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World Trade Center Stirs Memories Of Radio Row

Decades before the World Trade Center was built and tragically destroyed, there existed a little corner of lower Manhattan known to the then fledgling CE trade as Radio Row.

Just as New York City has distinct districts where the garment, fish, financial, flower and meat packing industries ply their trades, so too did CE. Centered around Cortlandt Street — which in today’s topography lies within Ground Zero — Radio Row emerged in the 1930s as the place for hobbyists and repairmen to go for the tubes, condensers, crystals, resistors and other arcane innards that made radios and phonographs work in the pre-transistor world.

“People bought parts in those days,” observed Bob Gerson, founding editor of TWICE. “In the pre-World War II radio days, people built their own radios, and kits were big at the time. And Cortland Street was where you went to buy them.”

Harry Elias knows of kits and Cortlandt Street first hand. At the risk of dating himself, the executive VP/chief operating officer of JVC of America conceded, “I went there for the first crystal set that I built, a five-tube radio. It was a high-traffic area in those days, and a big radio parts center, although some stores sold finished goods too. All of them were next door to each other, and you’d have guys out front hawking their wares. One of the biggest was Hudson Radio; they had parts for everything in electronics.”

Following a wan period in the 1940s, when parts were diverted for the war effort, business exploded with the advent of television and hi-fi audio.

But Radio Row — at least in its original incarnation — was not to last. Within 20 years, after the transistor revolutionized the CE industry and sent tube sets into oblivion, demand for electronics parts faded and Cortlandt Street stalwarts like Harvey, Lafayette and Leonard Radio added finished goods or died. As Gerson recalled, “The parts business began to dry up in the transistor era, and by the late 1960s it was all finished goods down there.”

Alas, this second Radio Row renaissance, which produced such second-generation A/V dealers as J&R Music World, would also be short lived. As industry veteran and CES founder Jack Wayman noted, most of the Cortlandt Street storefronts would, by the mid-1970s, fall victim to the “progression from single stores to local chains to great superstores as product proliferated inside and outside electronics.”

Indeed, the success of such New York metro area chains as Crazy Eddie, Trader Horn, Newmark & Lewis, Tops, Brick Church, P.C. Richard and SaveMart, with their wide selection, sharp pricing and aggressive advertising, marked the beginning of the end for Radio Row.

“They couldn’t compete with the local broad-based retailers,” Wayman said — although most of the regionals themselves would later succumb to market saturation and the onslaught of national chains.

According to Wayman — as well as a recent History Channel documentary on the World Trade Center — bulldozers and wrecking balls sounded the final death knell for Radio Row, as buildings were condemned and city blocks razed to make way for the Twin Towers. “They lost their footprint down there to the Trade Center,” he said.

Today, only Harvey Electronics (founded as Harvey Radio in 1927) and J&R Music World (still at its original lower Manhattan location) continue the tradition that was born amid the tubes and condensers of Cortlandt Street.