Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Radio Row

I read this interview with Richard Matthews of Leeds Radio and I read the following sentence: "In New York I don't think I have any competition, all the Radio Row stores are closed, all the electronic stores on 45th Street are gone."  I thought Radio Row? Was that a real place?  Yes it was.  the most famous was the one in Manhattan. It was a warehouse district on the Lower West Side of Manhattan centered around Cortlandt Street. This wasn't just a couple shops, a report from the 1961 by the New York City Planning Commission estimated that there were 800 businesses in the area. In the book The Battery by Henry Schlesinger described it this way.
"...an area of a few blocks flooded with war surplus equipment, the overflow from the dusty boxes spilling out onto the sidewalk in bulging cardboard boxes. Hobbyists would scrounge the boxes brimming and bulging with old tubes, dials, transformers, and equipment with serious looking faceplates, mysterious dials, and toggle switches."
The famous New York radio row wasn't the only one. There was another in Chicago which was home to WBKB-TV and the Chicago Radio Club and a Naval radio School. That sprung up in about 1940. The image below is from a Billboard article in 1945 centered around the clustering of KUTA-AM, KUTA-FM, KDYL-AM, KSL-AM and KLO-AM. But there was another in Hollywood, CA. It was centered around the KECA Playhouse on North Highland Avenue at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard. Programs for both KECA-TV and 790 KECA-AM were produced there. the building was formerly known as the Hollywood Playhouse and was operated independently by Earl C. Anthony.
Radio Row in New York was started by a man named Harry Schneck. He opened a shop named City Radio on Cortlandt Street in 1921.By all reports this was the first electronic store in the neighborhood.  Later that year Charles Avnet, founded another early  electronics distributor focused on ham radio. While that little store folded in the great depression he alter incorporated Avnet, Inc. and though he passed on the company continues to work in aviation today.  City Radio was torn down in 1966 to make room for the construction of the World trade center. While there were no longer the 800 businesses in the neighborhood, there were still 530. As construction loomed most stored just closed with no plans for relocation.  More here.

The words "radio row" came into use quickly I found usage in 1922 and 1924 in some sales literature. The New York Times made an early reference to "Radio Row" in 1927. In 1929 The magazine Popular Mechanics was using it. By 1930 the New York Commissioner of Health was using the term "radio row" complaining about the noise on Radio Row from loudspeakers.
 The Great depression took out a lot of the 1920s grandeur from the neighborhood. WWII produced a scarcity of goods that also made for lean times. While the end of WWII produced a lot of surplus military electronics, the new generation of sold state hardware was  moving electronics in another direction. Ultimately we can never known how long this neighborhood would have lasted; construction of the World trade Center destroyed it. While some banded together and tried to sue their way out of eminent domain, those appeals were exhausted by 1963. Following demolition, the rubble was used as fill to extend Battery Park.