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40th St. & 8th Ave.

March 6th, 2009 by David Freeland

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618 Eighth Avenue, an old building on the southeast corner of 40th Street, isn’t remarkable from an architectural viewpoint, although it offers fine details such as decorative window lintels and the words “40TH ST” carved into a block above the second story.  What draws me to the five-story structure is not its age (NYC buildings records indicate that it was erected around 1888) but the contrast it provides within a rapidly changing neighborhood.  The massive new headquarters for the New York Times occupy the entire block to the north, dwarfing 618 Eighth Avenue and its immediate neighbors.  In this way, old and new Times Square sit juxtaposed in one brief line of cityscape – an example of the incongruity that typifies Manhattan architectural patterns.

But 618 Eighth Avenue is valuable for another reason: I believe that its ground floor once housed Ford’s Saloon, a gathering spot for African-American performers during the early decades of the 20th century.  I’m attracted to “hangouts” like Ford’s because these are the places where New Yorkers cemented the bonds of community, where they met to discuss ideas, laugh, and relax.  The loss of these communal spaces may be the most discouraging aspect of recent development in Manhattan; and in Times Square in particular, where longtime hangouts such as McHale’s, Sam’s, and Barrymore’s have disappeared over the past several years.  As anyone who loves theater knows, the experience does not end with the performance itself; much of the excitement of seeing something live is the chance to discuss it later, over drinks or a light meal.  The challenge now, within the theatrical district, is finding somewhere to do this.

Ford’s also occupies a footnote in musical history: here songwriter Perry Bradford accompanied Mamie Smith on the morning of August 10, 1920, before Smith recorded her landmark “Crazy Blues” – generally acknowledged as the first blues recording, and the work that inaugurated African-American popular music as a commercial force – at nearby Okeh Studios on West 45th Street.  As Bradford recounted in his memoir, Born with the Blues (1965), he and Smith visited Ford’s that day in order to kill time before the session:

When we popped in through the swinging doors, One-eyed Joe, the cook, spied me and asked, “Who’s the flapper?” I didn’t pay him no mind, but ordered two glasses of beer, then jived over to the free-lunch counter and served Mamie some ham and potatoes, and coffee and rolls, and helped myself to the same, but added a big hunk of cheese.  After we had finished, Mamie paid the bill and wanted to know if they served all that grub down here for ten cents.  I assured her that nobody goes hungry in New York.

The “free lunch” came as a result of the 1896 Raines Law, which permitted alcohol to be served in New York on Sundays (for decades Sunday liquor sales had been illegal), but only in hotels with meals.  Saloon owners quickly converted the upper floors of their establishments into “hotels,” adding food in order to be in compliance with the law.  Sometimes these offerings were lavish spreads like the one Bradford describes (an inducement, it can be presumed, for ordering drinks); more often they were little more than stale bread and cold cuts – what came to be known as the “Raines Law Sandwich.”

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Actually, I don’t know for certain that this building was Ford’s.  I only suspect it, based upon its location (Bradford described Ford’s several times as being at 40th Street and Eighth Avenue), its general size and appearance, which would have made it easily adaptable for use as a Raines Law Hotel, and an article in the New York Times dated July 10, 1926, in which 618 Eighth Avenue is listed as one of the addresses raided by federal officers in a night-long “padlock drive.”  It seems that “Friedman’s Pharmacy,” then occupying the space, was just a front for a speakeasy.  Perhaps some time after the onset of Prohibition (which, curiously, was already seven months old by the time Bradford and Mamie Smith made their visit) the saloon owners transformed their space into something legal but otherwise kept the liquor flowing.  This week I’m going to work to find out if 618 Eighth Avenue was indeed Ford’s, and will report my findings in the next post.

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