A Nostalgic Trip Down Canal Street, NYC

Pearl Paint & Canal Jean, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die

 

My last blog discussed my love of “old-school” art supply and camera shops and my dismay about their dwindling numbers. After I posted that article, I started scanning black and white negatives I shot from 1976-1979 with my handy Canon FTb, mainly during magical sojourns to NYC from my ivory-tower RISD existence in Providence. Lo and behold – I discovered this panoramic view of Canal Street with Pearl Paint at the center. The street was a hop, skip, and jump away after my older sis moved to a garden apartment on Grand Street just east of Sixth Avenue. She was kind enough to put me up on all those NYC visits, even after she got married in 1978.

Finding this photo and others brought back a flood of memories about how much I loved Canal Street back then and the many changes in the last few decades that have robbed this once quirky street of its unique character. Escalating rents have been killing ma and pa businesses in NYC for many years. Certainly, today’s gentrification is preferred to the blighted, empty storefronts that plagued the street for so long, but like other neighborhoods in NYC, Canal may be turning into any other upscale street in any other major city USA.

A Short History of Canal Street

Discovering my old photos of Canal Street prompted research on the intriguing history of the street that began as a solution for the growing problem of industrial run-off. Before Five Points slum existed, a small area of Manhattan called Collect Pond with its underground spring-fed lake, provided a major source of fresh water until the late 1700s. It became too polluted due to tanneries and breweries belching out vast amounts of liquid refuse into it. The water had nowhere to go because the surrounding area was low-lying, so a canal was built to drain Collect Pond more effectively. By 1813-1815, the pond was completely drained. The canal existed until 1820-1821, at which time it was covered up and became Canal Street. In 1838, the recovered land became home to the notorious prison known as The Tombs. The White House at 156 Canal was infamous because that’s where John F. Schrank lived prior to his unsuccessful assassination attempt on former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt on October 14, 1912 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Prior to 47th Street becoming the famous diamond district, Canal was home to many jewelry businesses, in particular on the corner of Canal and the Bowery – and there still are a few stores in Chinatown. 

 

Broadway Looking North from Canal Street, 1916

Personal Memories

I remember many businesses in Chinatown that were east of Mulberry, back in the day. My most vivid memories, in addition to Pearl Paint, involve the eclectic array of cool stores between Sixth Avenue and Lafayette. At one time, many stores sold job lot goods, plexiglass sheets and tubing, and hundreds of other useful things for artists and tinkerers. In 1981, plastic stores on Canal Street included Canal Plastic Center (# 345), Industrial Plastics (#309), and Art Plastics (#359). As far as I know, only Canal Plastic between Wooster and Greene Streets still exists today as a brick and mortar store – and it actually might be the one at which I purchased the blue plexiglass for this marble torso during my senior year at RISD. Industrial Plastics isn’t out of business – they’re strictly an online store.

 

Marble Torso by Betsy van Die, 1980

Industrial Plastic, 2005, Copyright Betsy van Die

Vintage Goods

I frequented a small antique mall on Canal Street – around 1978, I showed one of the dealers my small alabaster sculptures and she offered to sell them on consignment. When another dealer appeared at her booth and suggested I take them to the much larger Showplace Antique + Design Center on 25th Street, she had a fit and told me to leave. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the Canal Street antique mall.

Canal Street has always been home to hawkers, as evidenced by this circa 1910 photo of children by Lewis Hine. I have fond memories of many street dealers selling vintage goods, including a specific incident forever ingrained in my memory.

 

Tending Stand, Canal Street by Lewis Hine, 1910

 

After I took the below photo, the group of boys insisted they take my photo with my Canon FTb. Even back then, I wasn’t naive enough to fall for this con so I refused and waited until they left the immediate vicinity. This particular dealer was selling Mexican fire agate sterling silver rings for $10 each. I thought about going back to buy one, but was short on cash, so decided against it.

 

Jewelry Vendor, Canal Street, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die

 

I frequented Canal Jean & Co, right next door to Pearl Paint. They offered a huge selection of vintage surplus clothing. In addition to used jeans, you could find men’s suit vests, cardigan sweaters, leather coats and jackets, underwear, neckties, scarves, military knapsacks, etc. The only item I ever bought there was a salmon-colored vintage sweater I regretted buying almost immediately due to the pilling that made it look too grungy. Canal Jean made a cameo appearance in the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre! After they moved to 504 Broadway, the store seemed more like an overpriced vintage imposter than authentic vintage. Founder Ira Russack leased the Canal Jean building at 504 Broadway to Bloomingdale’s in 2002, selling it five years later. Canal Jean briefly set up shop in Brooklyn on Nostrand Avenue, but is now officially defunct.

The only true vintage clothing shop I know of today just south of Canal Street is Church Street Surplus – I visited in 2015 and they had a great, albeit overpriced selection of authentic goods. I enjoyed talking to the owner’s friendly daughter, who told me a good deal about the history of the shop.

Diners and Dives

 

Strolling Past Dave’s Corner, December 1976, Copyright Betsy van Die

 

I was particularly enamored of Dave’s Luncheonette, a 24-hour diner on the southeast corner of Canal and Broadway. I photographed it multiple times, commencing with a visit in December 1976 and periodically from 1977-1979. I never ate inside, but I clearly remember getting an egg cream to go for 45 cents! Dave’s was still around in 1984, but I’m not certain how much longer it lasted. I also photographed Chock full O’Nuts on the south side of Canal between Lafayette and Broadway, although this restaurant did not possess the visual charm of Dave’s.

 

Dave’s Luncheonette, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die

Chock full o’Nuts, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die

 

Canal Street Now

In more recent visits, I didn’t appreciate all the dealers hawking fake designer bags and other junk. These crappy souvenir and counterfeit bag stores are not a welcome addition to Canal Street. But according to this article, like the job lot stores of the 1970s-80s, their days may be numbered. On my last visit in August 2018, I did miss one of the fabulous last holdouts on Canal – Argo Electronics had shut its doors after nearly four decades in business. In 2015, I bought a very plain African ebony walking stick there in as is condition for about $5.00. I didn’t see that a good part of it was splintered and it wasn’t worth shipping home, so I finally told my daughter to toss it about a year ago.

 

Argo Electronics 2015, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York

 

Even the dubious vendors with piles of hit or miss sweaters sealed (so you can’t inspect them) were not around. No loss, in 2015 I bought two cashmere sweaters, only to discover one had huge moth holes in it – I tossed it in the garbage and donated the other one to a thrift shop because the size was mismarked.

I’ll be posting a larger selection of my treasure trove of vintage black and white NYC photos soon – and high res prints will be available for sale.

Photo sources: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, Library of Congress, Shorpy Historic Picture Archive

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