Friday, December 10, 2010

Before Mars Bar

The news of Mars Bar's demise is much in the air these days. I can't look to the future, the fat glass tower of nothing that will rise on the corner of Second Avenue and First Street, so I'm looking to the past. The deep past. (I'm not the only one doing this today.)

NYPL: looking north at 1st St.

Imagine, sometime in the early part of the 20th century, you step out of your tenement loft above the dreary Woolworth Theatre, the building that will one day house something called the Mars Bar in a world you can't even begin to imagine. The theater is shut down, empty, its hollows sectioned into stores for lease.

NYPL, looking west along 1st St.

It's a warm day. You are bored. Across the way are the Second Avenue Baths, but you're not in the mood for a schvitz. You're schvitzing enough as it is. You walk to 1st Street and look west, but the million barber shops of Bowery do not beckon to you. You head north instead.

NYPL, looking north up 2nd Ave. from 1st

The block is a riot of signage for hotels, chiropodist offices, haberdasheries. The Happyland Restaurant tempts you with something cold. You consider going into the Photoplays to see a double bill of Blue Skies--that Helen Twelvetrees always makes you cry--and Come Across, the drama of socialites, gangsters, and dancing girls, but you're not in the mood for a picture today. You're not in the mood for anything.

Blue Skies gets that Irving Berlin tune into your head, and now you're whistling it as you continue up the block. At the 2nd Avenue theater, you look at a poster of Molly Picon, star of the Yiddish stage. Tonight she'll be singing and dancing in a musical by Rumshinsky and Kalich, but right now her voice blasts out of a phonograph, singing the joys of Coney Island hot dogs.


Further up the block, a circus museum has set up shop, offering a ten-cent glimpse of "Human Freaks and Wonders" like Zip and Pip, the pinheads. An outside talker regales you with tales of the amazing and the astonishing. "Not for the faint of heart," he says. You continue walking, but inertia quickly takes over. You stop into the dairy restaurant for an egg cream, then head home again, back to the Woolworth Theatre, to the corner of 1st and 2nd.

You look into the empty window on the corner, past the For Lease sign, and wonder what will move in. Cupping your hands to the glass, looking in at the dusty space, you hope for a barroom. They say Prohibition will be over soon. Wouldn't it be nice to just walk downstairs, prop your elbows on the wood, and knock back something refreshing?

The SW corner of 1st and 2nd


Ken Mac said...

those were the days my friend, posting Mars Bars shots all weekend and later in honor of...

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent piece of writing. You really know how to transport a reader.

KSx said...

Well done. The condos on that block of 1st St. between 2nd Ave. & Bowery always give me the creeps -- straight out of the new yuppified Williamsburg, straight out of the vanilla suburbs.

Joe Bonomo said...

Great post on the ghosts of First Street.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Wonderful post, Jeremiah. I wonder if the NYPL notices all the traffic on this photo lately. :)

It amazes me how much this intersection has changed and how ugly it's become. The destruction of the bath house is such a shame...I wonder if people at the time were upset to see these buildings go or if there wasn't much emotional attachment. I do know that I'd love to travel back in time to experience the city in the photos above. There must have been something interesting and entertaining at every step.

Anonymous said...

Here's a great piece from the guy
who runs thehoundblog:
As the end of the first decade of the 21st century closes in, it's time to make some sense of what happened in the last ten years. By the time I've done that, the roaring 20's should be here. One thing is for sure, the world I once knew, and inhabited, is long gone. For lack of a better word, "bohemian" life in NYC is a thing of the past. Priced out by high rents, the city that was once a playground for the cool and the crazy is now a mall for the entitled. I came here in 1977 with $200 in my pocket, and had a job and an apartment within a week. What would I do if was eighteen today? I have no idea. I guess life, or at least social life, has moved into cyber space, which leaves old timers like me more than a tad alienated. I think the outbreak of autism just may be the human race mutating into the type of creature it will have to be to survive in the future. The skills we don't need (human relations, face to face contact, etc.) have atrophied, welcome to product driven man. Each day is more and more like living in a Phillip K. Dick novel, except I'm not much of a Dick fan. I'm more of a Graham Greene type, and the subjects he addressed-- loyalty, duty, etc. seem almost quaint in the modern world.
Maybe it was bound to happen, you can only arrange three chords so many different ways, but Rock'n'Roll has become something akin to Dixieland, i.e. something old folks get together to do on weekends, a generation to dumb for rock'n'roll has grown up and taken the reins of pop culture, and most of the people I knew and associated with rock'n'roll are dead. Which is a long winded way of saying, I need a break. After 28 months of at least bi-weekly blogging, I'm taking a month off to let my mental battery recharge. I'll be back at the typer around the second or third week of January.

BabyDave said...

Very nicely done. Thank you.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks everyone. i love imagining the city as it was in a particular moment--and to think of how so many of those buildings are still with us, or were until recently. the buildings hold the stories, somehow. as long as they're standing, those lost worlds are still imaginable. once they're gone, replaced with glass, it's hard to picture the past and connect with it.

the building where the freakshow was is still there.

i don't know, Goggla, if people had an attachment to the buildings then. i imagine they did--people are attached to what they know, to the stuff that makes up their familiar world. but it must have been easier when the demolitions came infrequently--unlike now, when it feels almost constant.

thanks Anon for the houndblog quote. so true.

Caleo said...

Based on my experience with older native New Yorkers, I think many people had an attachment to the buildings and spaces they lived and worked in.
Change was/is inevitable, but in decades past it didn't move in hyperdrive. And most of the folks who lived around here 70 + years ago weren't in a position to stop whatever structural/management changes took place.
What I find different now is not just the speed at which everything is transforming, but that those filling our places don't seem to know or care what's disappearing.
And considering the fact that most suburbanized young people grew up in cookie cutter, overdeveloped housing tracts that no one had lived in prior to the 70's and 80's, I'm not sure young people even know how to appreciate it.
I know there are exceptions, but everyone who reads this blog knows what I'm talking about.
Young people today are immersed in a pop culture that revolves around technology that surpasses itself every 6 months. They expect everything in their world to shift at hyperspeed into ever more futuristic forms.
They don't stop to reflect about the world and the people that came before them.

Todd HellsKitchen said...

Posts like this are why I LOVE YOUR BLOG!!!

chris flash said...

Where is the freak show building?

Jeremiah Moss said...

the freak circus was at 25 2nd Ave--today it's a Japanese restaurant. i think that's what it is anyway.