A short history of short Elk Street near City Hall

As one of New York City’s oldest sections, Downtown is a minefield of cut-off and leftover streets, of demapped alleys and oddly placed thoroughfares that have no place in the modern city street grid.

Case in point is Elk Street. It’s about as short as its name, stretching just two blocks from Chambers Street to Duane Street, anchored on the southern end by the 1907 Surrogate’s Court building.

Yards later it ends east of the African Burial Ground, where free and enslaved black New Yorkers were buried from the 1690s to 1794.

Since there’s no record of elk roaming around what would have been the outskirts of the colonial city, how did this little spit of land get its name?

Elk is actually the last remaining stretch of Elm Street, which once ran from Chambers Street all the way to Spring Street.

When the city decided to enlarge Lafayette Street and make it a bigger north-south thoroughfare in the early 1900s, they incorporated the existing roadway of Elm Street and another now-defunct street, Marion Street.

So why Elk, not Elm? The current name is a nod to the first Elks Lodge, which was organized in 1866 at a rooming house at 188 Elm Street farther north. (At right, Elm between Grand and Broome Streets, 1900)

The first Elks Lodge was a group of “15 actors, members of an informal drinking association called the ‘Jolly Corks'” and “formed to circumvent the state’s Sunday dry laws,” explains a New York Times FYI article from 1998. “It was the golden age of American fraternal orders, and the Elks’ declared purpose was the practice of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity.”

The Elks went national, and in 1939, Mayor La Guardia, himself an Elk, decided to rename Elm in honor of the lodge to which he belonged.

[Fourth and fifth images: NYPL]

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10 Responses to “A short history of short Elk Street near City Hall”

  1. Zoe Says:

    Yet another interesting post Ephemeral.

    What is going on in the fourth photo? (The one following the map). Road construction (destruction) debris?… Trash & horse droppings after winter snow & ice melted? (I am only half joking. I learned about that in the brilliant ‘Trash’ exhibit at the Fifth Avenue Public in the 90s. Apparently quite a lot of everything was found in the roads after melts). I can’t understand what that is a photo of…

  2. Dymoon Says:

    always interesting.. thank YOU

  3. David Lippman Says:

    This street had an alley next to it called “Manhattan Alley,” which connected to another alley called “Republican Alley,” both of which are now covered by the African-American Burial Ground National Historic Site, which was unearthed during construction there.

    • Zoe Says:

      Does anyone know why it was called Republican Alley? (Beside the fact that it was literally built over the graves of black Americans).

      • David Lippman Says:

        I think it refers to the American Republic, not the political party…I’ll have to look in my copy of “The Street Book,” which gives the history of every Manhattan street name, which is upstairs.

      • Zoe Says:

        Re. “American Republic”. I thought that also David. But I was thinking that perhaps there was some kind of monument or event there; put there later for a centennial or when we received the Statue of Liberty from the French etc. Now I am wondering when the last burials were in the African burial ground.

        Don’t knock yourself out answering my many questions! I’ll look online for some of this 🙂

      • David Lippman Says:

        Let me get back to you….I’m intrigued myself. But the street pre-dates public awareness of the burial ground.

      • Zoe Says:

        *Another thought: Could it refer to the African burial ground there; re. the Union fight against slavery & restoration/celebration of the ‘Republic’? Just guessing… How great that you have that book David! What is the title (& publ. date/age)?

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