Traveling in a horse-drawn buggy in the 1880s, Alice Austen carried cameras, a tripod, huge glass plates to record images, and other camera equipment with her so that she could photograph scenes on Staten Island. Sometimes the equipment weighed as much as 50 pounds. During the following decade, Austen ventured farther into New York City and beyond, always taking her weighty cameras and equipment with her.
The cumbersomeness of her cargo didn’t stop Austen, nor did the conventions of the day that prescribed what women ought to be up to. She was enthralled with capturing images of people and daily life in and around New York. Like other women who have made history, Austen was accomplishing something that most people could picture only a man doing.
Consider the images of women making history on the streets of New York. You might picture them walking in suffrage marches, gathering in the thousands at women’s suffrage conventions, fighting for women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, and confronting politicians to gain the right to vote and equal opportunities. Yet, for centuries they have chartered historic paths in many other ways, too – by establishing a settlement that would provide religious freedom to people who had been persecuted, by performing an occupation in a corporate office that no other woman had ever done, or by fighting for families to be safe in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are five off-the-beaten-track New York places where you can explore the stories of women blazing historic trails.
Alice Austen House, Staten Island: Based from her home in the Rosebank section of Staten Island, Alice Austen traveled extensively and took thousands of pictures that document life in New York City and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In some 40 years of photography, Austen produced more than 8,000 photographs on glass plates. She was one of the first women photographers to work outside of the studio, and her style was a precursor of documentary photography.
Austen’s life story is poignant, and that her home and thousands of her images even survive today is amazing. At the age of 10, Austen received a camera from an uncle who brought one home from a voyage, according to a biography posted by the Alice Austen House. He and a second uncle, a chemistry professor who showed Austen how to develop the images on the glass plates, then set up a darkroom for her in her Staten Island home. During her long lifetime, Austen photographed everything from immigrants on the streets of New York and the local beaches and Victorian bathhouses to a Quarantine Station where ships had to stop for inspection before entering New York Harbor.
Her life took an unexpected and harsh turn, however. Austen’s family had been prosperous for generations, but Austen lost all of her savings in the Great Depression. Eventually, she had to sell her family home and move into a poorhouse. While Austen was selling all her belongings, an old friend from the Staten Island Historical Society saved her glass plate images by carting them away for storage (with Austen’s permission). When a small publishing house was planning a book on the history of American women in the 1950s, some circumstances led to the rediscovery of Austen’s photos. Just before her death, Austen received newfound attention and some proceeds from the publishing of her photographs, which enabled her to move into a private nursing home. She was able to see an exhibit mounted of her photographs. Austen died in 1952.
Her home, saved from demolition in the 1960s by a group of concerned citizens, is now a National Historic Landmark and a museum documenting Alice Austen’s life and times.
Lady Moody Triangle, Brooklyn: This triangle, formed by Village Road North, Lake Street, and Avenue U, honors Lady Deborah Moody, who founded Gravesend. She was the first woman in the New World to receive a land charter. In 1643, Lady Moody, a wealthy English widow who first settled in New England, led a group of Anabaptists and other dissenters escaping the harsh treatment of the Puritans to this area of south-central Brooklyn.
New Amsterdam’s Dutch governor granted Moody and the group land for what would become the only English town in Brooklyn in the mid-17th century. The town that Moody established was one of the first in the New World to have a block grid system, and it had a fenced town square. The patent for Gravesend was also noteworthy for its emphasis on religious freedom, according to an article in the journal Archaeology. Lady Moody also started a school and founded the town hall government.
Moody is believed to be buried in Old Gravesend Cemetery, where the gravestones from the earliest years of the settlement are not legible.
Maria Hernandez Park, Brooklyn: Maria Hernandez Park is a green, nearly seven-acre park in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The park has been a community gathering place for soccer and basketball games, open-air yoga lessons, a farmer’s market, salsa and meringue music concerts, and much more. This area is more peaceful today than it was decades ago. Its name is a legacy honoring a woman who worked to rid her neighborhood of drugs and who met a violent end because of that effort.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 1989 as she got ready for work, Hernandez was hit by five gunshots, fired from a passing car into her family’s apartment on Starr Street, and she died later that day. Along with her husband, Carlos, Hernandez had waged a lonely fight to rid their block of drug dealers while others were too fearful to confront this threat and the violence. She organized block parties, sports events, and social gatherings, and also sought to educate local schoolchildren about the dangers of drugs. The couple had given information to police about drug dealing in their neighborhood.
The community mourned her murder. Hundreds of people, including then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch, attended her funeral. Police believed that the two men who fired the shots, both heroin dealers, targeted Hernandez and her husband because of their efforts to stop drug dealing in the neighborhood, according to New York Times accounts. Later in 1989, the city changed the name of Bushwick Park, bordered by Knickerbocker Avenue, Irving Avenue, Suydam Street, and Starr Street, to Maria Hernandez Park in honor of the activist and mother of three.
Today, in this oasis in Bushwick, one can ponder the all-too-short life of a woman who fought to reclaim her neighborhood at the height of the drug plague some three decades ago.
Pepsi-Cola Building, Manhattan: With its sleek and smooth gray-green glass and aluminum walls, the Pepsi-Cola Building at 500 Park Avenue is one of the seminal International Style buildings constructed in the years following World War II. It’s also an important work of one of the first women architects to be involved in corporate architecture, Natalie de Blois.
Born in 1921, de Blois had told her father at a very early age that she wanted to be an architect, and her father – a civil engineer who encouraged his daughter in her goals – insisted that her junior high school allow her to take mechanical drawing rather than sewing, she later recalled in an interview. At Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed many of New York’s pioneering glass-and-steel modernist skyscrapers of the era, she rose from draftsperson to full-fledged associate. Working with architect Gordon Bunshaft, de Blois was the senior designer for the Pepsi-Cola headquarters, built from 1958 to 1960. For the 11-story building, Bunshaft came up with the structural concept and de Blois completed much of the design work for the light and airy building.
In three decades of work at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, de Blois worked on many distinctive buildings of the post-World War II era before leaving SOM to teach and write. By the 1970s, she became involved in efforts to address the prejudices faced by women in architecture. In his 1973 autobiography, Nathaniel Owings, one of the founders of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said of de Blois, “Her mind and hands worked marvels in design – and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”
Wadleigh High School for Girls, Manhattan: At the time that the Wadleigh High School for Girls opened in Harlem nearly a century ago, The New York Times’ headline proclaimed “Modern Ideas Followed in Building New High School.” The article touted its electric elevators (the first in any school), innovative exterior and interior design, feature-filled gymnasiums, dozen laboratories, and areas devoted to everything from botany to drawing. Its most path-breaking distinction? The Wadleigh High School was New York City’s first public high school specifically for girls.
The school, located at 215 West 114th Street and built in 1901-1902, was named after Lydia F. Wadleigh, a pioneer advocate of higher education for women in the last half of the 19th century. Despite much opposition, Wadleigh had founded the 12th Street Advanced School for Girls in 1856. Designed by architect C.B.J. Snyder, the school is a handsome example of the Collegiate Gothic style, which was modeled after buildings at Eton, Cambridge, and Oxford universities. Wadleigh was an all-girls school through the school year of 1953-54.
Today, following a major renovation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is the Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts and is a New York City landmark. Famous alumni include actresses Jean Stapleton and Isabel Sanford.