The Death of New York's Radio Row

BY SYD STEINHARDT

In preparing a shorter version of the following article for the March 5-11, 2002, edition of the Lower Manhattan newspaper "Downtown Express," Syd Steinhardt searched A.R.C.'s Web site. There he found that we had written about Radio Row in the past (July 1990, Sept. 1998, Nov. 2001). Syd then requested permission to use one of our photos. We, in turn, asked for permission to reprint his full article, which gives us a different slant on the history of Radio Row. It is the story of the ruthless takeover of an entire area by big business, which devastated the shopkeepers of Radio Row. (Editor)   They were not killed, but they were the first victims of the World Trade Center.


From the corner of Greenwich St. and Cortlandt, Leonard Radio,
mngd by Herb Simonoff can be seen on the far side of the street.

They are the former inhabitants of Radio Row. The entire World Trade Center complex sits on their land, land that once teemed with family-owned businesses, some stretching back generations. Once, the area was a thriving, 13-block warren of mom-and-pop electronics shops, restaurants, furniture stores, florists, jewelers, printers and other commercial enterprises. Roughly bounded by Liberty, Church, West and Barclay Streets, the neighborhood was leveled in the mid-1960s to make way for the center.

Some of the names are still remembered fondly by stereophiles, music enthusiasts, hobbyists and New York history buffs. Reminiscences pop up on the Internet and serve to keep the memory of those long-lost stores alive. The circulating chats remember Arrow Radio or Heins & Bolet or Digby Auction. Or Merns, a discount clothier whose founder, Seymour Merns, later became better known as Sy Syms.

The World Trade Center did more than destroy a neighborhood. It destroyed what one merchant called "a small village."

The Way It Was

Radio Row had been the hub of the electronics industry in New York since the 1920s. When it died, its remnants scattered to other areas of Manhattan, another unique slice of New York's heritage perished, too.

"People came from everywhere to buy electronics (there)," said Vickie Ploscowe. As a young woman, Ploscowe would accompany her father, window designer Manny Barsky, on his neighborhood rounds. "All the guys selling knew what they were talking about."

So did the customers.

"There was a camaraderie to the guys who loved this stuff," she said. "You could go down and talk about the latest and greatest."

Radio Row's popularity peaked in the 1950s. Its proximity to the New Jersey ferry docks and the financial district, combined with the advent of new consumer electronics goods and postwar demand, attracted floods of shoppers to the area every day except Sunday. To service their customers, stores opened at 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and closed late on Saturdays.

Familiarity and loyalty served as cornerstones for the success of many of the stores. "An employee worked for his boss for 20 years," said Herb Simonoff, who managed Leonard Radio at 65 Cortlandt St. "Our men were technically-oriented, not just clerks."

Radio Row was not a neat and pretty sight. Block upon block over 300 street level stores, with over three times as many enterprises in the floors above them were jammed into 20- to 25-foot storefronts, up and down streets such as Albany, Carlisle, Greenwich and Liberty. Their shelves and floor spaces were packed with vacuum tubes, condensers, transistors and other high-tech bric-a-brac for ham radio enthusiasts and do-it-yourselfers. It was, as the New York Times called it in 1950, "a paradise for electronic tinkerers."

Storefront windows were crammed with goods from top to bottom. Every product bore a card that listed its name, serial number, manufacturer and price. Most of these cards were hand-painted in red and orange tempera and India ink by Mannie Barsky.

The postwar boom brought consumer electronics such as stereos, big television sets, portable shortwave radios and the latest hi-fi equipment into the stores. Surplus electronic material, hoarded by the government during the war years for communications, was added to some inventories and sold at what one former customer called "junk prices."

Audiophiles flocked to the area to find that one needed part or that latest gadget. The narrow streets of lower New York were dense with pedestrians and the huge cars of the era vying for space. Some entrepreneurs added to the crush by displaying their wares on the street.

By the 1950s, Radio Row was "loaded with surplus parts," said restauranteur David MacInnes. "They would bring it out in the streets. You could buy anything. Sheet metal. Brass. For people to make things."

One baby boomer still has the tuning fork oscillator that he bought at Leeds Radio in the 1960s. Now the owner of Tekserve, a Silicon Valley computer retail and repair shop, David Lerner recalled going down to Radio Row to buy supplies for WBAI, the radio station where he worked as a teenager. He remembered the stores as having their own niches. "Some had used and surplus equipment," he said. "Others were parts stores. Others had large laboratory instruments."

What the area may have lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in vitality. In June 1965, local businessman Oscar Nadel told the House of Representatives' Select Committee on Small Business that 10 percent of the radio, television, stereo and hi-fi sets sold by American manufacturers were sold to retailers in the area.

This success owed as much to the knowledge and experience of the salesmen and they were all men as it did to the unique franchise agreements that manufacturers made with retailers. This unwritten compact, technically illegal, fostered a spirit of camaraderie and community among the businesses.

"If [a customer] needed something [a merchant] didn't carry, the merchant would go to another one to get it for his customer," said Ronnie Nadel, a former consumer electronics wholesale executive and Oscar Nadel's nephew. That way, he said, each merchant retained his customer while maintaining an incentive for his neighbor to stay in business.

This culture, which might be described as competitive coexistence, was further strengthened by the segregation of specialties. The "brown goods" stores stocked radios, stereos, hi-fis and televisions. The "white goods" stores sold washers, dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators.

One place where everyone gathered was MacInnes' Restaurant, a mainstay of Radio Row since 1919. David MacInnes ran the place with his mother, Sarah, from the time of his father's death in 1938.

"It was a beautiful place, with a mahogany bar and beveled glass," said his daughter, Janet Webb. "It was an Irish bar with a Scottish theme." To her father, it was nothing special, just a 25- by 40-foot restaurant and bar. When asked about the cuisine, he laughed derisively. "You say cuisine. We didn't have cuisine. We had plain old food."

The restaurant was on the bottom floor of a six-story building with a freight elevator. His first upstairs tenants were people who manufactured radios "before it became big time," he said. "Those people were in the forefront of the technology of the day." Later, MacInnes leased the loft space to his neighbor, Leonard Levy, who stored parts and merchandise there for his store, Leonard Radio.

Levy built a thriving business that Herb Simonoff and his wife, the former Margaret Levy, eventually took over in the early 1960s. In time, the couple opened more Leonard Radio stores in the New York area. Yet, the circumstances of the flagship store's forced closing are still so painful to Margaret that she refuses to speak about it to this day.

Her husband burns with barely suppressed rage nearly 40 years later. "People's lives were turned around for reasons not of their own doing," he said.

Lower Manhattan Makeover

The plans for the World Trade Center, first hatched by Chase Manhattan Bank Chairman David Rockefeller in 1958, rocked the enclave. Earlier that year, Rockefeller formed the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association (DLMA), comprised of the leading business figures of the day. Its stated mission was to make over Lower Manhattan as a world center of international commerce, finance and maritime trade. He personally started such an initiative with the erection of the 66-story One Chase Plaza in 1956. The grand scheme envisioned a world trade center on the site of the Fulton Fish Market.

Over the next few years, the site shifted to the Lower West Side, as it was then known, to accommodate the state of New Jersey. To bring newly elected Gov. Richard J. Hughes on board in 1961, the Port Authority of New York and New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, David's brother, struck a deal with Hughes and his predecessor, Robert Meyner. The deal linked the construction of the Center to the Port Authority's takeover of the bankrupt Hudson & Manhattan Railroad.

In addition, container ports were built at the Port of Newark-Elizabeth, New Jersey, sealing the fate of New York City as an international shipping port. That irony, compounded by the obliteration of the existing piers by the landfill that would be created by the construction's excavation, seems to have been lost on everyone at the time.

Renaming the commuter rail line the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, the Port Authority rerouted one of its tubes into the site of the new center. That action created the "public purpose" that justified the eminent domain proceedings against the businesses and residents that stood on the 564-acre site.


The East Radio Store at 76 Cortlandt Street was closed by owner
Irving Jaffe after over 50 years on Radio Row. (Yonker Photo)

The Battle

The Radio Row merchants steeled themselves for the titanic battle to come. In 1959, they formed the Downtown West Businessmen's Association (DWBA). Its original purpose, ironically, was to promote their area as Electronic City with the enthusiastic support of Rockefeller's DLMA. As the site of the proposed World Trade Center complex moved across town, the association's mission became that of preserving Radio Row by defeating the redevelopment plans.

Led by Oscar Nadel of Oscar's Radio Shop at 63 Cortlandt St., the DWBA fought the condemnation proceedings until they exhausted all legal avenues in July 1966. Along the way, they engaged in street theater that caught the attention of the local and national media. They carted coffins down Cortlandt Street to demonstrate the death of the small businessman. Their families demonstrated outside Gov. Rockefeller's New York City office. In January 1964, they traipsed up to New Hampshire to heckle Rockefeller as he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination.

Despite the legal defeats and the public indifference, Nadel refused to surrender. When the PA offered a bonus of three months' rent to those stores that moved out by Feb. 28, 1966, 32 business owners accepted the buyout. One of them was the DWBA's executive director, Barry Ray. His Bal Tea and Coffee Shop was unfortunately located in one of the Hudson & Manhattan Terminal Buildings, two of the first properties that the Port Authority took over and demolished. "They've knocked out 32 of us, but we still have nearly 200 left," a defiant Nadel told The New York Times the next day. "If they want to evict us, let them try it."

It was already too late. With the backing of the courts, the governors and legislatures of New York and New Jersey, an unaccountable public authority, and the Manhattan commercial interests, the World Trade Center was an accomplished fact. The demolitions started on March 26, 1966. By then, the remnants of Radio Row had been dispersed so successfully that the Port Authority could justifiably claim that a new Radio Row was developing on West 45th Street.

Over 300 businesses, employing 30,000 people and directly providing the livelihood for as many as 120,000 more, were destroyed.

"They never had a chance," said Ronnie Nadel.

The Aftermath of the Battle

Many of the merchants closed shop, never to reopen. Some relocated. Others went to work for someone else, while others simply retired. "A lot of them passed away from the stress," said MacInnes.

Simonoff believes that Oscar Nadel was one of them. "Oscar died a broken man," he said. "There were a lot of broken men."

Morton Brody is one of those who had to relocate. His store, Morel Electronics, stood at 185 Washington St. since 1950. "Some (merchants) went over to Chambers Street," he said. "I ended up on West Broadway." There he remained until he retired in 1982. His wife and partner, Jacqueline, died in 1998. Now 80 and in ill health, Brody is still bitter about the Port Authority. "They threw out private enterprise," he said.

Public entities replaced it. In January 1964, receiving no interest from potential tenants, Gov. Rockefeller announced that 33 state agencies and departments would occupy space in the as-yet unbuilt Trade Center.

In July 1965, the Port Authority said that 75 percent of the space in the proposed Center was "reserved, committed or under active negotiation." Since 60 percent of the space was already taken by governmental agencies, the statement really meant that only 1.5 million of the 10 million square feet of space 15 percent of the total was actually under serious consideration.

Citing a recent program on the World Trade Center broadcast by The History Channel, a cable network, Brody disputed the Port Authority's assertion that it paid full compensation to the evicted shopkeepers. "They didn't," he said. "They only paid for moving." He received $3,000, the maximum provided by the Port Authority as a moving allowance.

Rather than start anew, Irving Jaffe simply closed the doors of his store, East Radio, which he started at 74 Cortlandt St. in 1933. He went to work for another electronics retailer and never recovered from the ordeal of losing his business. For years afterward, "he was despondent," said his daughter Barbara, a New York photographer.

During the boom years of the 1950s, MacInnes had opened another restaurant, on Seventh Avenue across from Macy's. Having sold it in 1965, he had to move from his original Cortlandt Street location when the Port Authority came to evict him in the early spring of 1967. With the customers who braved the trenches, the bulldozers and the jackhammers to partake of his plain old food, MacInnes relocated to 33 Cortlandt St. that May. "I put on a tam o'shanter, hired a bagpiper, and led a parade of customers and opened up the bar," he said. Despite the auspicious opening, he closed after a year.

Janet Webb is still angry about her father's ordeal. "We were all getting to be about college age," she said of herself, her brother and her two sisters, "and they took his livelihood away."

Faced with that loss, he and his wife, Virginia, went into the real estate business. They started Terrace Realty in Forest Hills in 1968 and built it into a successful brokerage before retiring for good in 1985. Their daughter and son-in-law, Susanna and Robert Hof, now run the brokerage.

Herbert and Margaret Simonoff closed the last of their remaining New York-area Leonard Radio outlets in 1990 and retired to the South. Though still angry over the forced loss of his original store and of Radio Row, Simonoff still remembers the area and the era fondly.

"It was a time and a way of life that can never happen again," he said.
© Syd Steinhardt. All Rights reserved.
Photos: Francis H. Yonker.
Syd Steinhardt is a New York-based freelance writer.