This headline about the great catnip caper appeared in the Washington Times on August 22, 1909.

This headline about the great catnip caper appeared in the Washington Times on August 19, 1909. The story made the headlines in more than 20 large newspapers across the country.

East Harlem merchant G. Herman Gottlieb had a little knowledge of botany and a great desire to make some quick cash. So he left his home at 188 East 99th Street with two empty baskets and made his way to the wooded area on Dyckman Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan. There, he worked all day long filling his baskets with catnip.

He then took the subway to Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, and began going house to house on Fifth Avenue to sell the catnip to well-to-do families with spoiled pet cats. There was at the time many unemployed, homeless cats who also lived in this neighborhood, and like most cats I know, they simply could not resist the lure of the feline drug of choice. When a few leaves of catnip fell from the baskets, several cats began rolling in them on the ground.

Try as he might, Mr. Gottlieb could not shoo the cats away. In fact, despite his efforts, even more cats began to circle around him, rub against his legs, and plead by mewing and purring. In no time at all, about 30 or 40 cats were following the Pied Piper of catnip.

Herman Gottlieb took the IRT subway to Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, which is pictured here in 1901 when the station was first under construction.

Herman Gottlieb took the IRT subway to the station at Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, which is pictured here in April 1901 when the station was first under construction. NYPL Digital Collections

Herman Gottlieb got off the train with his baskets of catnip at Lenox Avenue and 110th Street, pictured here in 1910.

Here’s what Lenox Avenue and 110th Street looked like just eight years later in 1909 when Herman Gottlieb got off the train with his baskets of catnip. NYPL Digital Collections

As the New York Herald reported on August 19, 1909:

“Shame faced felines whose permanent addresses were alleys and backyards, came stealthily forth. All of them, rich and poor, aristocrats from the sofa cushions near the front windows and thin piebelans from the areaways struggled mightily to get into the two baskets of catnip.”

When Mr. Gottlieb saw Police Sergeant John F. Higgins on 114th Street, he cried out with joy. At last, he thought, someone could help him disperse the band of felines. Sergeant Higgins wasn’t so kind though, and he immediately arrested the catnip peddler for causing a crowd to collect, which was against the law.

“Why don’t you arrest the catnip?” Gottlieb asked. “That is collecting the crowd. Not I.”

“Come on, before the cats from the Bronx and Jersey get here,” Higgins said, leading Gottlieb to the station house on East 104th Street. Several cats followed the men to the station house and made themselves at home inside while Sergeant Higgins reported the arrest to Lieutenant Lasky.

The 28th Police Precinct Station House

Sergeant Higgins led Mr. Gottlieb and his crowd of cats to the 39th Police Precinct Station House at 177-179 East 104th Street. Here, the men and cats were met by station house cat Pete, who did not take too kindly to the high-on-catnip stray cats.

“We can’t hold this man,” Lieutenant Lasky said. “The law says a man must not cause a crowd of people to collect. The law doesn’t say anything about cats.”

“The law doesn’t say anything about people,” Higgins replied. “It says a ‘crowd.’ A crowd of cats is certainly a crowd.”

As the men argued over how to interpret the vague law, Pete, one of the two station house cats, thrashed at the feline intruders one at a time (Claude, the other station cat, must have been asleep on the job). He was doing a pretty good of clearing out the place when the policemen came to his aid and drove the last cat-fight survivors out onto the steps.

Gottlieb, still holding his baskets of catnip, was placed in a patrol wagon and driven home. The cats tried to keep up with the horse-drawn wagon, but although they proved to be fair sprinters, they could not qualify as long-distance runners.

Gottlieb got out of the wagon, and, hugging his baskets, ran for his catless home. At his heels was a frayed old black cat, the only survivor of the catnip caper.

Gottleib threw him a handful of catnip. “Don’t tell your relatives or your friends,” he warned as he slammed his door shut.

A Brief History of the Old 39th Police Precinct Station House

The 39th Precinct of East Harlem was established in 1863 as the 23rd Precinct, with headquarters at 432-434 East 88th Street (which it shared with the former First Mounted Squad). The station at this location was under the command of Captain John Sanders, an army veteran who was awarded for saving seven persons, including two little girls, from drowning in the East River.

During this time, its jurisdiction was bounded by East 79th and East 110th Street, from Fifth Avenue to the East River. As author Augustine E. Costello noted in his book “Our Police Protectors,” (published in 1885), the 23rd Precinct was a “precinct of long and dreary posts,” with 15 day posts and 39 night posts.

Although construction was starting to pick up in the late 1800s, much of the land in this part of Manhattan was still undeveloped. As Costello wrote of the 23rd Precinct in 1885:

“This district has an Italian colony, of which it is not very proud, House of the Good Shepherd, a shanty district, the repair shops of the Third Avenue Elevated Railroad, a neat little park opposite the Blackwell’s Island lighthouse, and some elegant villas near by, the Astoria Ferry, the boat ferry to Blackwell’s Island, and some mansions of stately magnificence on Fifth Avenue, opposite [Central Park]. There are also the Harlem Flats, with the Harlem Gas Works, and the stables of the Second Avenue Railroad Company.”

Sketch of the new 28th Police Precinct House on East 104th Street, New York Daily Tribune, April 5, 1893.

Sketch of the new 28th Police Precinct House on East 104th Street, New York Daily Tribune, April 5, 1893. The first floor had an office with the sergeant’s desk, the captain’s rooms, and sitting rooms. The second through fourth floors had sergeants’ rooms and dormitories for the men.

The precinct was renumbered the 27th in 1887, but that designation didn’t last long. As the East Harlem district became more populated and developed in the late 19th century, a new precinct — the 28th — and a new station house a little farther north was needed.

In 1890, the Police Department’s Annual Report noted that negotiations had begun on two vacant lots on East 104th Street for a station house for a new precinct to be made up from portions of the 27th and 29th Precincts.  The lot adjacent at #175 was then occupied by Engine Company No. 53 of the New York Fire Department.

Architect to the New York City Police Department, Nathanial D. Bush, filed an application in April 1892 for a five-story station house expected to cost $52,000, as well as for a two-story brick prison and lodging house at the rear to cost $8,000. Construction began in May 1892 and was completed in June 1893.

Captain Josiah A. Westervelt of the City Hall Police was placed in charge of the new 28th Precinct. The new precinct was bounded by 96th Street, 116th Street, Fifth Avenue, and the East River.

After consolidation took place in May 1898, all the police precincts in the city were renumbered. The 28th became the 29th until 1908, when it was renumbered the 39th. It was renumbered the 13th in 1924, and the 23rd in 1929.

The station house served the precinct until a combined facility for the police department and fire department opened in 1974 at 164 East 102nd Street. The old station house was home to Hope Community Hall, a nonprofit housing organization founded in 1868. The building was purchased by the organization at auction in 1981, which occupied the building until moving across the street to #174 in 1994.

The old station house was designated a New York City Landmark in February 1999.

The station house for Engine 53, a four-story Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival-style building, was one of 42 firehouses and related structures designed for the Fire Department by the prominent architectural firm of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons between 1879 and 1895. Engine Company 53 was used as a fire station until 1974, and is now owned by Manhattan Community Access Corporation, a local cable television station.

The station house for Engine Company 53, a four-story Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival-style building constructed in 1885, was one of 42 firehouses and related structures designed for the New York Fire Department by the prominent architectural firm of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons between 1879 and 1895. Engine Company 53 was used as a fire station until 1974, and is now owned by Manhattan Community Access Corporation, a local cable television station. To the right was the police station.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy the tale of superhero policeman Daniel J. Fogarty and the crime-stopping goats, which also took place in the old 39th Police Precinct of East Harlem.

Snooperkatz got a lot of press when he went missing from The Gudebrod Brothers Silk Company at 644 Broadway.

Snooperkatz got a lot of press when he went missing from The Gudebrod Brothers Silk Company at 644 Broadway in Greenwich Village.

Christian Gudebrod, a man described as “handsome with a clear, pink complexion and a long, straight blond mustache,” was a prominent manufacturer of silk sewing threads in New York City and Pennsylvania. One of seven brothers whose family had emigrated from Germany to Connecticut in the mid-1800s, Christian was instrumental in founding The Gudebrod Brothers Silk Company, Inc, a family-run business that went on to make medical cords, fly-fishing thread, and braided lacing tape for the aerospace industry until it went out of business in 2010.

Christian Gudebrod was also a cat man. Not quite a crazy cat man, but definitely a cat lover. To be specific, a cat man who loved one cat in particular–a smart and mischievous feline named Snooperkatz.

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One of several headlines that appeared on November 5, 1914, the day after a clowder of cats went wild in the Brighton Beef Company butcher shop at 70 James Street.

One of several headlines that appeared on November 5, 1914, the day after a clowder of cats went wild in the butcher shop at 70 James Street.

Prelude to the 1914 Cat Attack

In the early morning hours of November 4, 1911, a bomb went off in front of a butcher shop and coffee saloon on the northwest corner of James Street and Oak Street in New York City’s Lower East Side. The explosion could be heard two blocks away at the Oak Street police station and as far away as police headquarters at 240 Centre Street.

According to news reports, the criminals had used a bomb constructed of black powder and wrapped in rolls of paper held together with twine. The destruction was intended for the butcher shop at 70 James Street, but its effects were felt by the whole neighborhood.

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Mrs Chippy Endurance

This is not Lord Haggis and Sammy McLean–it’s Mrs. Chippy and Perce Blackborow on the Endurance in 1915–but it’s a great picture.

A while back, I wrote about a cat named Duffy McNab, who lost his life when he tried to jump from his ship to Pier 64 on the Hudson River. When Duffy fell into the river, Quartermaster Angus MacLean jumped into the water and tried to save him.

In the following story, I’ll tell you about a ship cat named Lord Haggis, who was the cat of Chief Steward Sammy McLean. Like Duffy, Lord Haggis was no doubt named after a chief of a Scottish clan. Although this story takes place 20 years after Duffy’s last jump, I have to wonder if Angus anglicized his name and is the very same cat-loving sailor…

Lord Haggis Gets Left Behind

When the SS Pastores passenger ship of the Colombia Steamship Company arrived at Pier 8 on the East River in Brooklyn on February 19, 1934, the crew was ecstatic and excited to tell the amazing tale of their ship’s mascot cat, Lord Haggis. Lord Haggis had served many years with the Pastores, which provided passenger service between New York and Haiti, Jamaica, Colombia, and Panama.

Lord Haggis was under the care of Chief Steward Sammy McLean, who named the female cat Lord as opposed to Lady so as to avoid any potential unrest among the superstitious crew members. Lord Haggis may have been a lady cat, but she was reportedly not very ladylike when it came to catching mice.

The SS Pastores was built in 1913 in Belfast, Ireland, for the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit (primarily bananas), grown on Central and South American plantations. In May 1918 the Navy took her over from the United Fruit Company and placed her in commission as a troop transport for use in the war against Germany. Following the November 1918 Armistice, Pastores (which was registered as ID # 4540 at some point) took part in the great effort to return home the huge military force that had earlier been carried to France. The Colombia Steamship Company chartered the Pastores from the United Fruit Company in 1932 for passenger service between New York, Haiti, Jamaica, Colombia, and Panama.

The SS Pastores was built in 1913 in Belfast, Ireland, for the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit grown on Central and South American plantations. She was commissioned with the US Navy as a troop transport during World War I from 1918-1919 (when this photo was taken). The Colombia Steamship Company chartered the Pastores from the United Fruit Company in 1932 for passenger service until World War II.

 

SS Pastores 1945

During Word War II, when this photo was taken, the Pastores was again placed in commission, this time as a provision ship for refrigerated and frozen foods. She was decommissioned in 1946 and sold for scrapping.

 

According to the crew of the Pastores, about a month prior to their arrival in Brooklyn, the ship had made an unscheduled stop in Port Morant, Jamaica, to pick up a cargo of bananas. Port Morant was about 39 miles south of the ship’s regularly scheduled passenger port in Kingston.

When the ship had been cleared, Lord Haggis was not at the muster. She was simply gone. The crew thought she had either fallen overboard or wandered ashore. I have a feeling her curiosity got the best of her and she decided to explore this new port while the cargo was being loaded.

The whole crew was both angry and upset that Lord Haggis had deserted the ship. The captain even crossed the cat’s name off the crew list, thinking she was gone for good.

The ship continued on to New York, and then returned south to Jamaica once more. When they arrived in Kingston on February 15 (about 4 weeks after the cat’s disappearance), they found Lord Haggis at the end of the dock. She was very thin, and her coat was raged and unkempt–she had lost some fur on her back–but she strode up the plank with her tail held high.

As she made her way up the gangplank with a shuffle in her gait, the crew on deck cheered lustily for their beloved lost mascot. The loyal ship’s cat had somehow traveled 39 miles from Port Morant to Kingston and was waiting for her crew to return and pick her up.

Officials of the Colombian Steamship Company told a reporter for The New York Times that the men would keep a close watch on Lord Haggis at ports. “Otherwise,” they explained, “it might become necessary for them to abandon her and get another mascot, one that would behave itself and not keep the company forever in the public prints.”

Pier 8 of the Old New York Dock Company

Up until July 1934, the Colombian Steamship Company ships docked at Pier 3 and Pier 8 of the New York Docks in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. By August, the steamship line had moved to Pier 8 at Old Slip on the East River in Manhattan. J. P. Sutherland, passenger traffic manager for the Colombian Line, gave no reason for the move at the time, but many ships were leaving Brooklyn for Manhattan because of the better rail connections for passengers and cargo.

Up until July 1934, the Colombian Steamship Company ships docked at Pier 8 of the New York Docks in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. Here are Piers 3-8 (left to right) in 1934.

Here are Piers 3-8 (left to right) of the New York Docks in 1934, just before the Colombian Steamship line moved to Pier 8 at Old Slip on the East River in Lower Manhattan. It was here the sailors celebrated upon their return from Jamaica with Lord Haggis.

The New York Dock Company was organized in 1901, when acquired all of the property of the Brooklyn Wharf and Warehouse Company (organized in 1895). For the next 55 years, the company controlled a three-mile stretch of Brooklyn waterfront on the East River from the the foot of Main Street above the Brooklyn Bridge to Red Hook Point and the Erie Basin. Not only did the property include the piers and all fixtures, but it also included lands under water, warehouses, elevators, and numerous stores, including Empire, Watson, Harbeck, and Robert stores.

Brooklyn Wharf and Warehouse Company

Sometime around 1956, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey purchased two miles of Brooklyn waterfront from the New York Dock Company. This put in place an $85 million, seven-year development program–the greatest program of its kind ever undertaken in the New York-New Jersey Harbor–comprising the construction of 10 new piers, the rehabilitation of an existing pier, the construction of 3 new warehouses, and the improvement of 50 acres of upland area.

Under the Brooklyn-Port Authority marine terminal development plan, 25 of the existing obsolete piers, which were then from 36 to 65 years old, were replaced with 10 wide, single-story, steel and concrete structures fully fire resistant and fire protected. The plan replaced 44 narrow, deteriorated berths with 25 modern vessel berths, each with 90,000 square feet of shedded space and 20-foot aprons. Construction of the first new marine terminal, the $8 million Pier 11, a three-berth concrete platform in the Atlantic Basin, began on July 1, 1956, and was completed around April 1, 1958.

New York Dock Company

This colorized illustration of the New York Dock Company property is from The Pictorial History of Brooklyn, published by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1916.

 

Here are the Brooklyn Port Authority Piers in 1959.

Here’s a section of the Brooklyn Port Authority Piers in 1959. Pier 8, where the SS Pastores docked and where the crew celebrated the return of Lord Haggis, was controlled by the Brooklyn Port Authority at this time. Museum of the City of New York Collections

In 1984, The Port Authority announced plans to close cargo operations and sell its piers for commercial development.  Neighborhood-based grassroots groups immediately emerged to advocate for a new waterfront park, leading to the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition in 1989. The Brooklyn Bridge Park, which occupies the old Piers 1-6 of the New York Dock Company, officially opened in 2008.

Piers 5-8 Brooklyn

Today, the Old Pier 8, where sailors once celebrated the return of a ship’s cat named Lord Haggis, is today part of the Red Hook Terminal and the home of the MTC Trucking Company (far right). Maybe some day it will become part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and a memorial to Lord Haggis will be erected on the site…

 

 


The cows that went wild on West Street in 1896 were being transported from Staten Island to the stock yards in Jersey City via the Erie Railroad's Pavonia Ferry. Here are the stock yards pictured in 1913. Museum of the City of New York Collections

The cows that went wild on West Street in 1896 were being transported from Staten Island to the stock yards in Jersey City via the Erie Railroad Pavonia Ferry. Here are the stock yards pictured in 1913. Museum of the City of New York Collections

When New York City Policeman James Breen joined the Leonard Street Station in the late 19th century, he probably never dreamed that one day he’d have to play the role of a Wild West cowboy in Manhattan on West Street, at the Chambers Street Ferry Terminal.

In the late 19th century, West Street was always crowded in the afternoons during rush hour, even on Saturdays. The main thoroughfare was especially busy near the Chambers Street Ferry Terminal, where thousands of men, women, and children boarded the Erie Railroad Pavonia Ferry to Harsimus Cove in Jersey City, New Jersey.

On Saturday, January 23, 1896, Policeman Breen was on crossing duty at the ferry terminal when he saw about 20 women and children who were just about to cross West Street scatter in every direction. Turning around to see what had caused the commotion, he saw a herd of cows charging toward him. Within seconds, he was knocked to the ground.

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Raining Cats

The following cat story of Old Brooklyn is courtesy of The Brownstone Detectives, who first published this tale in March 2017. I take the story one step further by exploring the history around the Grand Street Museum and the land on which it was once located. 

Agent Clark Investigates a Report of Cruelty to Cats

In December 1887, Agent Frank Clark of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) received a letter from a resident of the Eastern District in Brooklyn notifying him that cats were being abused during the production of a musical comedy called the “Soap Bubble” at the Grand Street Museum in Williamsburg. According to the letter writer, a large number of cats were being used as shooting targets by the actors during the first act of the play.

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Comments Off on 1928: Abe, the Times Square Tiger Cat Who Refused to Scat From the Hotel Lincoln, II
James T. Clyde, the manager of the new Hotel Lincoln on Eighth Avenue, welcomed the stray kitten into his establishment and named him, appropriately, Abe.

James T. Clyde, the manager of the new Hotel Lincoln at 700 Eighth Avenue, welcomed the stray kitten into his establishment and named him, appropriately, Abe.

“A half-grown cat has adopted the Hotel Lincoln as its permanent home. Cats have always been regarded as a good omen, especially when they come to the door unsolicited. This kitten has a special history. He was born on the site of the present hotel, and spent his life in the debris while the hotel was in course of construction. Let us all be kind to our new mascot. His name from now on is Abe.” — James T. Clyde, manager, Hotel Lincoln, March 1928

In Part I of this Old New York cat story, we met Abe, the lucky kitten who was born in the spring of 1927 on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 45th Street in New York City’s Time Square neighborhood.  Although his mother cat and two brother kittens left the area a couple of months later, Abe stayed on the construction site. Even as the new Hotel Lincoln continued to rise higher and higher each day, Abe refused to scat.

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Abe, the mascot cat of the Hotel Lincoln, in 1928 or 1929.

Abe, the mascot cat of New York City’s brand-new Hotel Lincoln at 700 Eighth Avenue. (Wisconsin Daily Tribune, June 25, 1928)

Some studies have shown that where you’re born has a huge impact on how far you’ll go in life. I think the same holds true for cats, especially those who are born in large cities like New York.

When Abe’s mother cat gave birth to three kittens in New York City’s Time Square neighborhood in 1928, she couldn’t have picked a better place to bring her little ones into the world.

I don’t know what possessed her to give birth among the wrecking crews at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 45th Street, but the decision paid off big time for one little guy who would one day be called Abe.

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Comments Off on 1926: The Last of the Bowling Green Cat Massacres in New York City’s “Little Syria,” Part II
45 West Street New York

In 1915, the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association established a community center at 45 West Street. The four-story building housed a day nursery, library, and rooms for English instruction, household arts, citizenship classes, and various clubs. The community playground was behind the wall to the right in this photo.

In 1917, the president of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association (BGNA) came up with a plan to help control the feral cat population in Manhattan’s Lower West Side. Dr. Miner C. Hill, a pediatrician in charge of the nonprofit association’s baby clinic, believed that the stray cats were responsible for spreading diseases to the poor immigrant babies and children under his care.

Dr. Hill’s idea was to offer a nickel to every neighborhood child who captured and delivered a stray cat to the Bowling Green Community Playground on West and Washington streets. There, the cats would be placed in boxes and carted off to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals “to finish the job.”

For the next 10 years, the annual cat roundup — or annual Bowling Green cat massacre as I prefer to call it — resulted in the murder of thousands of cats and kittens at the hands of little children and the SPCA. (The association claimed that the roundup of stray cats was done “for humanitarian purposes” because the cats were sick and starving; unfortunately many healthy cats were also captured during this annual open season on felines.)

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Comments Off on 1926: The Last of the Bowling Green Cat Massacres in New York City’s “Little Syria,” Part I

“Then appeared a 7-year-old girl…dragging a yowling Maltese. ‘I got him last night and tied him up in the back yard until today, so’s I could get the money from you today.'” — New York Times, October 7, 1923

The Bowling Green Cat Roundup

“When darkness settled down last night over the territory encompassed by West Street and Broadway, Vesey Street and the Battery, and lights began to blink in the tenement quarters of Syrians, Turks, Hungarians and Russians, eerie dirges rose from pitchy backyards. There was a melancholia in the walls, a lost soul’s lowest note, one that jiggled spines of all who heard.

“Up to the high heavens, or wherever the destinies of cats are molded, a feline appeal for help soared with the coming of nightfall. From the throats of 1,500 cats went a chant for mercy, for yesterday the word had spread that not one of their 13,500 lives was safe. Crafty hunters stalked them, cunning minds trapped them, lusty young legs gave unremitting pursuit.”–The New York Times, October 7, 1923

The words are almost poetic, and yet the story behind them is tragic. Not only for the cats who were victims of the annual Bowling Green Cat Massacre (as I like to call it), but for the children who were desperate enough to take part in such madness for but a nickel or a ticket to see a free show.

The Bowling Green Cat Massacre, more notably known as the annual cat round-up, was the brainchild of Dr. Miner C. Hill, the president of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association. Dr. Hill, who was in charge of the association’s baby clinic, came up with the idea to round up the cats in 1917. The feral cats were a menace to the neighborhood and, he thought, were probably responsible for spreading diseases to the immigrant babies and children under his care.

The plan seemed simple enough. Post a sign in the association’s playground on Washington Street in Lower Manhattan stating that every stray cat rounded up would yield five cents to the hunter or huntress. Collect all the stray cats in boxes and present them to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA would then cart the cats away by wagon and “finish the job.” Oh, the irony.

Incentivized by a shiny nickel or show ticket, hundreds of poor and hungry children were more than eager to gather up the stray cats and bring them to the playground. What could possibly go wrong, I wonder?

Immigrant children from Syria, Serbia, Armenia, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria play in the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association playground between Washington Street and West Street in 1920. For almost 10 years, these children were paid a nickel for every stray cat they caught during the association’s annual cat roundup.

Little Syria and the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association

Over the years, the area of Manhattan west of Broadway from the Battery up to Liberty Street has been known by many names. During the mid-19th century it was a neighborhood of well-kept row houses called “Bowling Green Village.” When this story takes place in the 1920s, it was known as “Little Serbia” and “Wall Street’s back yard.” Before the World Trade Center was constructed in the early 1970s, it was called the “Electronics District” or “Radio Row.”

Originally populated by the Irish, then Italians and Greeks, the neighborhood was the nation’s first and largest Arabic settlement. From the late 1880’s to about 1940 the area was home to thousands of Arab and Maronite Catholic immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Slavs from Eastern Europe and Orthodox Greeks and Turks also settled there. They lived in overcrowded multi-family tenements converted from 150-year-old dilapidated warehouses and once-fashionable row houses that had fallen into decay.

As with most immigrant neighborhoods in the city, Little Syria was rife with unsanitary conditions and poor health. In 1916, The New York Times reported that the district had the worst housing conditions in the city. The Times also noted that the area’s infant mortality rate was almost 50% greater than that of the city at large.

Little Syria had one good this going: it was close to Wall Street and all the financial district’s wealth. Therefore, the neighborhood was the recipient of many philanthropic attempts by wealthy executives and business owners who wanted to clean up “Wall Street’s dirty back yard.”

From the late 1880s to the 1940s, the area just south of the World Trade Center and centered along Washington Street was called Little Serbia. It was also called Wall Street's back yard due to its proximity to the city's financial district.

From the late 1880s to the 1940s, the area just south of the World Trade Center and centered along Washington Street (highlighted in yellow) was called “Little Syria.” It was also called “Wall Street’s back yard” due to its proximity to the city’s financial district just east of Broadway. Many immigrants were attracted to the area because the nearby piers provided steady employment for the men who found work on the docks.

One of the largest philanthropic efforts to help improve the people’s living conditions and health was the creation of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association, or BGNA for short. The BGNA was an outgrowth of a health center started by the New York Milk Committee in 1914. Under the direction of volunteer secretary Kenneth D. Widdemer, the association set up shop in 1915 at its temporary headquarters at 98 Washington Street.

During its first year of operation, the BGNA established a baby clinic, milk station (for the distribution of pure milk), and visiting nurse services. As the results began to show, more downtown businessmen got involved with the project, allowing the BGNA to set up a community center at 45 West Street and an experimental restaurant at 21 Morris Street.

45 West Street New York

In 1915, the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association established a community center at 45 West Street. The four-story building, constructed in 1845 (shortly after landfill was used to create the street), housed a day nursery, library, and rooms for English instruction, household arts, citizenship classes, and various clubs. The playground where the annual cat roundup took place occupied nine vacant lots adjacent to 45 West Street (behind the wall on the right in this photo).

 

From November 1, 1919, to May 1, 1920, the BGNA operated an experimental restaurant for 25 undernourished children at 21 Morris Street.

From November 1, 1919, to May 1, 1920, the BGNA operated an experimental restaurant for 25 undernourished children at 21 Morris Street. The children were provided 3 square meals a day, 6 days a week, at a cost of only $108 dollars a month.

The Bowling Green Neighborhood Association’s Playground

The building at 45 West Street, in addition to the vacant lots which served as a playground and stray cat drop-off location, was once part of the Benjamin T. Babbitt soap works campus. Established on the landfill that became Washington and West streets in 1845, the campus comprised #64-84 Washington Street and #41-51 West Street.

The B.T. Babbitt Soap Works is clearly marked on this 1885 map.

The B.T. Babbitt Soap Works is marked on this 1885 tax map map. 45 West Street was one of several tenements on that street that were incorporated into the soap business (perhaps used for storage purposes).

 

Here is an illustration of the B.T. Babbitt soap works factory as it appeared in 1859.

Here is an illustration of the B.T. Babbitt soap works factory on Washington Street as it probably appeared in 1859. For many years, the giant smoke stacks guided ship captains while also spewing horrific black smoke that gave off a horrible stench.

 

Benjamin Babbitt was known as a genius of advertising--his soap was one of the first nationally advertised products. Here's one such ad from 1882.

Benjamin Babbitt was known as a genius of advertising. In fact, his soap was one of the first nationally advertised products. Here’s one such ad from 1882, which features his buildings on the left. Check out this great Thomas Edison film from 1903 of New York skyscrapers filmed from a boat on the North (Hudson) River–B.T. Babbitt’s soap factory can be seen at the 1:34 minute marker.

 

By 1915, 16 years after B.T. Babbitt's death, the factory buildings had been demolished, leaving nine vacant lots between 41 and 44 West Street and 62 to 72 Washington Street.

By 1915, most of the B.T. Babbitt factory buildings had been demolished, leaving 10 vacant lots between 41 and 44 West Street and 62 to 72 Washington Street.

Sometime around 1904, 15 years after the death of B.T. Babbitt, his heirs moved the business to the North Bergen Meadows in New Jersey (today’s Meadowlands). In 1911, Babbitt’s daughter, Mrs. C.M. (Elizabeth) Hyde, sold the New York buildings to R. Crystal & Son. The new buyers had planned on erecting a modern office structure on the site, but apparently they didn’t get any further than the demolition stage.

Ten of the lots remained vacant until 1916, which is when the Babbitt estate loaned them to the BGNA for use as a playground. The city’s Public Service Commission donated the sand used to level the land, and the Parks and Playgrounds Association helped equip the new playground with swings, seesaws, and gym equipment.

The Bowling Green Community Playground, as it was called, opened on June 22, 1916.

Here's an aerial view of the Bowling Green Community Playground in 1925, the year the land was purchased for development.

Here’s an aerial view of the Bowling Green Community Playground in 1925, the year the land was purchased for development. That year, the annual stray cat roundup was moved to Bowling Green public park in the city’s financial district.

The End of the Bowling Green Community Playground

In April 1925, Edgar G. Ruwe Company of 49 West Street purchased the playground property from the estates of B.T. Babbitt and Elizabeth Hyde for $500,000. As the workmen took away all the swings and slides and sand piles on April 14, scores of children stood and solemnly watched. After all, they had no where else to go.

In Part II, I’ll tell you about the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association’s new home on Washington Street and what disasters happened when the annual stray cat roundup and massacre was moved to the Bowling Green public park.