This little East Village enclave consisted of several small tenement buildings sharing a courtyard on the hard-luck corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street.
Or maybe Paradise Alley was a truly heavenly place to live and work, especially for the painters and writers who made it an unofficial arts colony through the 1960s.
However it ended up with its illustrious name, Paradise Alley has had a long history.
Built in the 1860s, the walk-up buildings here were home to the waves of German, Irish, and then Italian immigrants who settled in a neighborhood known by turns as Mackerelville, Kleindeutschland, and the northern end of the Lower East Side.
The Paradise Alley moniker supposedly came in the 1920s. By then, many artists and writers had moved in, renting rooms along with regular neighborhood folks for $17 to $25 per month.
That wasn’t small change for poor New Yorkers during the Depression. In January 1933, Paradise Alley residents went on a rent strike, insisting on a 25 percent reduction in rent and the mysterious demand of “proper sanitation facilities.”
The strike led to a wild anti-landlord and anti-police riot after the landlord evicted several tenants, all artists or writers, and left their belongings on the sidewalk.
Paradise Alley’s next claim to fame came thanks to Jack Kerouac, who fell in love with Beat poet Alene Lee, a Paradise Alley tenant in the 1950s.
Kerouac wrote a thinly veiled description of the enclave (and moved it to San Francisco) in his 1958 novel The Subterraneans.
Paradise Alley was “a big 20-family tenement of bay windows . . . the wash hung out in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers . . . yelling from stepladders, smells, cats meowing, Mexicans, the music of all the radios . . .” as Kerouac described it.
In the 1960s, Paradise Alley was renovated; 40 families were relocated and rents raised to $80-$135 a month.
The builder hoped it would be a Patchin Place of the East Village. He put in a fountain, gas-lit lamps, and brickface facades. Morgan Freeman and composer David Amram were tenants.
The end came in a 1985 fire. Today, the corner hosts a senior living complex.
Could the 19th century tenement on the other side of the complex’s gate (top photo) be a last fragment of this lost East Village enclave?
Bedford+Bowery has a more in-depth piece from 2013 on Paradise Alley (with terrific photos).
[Second image: Avenue A looking north from 11th Street in 1933, NYC Municipal Archives; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1933; fifth image: a renovated Paradise Alley in 1962, New York Times]
Tags: Alene Lee Beat Poet, David Amram, East Village alleys, East Village gentrification, East Village riots, Jack Kerouac New York City, Morgan Freeman East Village, old alleys New York City, Paradise Alley