New York City’s skyline is the envy of the world, a sight tourists travel from across the globe to see. But in some places, its sidewalks are nearly as interesting, with plaques, art installations, handprints and other markers to commemorate important locations and to get your attention. Here’s a rundown of some of our favorite NYC sidewalk plaques and markers.
Ticker-Tape Parade Markers on Lower Broadway
The Downtown Alliance, a business improvement district representing Lower Manhattan, has embedded brass lettering commemorating every ticker-tape parade ever held in New York City, beginning with the first one: A fete on Oct. 28, 1886 to dedicate the Statue of Liberty. “Ticker tape” is an inch-wide ribbon of paper on which a “ticker” machine recorded stock quotes. When volumes of it were released into the outside air, it created a mesmerizing swirling effect. The practice of throwing it out of windows broke out quite serendipitously during that first parade, and has been done for the more than 2,000 parades on Lower Broadway since, helping the street became known as the “Canyon of Heroes.”
These days, shredded office paper is used instead of ticker tape. The Alliance has created a Canyon of Heroes app that serves as a guide to the parades.
The Barthman Clock
One of Manhattan’s most unique monuments gets stepped on thousands of times daily. William Barthman first set up a jewelry shop in the Financial District in 1884, and added a sidewalk clock on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane in 1899. The clock was designed by Barthman and an employee, Frank Homm. When Homm died in 1917, no one knew how to maintain its singular design, and the clock was replaced with a more customary model in 1925 that has been in place ever since.
The Barthman Clock has been attacked by vandals and trodden on for years, but it keeps on ticking with the help of an electric motor. An organization known as the Maiden Lane Historical Society set up a plaque in 1928 at Barthman’s depicting what Broadway and Maiden Lane looked like that year. In 1946, the NYPD estimated that fully 51,000 people stepped on the clock every day.
After moving up Broadway a few years ago, the jeweler now has an address in Brooklyn. But it made an arrangement with the current building to maintain the Barthman Clock, even though the unusual timepiece doesn’t have Landmarks Preservation Commission protection.
Coal Chute Covers
There’s a hidden city beneath the city. Sewers, electrical wiring, water mains, traffic and train tunnels all pulse and vibrate under your feet as you walk the five boroughs. Other than steam-belching vents, manhole and coal chute covers are the only visible reminder of this underground sub-city. If you walk past them without noticing, you’ll miss a lot of delicate cast-iron artwork and, just maybe, a hint of the past history of New York City.
Some of New York’s most gorgeous cast-iron covers led to coal chutes. Before central heating was instituted — fairly recently, in the scheme of things — most New York City buildings burned coal for heat. The chutes led to conduits that brought the coal directly into the burners. Many of these coal chute covers bear the names and addresses of their long-lost manufacturers.
The Hess Triangle
The small building hosting Village Cigars at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South has had this small mosaic triangle directly in front of the store entrance since the building was constructed shortly after 1912. It’s likely the smallest piece of private property in the city.
There used to be a five-story residential building on Christopher Street called The Voorhis. It was condemned in the 1910s to make way for the IRT subway, which also extended Seventh Avenue south from Greenwich Avenue. However, the Voorhis’ owner, David Hess, refused to surrender this small plot to the city to become part of Seventh Avenue South’s new sidewalk. The Hesses created this mosaic to let everyone know of their small (very small) victory against the city.
Village Cigars moved to its present corner site in 1922, and bought the 500-square-inch property from the Hesses for $1,000 in 1938. The mosaic has stayed put, while Village Cigars has become an iconic symbol of New York life. So the Hesses no longer own their little triangle in the sidewalk, but there it remains, a monument to good old-fashioned spite.
Stars at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
Lucille Lortel, known as the Queen of Off-Broadway, acquired the old Theatre de Lys at Christopher and Bedford Streets in 1955. Her wealth allowed her to bring works by playwrights such as Terrence McNally, Edward Albee, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco and many others to prominence for the first time in the U.S. “The Threepenny Opera,” by Bertolt Brecht, had its proper American debut at the de Lys in 1954; the theater was renamed for Lucille Lortel in 1981. Outside the theater is a mini-walk of fame commemorating famed authors and playwrights such as Christopher Durang and Ring Lardner, who had their works performed inside.
Theatre 80 Handprints
Everyone has heard of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where generations of film stars have signed their names and imprinted their hands in wet concrete. It turns out we have our own mini-version of Grauman’s Chinese right in the East Village.
Theatre 80, at 80 St. Marks Place near First Avenue, used to run movies from the golden era of Hollywood, the 1930s to the ’50s, and served coffee in china and cake on real porcelain. Former actor and singer Howard Otway bought the former speakeasy and decided to turn it into a revival house in 1971. His dream was realized in August of that year, when he threw an old-fashioned Hollywood premiere party to celebrate the opening. He invited several old-time Hollywood stars and asked them to make their marks on the new sidewalk outside the theater. By 1980 Joan Crawford, Joan Blondell, Allan Jones, Ruby Keeler, Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, Kitty Carlisle, Dom DeLuise all visited and managed to leave mementos. Even Joan Rivers stopped by to add her name.
The theater is now run by Howard’s son, Lorcan Otway, as a performance space and the home of the Museum of the American Gangster. When the sidewalk was repaired in the 1990s, the fate of the stars’ signatures was in doubt, but the theater managed to preserve them by moving them slightly.
Yiddish Actors’ Walk of Fame
Though the Second Avenue Deli has moved uptown from the corner of Second Avenue and East 10th Street, the sidewalk outside its former location still boasts The Walkway of Yiddish Actors, an homage to the old “Jewish Rialto” of theaters featuring plays in Yiddish, when the language was common among immigrants from Eastern Europe. The walkway was installed in 1984 by deli owner Abe Lebewohl. The names Fyvush Finkel and Molly Picon, who made many TV appearances, may be recognizable to American audiences. Though the walkway is showing its age after 35 years, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is attempting to raise funds to preserve and protect the original stones, while installing replicas in their place.
Lebewohl, the longtime owner of Second Avenue Deli (he founded it in 1954) was shot and killed in an unsolved robbery on March 4, 1996. The deli closed at its original location, but later reopened in two Midtown and East Side locations, 162 E. 33rd St. and 1442 First Ave. (at East 75th Street). An original “2nd Ave Deli” neon sign can be found at the City Reliquary in Williamsburg.
Fashion Walk of Fame
Seventh Avenue is also known as Fashion Avenue, from West 35th Street north to 41st — but, like “Avenue of Americas,” virtually no one uses the name. From 2000 to 2008, medallions commemorating 28 of the biggest names in fashion design were installed in the sidewalk along this Fashion Walk of Fame, including Ralph Lauren, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Rudi Gernreich, Halston, Claire McCardell and Norman Norell. The plaques feature a summary of each designer’s contribution, a sketch representative of their work, and a signature.
For two blocks between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, east of the New York Public Library, the sidewalks of East 41st Street on both sides of the streets are festooned with brass plaques featuring literary quotations. The plaques are the work of sculptor Gregg LeFevre and were installed in 2004 by the Grand Central Partnership group, working with NYPL. The 96 plaques (each appears more than once) quote 45 writers from 11 countries. They were chosen from submissions by a consortium that included NYPL, the Partnership and the New Yorker magazine.
The aphorisms include:
“Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
— Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in “Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey”
“I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
— Garson Kanin (1912-1999) in dialogue, “Born Yesterday”
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
— Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) in “The Leaning Tower”
A full list can be found at NYPL’s Library Way page.
Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)