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The History of "Radio Row," NYC's First Electronics District: Gothamist

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The History of "Radio Row," NYC's First Electronics District

by Jordan Simon in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 25, 2016 9:56 am


A portion of Radio Row. (Photo by Bernice Abbott/NYPL)

Before the World Trade Center complex was erected, the location where it stands was once home to a thriving business district known by locals as Radio Row (not to be confused with Music Row).

Radio Row earned its nickname for its abundance of retailers who specialized in radios and electronics. The famed hub spanned several blocks of electronic stores along Liberty, West, Church and Barclay Streets; Cortlandt Street remained its central focal point. Its origins can be traced back to 1921, when Harry L. Schneck opened up City Radio, a humble and homegrown mom-and-pop store nestled comfortably on Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan. At the time, radio was still an emerging technological field, and there was some skepticism about how useful it would be.

"Radio was a novelty. Most people were intimidated by it," Bill Schneck, Harry's son, recalled in a podcast interview with Radio Diaries. "The idea of information coming through the air through the ether was something that was one step away from black magic." The rise of broadcasting in the 1920s coincided with the district's burgeoning popularity among tech-junkies, and as the decade wore on, more radio shops popped up along the bustling electronic district: Metro Radio, Arrow Radio, Digby Auction, Fox Radio, Publix Radio, Leotone Radio, Oscar's Radios. Despite its nickname, “Radio Row” didn’t exclusively sell radios: there were restaurants, clothing shops, hardware stores, jewelry retailers, as well as occasional auctions tailor made for the highest bidder.

While the exact number of electronic stores located on Radio Row varies, it's clear that business was booming. According to The New York Times, Radio Row bustled with approximately 325 store-level businesses and 1,000 above street-level businesses, as well as 30,000 employees.


Radio Row, 1930s. (Courtesy of the NYPL)

Radio Row's streets overflowed with radio merchandise of all kinds, and storefront windows that lined the six-square-block area around Cortlandt Street were filled to the brim with knobs, tubes and antennas. Stereo-philes, news junkies and merchants of all kind hobnobbed and contributed to the district’s communal vibe.

The New York Times first acknowledged Radio Row in a 1927 article when the publication announced plans for a celebration called the “Radio Jubilee” to take place along Cortlandt Street for the fall season.

In an excerpt from his book, Meyer Berger’s New York, famed journalist Meyer Berger waxes nostalgic about his time frequenting the once-famed hub. “On Saturday morning, I used to venture from Brooklyn with my father to Radio Row,” he recalled. “My younger brothers went there with him in search of television components. Radio Row was a piece of all our interior maps.”

The advent of World War II resulted in Radio’s Row temporary decline. The rationing and shortages brought on by wartime, as well as the overall lack of electronics, caused a brief economic downturn for the thriving hub. But the rise of FM radio and television reinvigorated revenue along Radio Row.

As the 1950s settled in, television became the new normal in many households, and shops that specialized in television products moved onto Radio Row. That, along with postwar demand for consumer products, propelled Radio Row to its peak in the 1950s. Most stores opened bright an early at 7 a.m., and didn't close their doors until 12 hours later.

In the end, the teeming electronics hub was felled by development, as the Port Authority's plans to erect the World Trade Center on the West Side resulted in the eviction, through eminent domain, of many businesses along Radio Row. According to The New York Times, when faced with the threat of eviction and imminent demolition, local business owners filed a lawsuit in June 1962 to prevent the development of the World Trade Center. While they failed to prevent the first phase of the project from taking place, the patrons and merchants of Radio Row were steadfast in their determination to keep their businesses standing.

Protests continued through 1962, when a slew of demonstrators march along Cortlandt, Dey and Liberty Streets in a mock funeral procession. In a solemn show of solidarity, owners carried a black draped funeral coffin that contained the life-size figure of a man named "Mr. Small Businessman."

Despite numerous protests and lawsuits, construction of the World Trade Center commenced in August 1966, resulting in the relocation and eventual eradication of many shops situated along New York City's widely forgotten first electronic district.

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