Brain Pickings

A Typographic Tour of New York City at Night

by

“No other city in the world stages dusk to dawn like New York City.”

“Just bring your own contents,” wrote Anaïs Nin of the poetics of New York in 1934, “and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” But this iconic city comes with a sparkle all its own, glowing with unparalleled magnetic power, especially at night.

In 2008, photographer duo James and Karla Murray took us on a breathtaking tour of New York’s disappearing face in their stunning visual archive of mom-and-pop storefront signage — a bittersweet project eight years in the making, documenting shops more than half of which are now gone. This season, they’re back with New York Nights (UK; public library) — a striking, lavish street-level tour of New York City’s typographic neon mesmerism, revealed through the illuminated storefronts of some of the city’s most revered bars, diners, speakeasies, theaters, and other epicenters of public life. The gorgeous, giant tome, weighing in at over six pounds and more than a foot wide, is divided into seven sections — Manhattan below 14th Street, 14th Street to 34th Street, 34th Street to 59th Street, above 59th Street, The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn — each highlighting the respective neighborhood’s most iconic establishments.

C. O. Bigelow Apothecaries, at 6th Avenue near West 9th Street, was established in 1838. It is the oldest apothecary in America and was frequented by Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

The Murrays observe in the foreword:

No other city in the world stages dusk to dawn like New York City. Whether it’s a glimpse out of a bus window pulling into the terminal at Port Authority, or the first step out onto the sidewalk under the Times Square lights after the end of a Broadway show that started before sunset — any visitor is immediately drawn to the city’s lights. Even simply viewing the illuminated city from the George Washington Bridge on the drive into Manhattan can be undeniably exciting.

Legendary cabaret and piano bar Duplex, at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South, has been in business since the 1950s.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

And who more perfect to pen the introduction than the inimitable Steven Heller, as brilliantly versed in the nooks and crannies of the graphic arts as he is in the art of being a New Yorker? Heller writes:

No other city in the world is more spectacular than New York at night! From down low or up high, its neon sparkles, its L.E.D. shimmers and its incandescence radiates in ways that duller metropolises cannot begin to replicate. Night light in New York is so spectacular that an entire genre of mammoth New York electronic advertising displays is called ‘spectaculars.’ Seen together, and glowing in full candlepower, ‘spectaculars’ exemplify the illuminated majesty of the Great White Way.

From gaslight to electric light, from wick to filament wire, luminosity has long defined the essence of this decidedly commercial city.

[…]

Rather than recede into the darkness, New York’s illuminated storefronts reveal more than is possible during the daytime hours.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, at Doyers Street near Pell Street, was founded in 1920 as a bakery and tea parlor and soon became a Chinatown staple, offering fresh Chinese pastries, steamed buns, dim sum, and tea.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Alongside the photographs are fascinating interviews with store owners, revealing unexpected pieces of cultural history. The Financial District’s Delmonico’s, for instance, turns out to be the birthplace of such culinary classics as Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, and Lobster Newburg. A tiny piano bar in Greenwich Village called Duplex gave both Woody Allen and Joan Rivers their first stand-up spotlight. Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt filled their prescriptions at C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries at 6th Avenue and 9th Street. Rudy’s Bar & Grill in Hell’s Kitchen offered Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner a safe haven to share a drink together before their relationship was thrust into the public eye.

Joyce Theater, at Eight Avenue and 19th Street, is one of the world's greatest modern dance institutions. It has been in business since 1982.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Pershing Square, located at Park Avenue and East 42nd Street.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Ed Sullivan Theater, at Broadway near West 53rd Street, broadcast The Beatles' first U.S. performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964. A new era of music and media was ushered in as 73 million viewers watched the rock and roll phenomenon perform on television.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Roxy Delicatessen, at the heart of Times Square on Broadway near West 47th Street, has been in business since 1946. Known for its huge sandwiches and famous cheesecake, its walls are filled with Ben Burgaff's unique celebrity caricatures.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Metro Diner, at Broadway and West 100th Street, is a family-owned diner located on the ground floor of a historic three-story wooden clapboard building built in 1871. It has been in business since 1993.

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Lenox Lounge, at Lenox Avenue near East 125th Street, was founded in 1939 by the Greco family. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis performed in the popular bar, and it was a gathering space for cultural and political luminaries such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X..

Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Images courtesy Gingko Press/ James and Karla Murray

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