Dubin at Work in Old New York

November 7, 2009 in Early Television, Old New York, World War II

When I was researching my television book, I came across a series of articles in The New Yorker, profiling a local grocer named Harry Dubin. What was so unusual about Dubin that in 1947 made him worthy of a ten-page article in The New Yorker? He owned a television set, and the article was all about the author spending an extended period with Dubin and his family as they enjoyed this new electronic miracle.  It was a marvelous story, typical of the magazine, puckishly fun, insightful and slightly condescending. I’ve uploaded a copy here. [It's a long file, so it may take a minute to download - well worth it though].

After I read the piece in 1993, it occurred to me that Dubin was young enough in 1947 to still be alive, so with fingers crossed I looked up his name in the phone book, and lo and behold, he was still living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I picked up the phone and called him. He laughed when I told him I had just read The New Yorker article and was charmed by it, and when I explained to him what I was up to, he eagerly agreed to be interviewed again.

 

A few days later, he greeted me warmly at the door to his apartment and led me into his living room. As I set up my tape recorder, he asked me if I had a copy of the article. I said I did He then asked if he could read it over to refresh his memory before I turned the machine on. Since this wasn’t a quiz, I gladly pulled the article out of my backpack and handed it to him.

“While I read this, you might enjoy taking a look at that,” he said, pointing to a small photo album, embossed with the words “Dubin at Work.”

I picked up the album and opened it, and my eyes nearly jumped out of my head. Inside were some 30 color photographs taken in and around the city in the 1940s. I had never seen such vibrant photos of the city in those years. In fact, I had never seen any color photos of the city in those years, yet here they were. It was such an interesting collection. Each of the pictures depicted a man in uniform intently doing his job, whether it was a street sweeper, gas station attendant or hansom cab driver. When I looked at them twice, I realized something, all of them were Harry!

Needless to say, while our subsequent interview was wonderful, the album left me speechless in delight. These were the most evocative photographs of old New York I had ever seen. Harry explained that all of them were taken by his son Ronald, who was then a teenager, after Harry managed to convince each worker to change clothes with him in an alley and let Harry do his job for a few minutes so the picture could be taken.

Eventually, Harry let me make copies of the album and I brought it to the attention of Jan Seidler Ramirez, an archivist at the Museum of the City of New York in the hope that she might be interested in adding them to the museum’s collection. Well, not only did she jump at them, the photos became a special exhibit at the museum in 1996.

I wrote a short piece about the photos and their provenance for American Heritage. Here’s the article, and here are two of the photos. I’ll keep adding more over the next few weeks, but these two will give you an idea of Harry’s brilliance while affording a view of old New York that you probably never thought still existed. I certainly didn’t.

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Click on the photo to see the full-sized image.

sweeper-againw

Click on the photo for the full-sized image.