Of all the wretched courtyards and alleyways of late 19th century Manhattan, few sound as bad as the little nook known as Blind Man’s Alley.
Located at 26 Cherry Street, Blind Man’s Alley was so squalid, it made it into 1890’s How the Other Half Lives, by social reformer Jacob Riis:
“Few glad noises make this old alley ring. Morning and evening it echoes with the gentle, groping tap of the blind man’s staff as he feels his way to the street.
“Blind Man’s Alley bears its name for a reason. Until little more than a year ago its dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy….”
Murphy made a fortune off rents, and he battled a health department mandate that he clean things up and make the alley more hygienic. [Above: photo by Riis inside one of the tenements]
“Sunless and joyless though it be, Blind Man’s Alley has that which its compeers of the slums vainly yearn for. It has a pay-day,” continues Riis.
“In June, when the Superintendent of Out-door Poor distributes the twenty thousand dollars annually allowed the poor blind by the city, in half-hearted recognition of its failure to otherwise provide for them, Blindman’s Alley takes a day off and goes to ‘see’ Mr. Blake.
“That night it is noisy with unwonted merriment. There is scraping of squeaky fiddles in the dark rooms, and cracked old voices sing long-for-gotten songs. Even the blind landlord rejoices, for much of the money goes into his coffers.”
[Right: Sketch of Cherry Street, where Blind Man’s Alley is located, from the NYPL Digital Collection]