lived in in the Bronx. By the 1920s, French had enough capital to invest in some of the largest residential projects in the world.
His first project was Tudor City on East 43rd Street between First and Second Avenues. Right after that, in 1933, he began work on Knickerbocker Village, which was to cover the whole of Hamilton Street and the “Lung Block.” During the previous several years, Fred had secretly been buying Lower East Side property under the names of 42 different real estate brokers. Once the last tenement on Lung Block was purchased, he razed the whole thing to the ground.
Fred’s new buildings were meant to house the rising middle class. Knickerbocker Village in particular had a target demographic of junior Wall Street executives. Most of its 1,590 units were one-bedroom apartments with smallish kitchens where young middle-class men could live at an affordable rent.
To fund these massive projects, Fred developed something called the “French Plan.” Rather than follow the customary business plan for large development projects and secure funding only from large businesses and the wealthy, Fred decided that he could make just as much money by inviting many middle-income people to invest a few hundred dollars each in exchange for a share in the property.
Advertisements for his scheme covered New York newspapers, sometimes taking up as much as three back-to-back pages. The Knickerbocker project also became the country’s first federally subsidized housing development. Fred’s favorite line was, “You can’t overbuild Manhattan!”
Despite (or perhaps because of) the grandiose ideas of its builder, Knickerbocker Village was not without its problems in the early stages. When the new tenants moved in, they found the new apartments unlivable. Many of the facilities were unfinished and some of the elevators didn’t work. The residents banded together to form the Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association and started a rent strike, withholding rent checks until the Village was in working order. This prompted the institution of some of the city’s first landlord-tenant laws.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg met in the winter of 1935 in the context of this atmosphere of social activism that had started to sweep the nation. By the time they were married and settled in Knickerbocker Village, they were both members of the Communist Party and fully dedicated to radical politics. It was within the walls of their tenth-floor apartment in Building G at 10 Monroe Street that they reportedly conducted the espionage operation that in 1953 would land them in the electric chair.
Julius Rosenberg was an electrical engineer who had been approached in his early days with the Communist Party by Jacob Golos, a spy for the Soviet Union. Julius was soon involved in passing on technical secrets regarding the construction of the atom bomb. Court records recount reports of Jacob Golos driving to Knickerbocker Village to “pick up some material from a contact, an engineer” in the autumn of 1942. Julius also involved his brother-in-law David Greenglass, who was working in Los Alamos, New Mexico as part of The Manhattan Project, America’s effort to develop atomic war technology.
The CIA soon caught wind of Soviet Russia’s infiltration of the Manhattan Project. Not long after the first member of Julius and David’s spy ring was arrested, David Greenglass was also arrested. To protect himself and his wife, and with pressure from the CIA, David made a full confession but blamed everything on the influence of Julius and his sister, Ethel.
The couple was quickly arrested and brought to trial and such was the paranoid zeal of the prosecutors that in order to make Julius confess his involvement, they hovered the death penalty over Ethel as well. Ethel was 26 years old at the time and had two children, Michael and Robert, but this did not dissuade them. People were so afraid of the Soviets and the apocalyptic possibilities of the atomic bomb that many deemed the execution of both Rosenbergs a necessary step towards the curtailment of evil.
On June 19, 1953 Julius and Ethel were executed at Sing Sing prison. Ethel had to be electrocuted five times because the normal three shocks did not kill her. After two more shocks, it was finally observed that “smoke rose from her head in the chamber.”
With the arrival of the Italians in the late 19th century came many Sicilian mafia families. One of the most powerful in New York was the Bonanno Crime Family. The Bonannos dominated several of the New York City neighborhoods and many of its members lived or grew up in Knickerbocker Village.
The residents of the Village knew exactly who the reputed mobsters were, some even worked no-show jobs at the New York Post right across the street. But during the ’60s and ’70s when the Bonanno Family’s power was just starting to unravel, the many murders and criminal activities that took place were simply not something one talked about. “We didn’t ask any questions,” a former resident told me whose father was good friends with Village neighbor Anthony “Tony” Mirra.
Mirra was one of the mobsters “whacked” because of his involvement with Joseph D. Pistone, an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the Bonanno Crime Family from 1976 to 1981 in Operation Donnie Brasco, which was commemorated in a movie starring Al Pacino as Tony Mirra and Johnny Depp as Joe Pistone. Pistone would have become a “made guy” in 1981 (and thus gained more access into the inner workings of the mafia) had the FBI allowed him to fulfill his assigned murder contract to kill Anthony “Bruno” Indelicato.
The FBI suddenly considered the operation too dangerous and pulled “Donnie Brasco” out of the game. Once the Bonanno leaders discovered who they’d been dealing with, all the members responsible for bringing Pistone into the family, except for Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (who also grew up in Knickerbocker Village), were killed. Old Tony Mirra was found dead in his car, shot in the head at point blank range in an underground parking lot in Lower Manhattan.
In recent years, Knickerbocker Village has undergone yet another shift in population. Tenants still pay rent adjusted to their income level and because it is close to the river and Downtown Manhattan, it is one of the more desirable places for New Yorkers of modest income to live. The expansive estate where Henry Rutgers once dined with the Marquis de Lafayette is now populated mostly by Chinese immigrants and in recent years, Knickerbocker management has undertaken an extensive landscaping project in the two center courtyards of the Village (and it is clear that not everybody hurls their garbage into the East River).
The corner of Catherine and Cherry Street, where the upper classes once wove their way through mansions to shop at Brooks Brothers and Lord and Taylor, is now home to shops like The New Territory Cake Shop and The English Train of Thoughts: After School Reading and Writing.
But even this seems destined not to last for long, as residents fight rent hikes amidst accusations of mismanagement. Only time can tell what will happen next.