Tracking the “mousetrap” of Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village’s charm lies in its refusal to conform to the city street grid. Who doesn’t get a kick out of former country lanes and cart paths that are now city streets, which intersect and dead-end into each other at strange angles?

This charming confusion confounded New Yorkers in the late 19th century as well, decades after the Greenwich Village of estates and farms was subsumed into the cityscape.

It led one early 20th century New York historian-author to name a section of the Village the “Mousetrap.”

“Some streets are like pages of history, and none more so than those of Greenwich Village; so it is quite a delight to walk among them,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in his 1905 book, When Old New York Was Young.

“Whenever I do so I am sure to end up in one particular spot. It is a part that I have christened the “mouse-trap”—a labyrinth of quiet, narrow streets.”

 

“It is curious to note the different ways in which the streets of the ‘mouse-trap’ disappear. Sometimes they end abruptly in a court; sometimes they twist out of sight around a row of houses against which they are brought to a sudden halt; sometimes they slip into another street and become one with it; sometimes they are cut short by little open spaces which are called parks, and which in are a few decaying trees.”

The main street of the mousetrap, according to Hemstreet, is Bleecker. While Bleecker does in fact end at a park (Abington Square Park), today’s version of Bleecker doesn’t have that twists and stops it may have had in Hemstreet’s day.

Instead we’re left with mousetrap-like streets such as West Fourth, which oddly intersects with West 10th, 11th, and 12th Streets. Greenwich Street meanders nowhere near Greenwich Avenue. Hidden alleys like Milligan Place and Grove Court add to the confusion.

I’ve found only one contemporary reference to the Greenwich Village mousetrap. In a 1996 New York Times article about traffic issues in the Village, Andrew Jacobs quotes residents who call the triangular intersection of Christopher, Grove, and Waverly Streets as the “mousetrap.”

[Top image: Taunton’s Pocket Edition map, 1879/NYPL; second image: Washington Place at Grove and West Fourth Streets, MCNY x2010.7.1.6719; third image: West 12th Street at Greenwich Avenue, MCNY c 2010.18.222; fourth image: Milligan Place, MCNY 89.2.1.62]

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12 Responses to “Tracking the “mousetrap” of Greenwich Village”

  1. cb Says:

    Our annual visit to the Village always includes a lengthy stay at the Washington Square Hotel on Waverly Place, across from the park. Wandering these streets is my favorite part…apparently have been caught in the Mousetrap many times and never knew it! Great article and old photos.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! As a local, I can say I’ve never been caught in the Mousetrap, but I like the idea of it and Hemstreet’s writing.

  2. Mykole Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Oh, those Greenwich Village streets, whew! When I was a kid in the early 1960s used to cut out of school and get lost in that helter-skelter miasma of twisted streets leading somewhere but who knows where… And I loved it! Followed by more cut school days. Greenwich Village was a fascination back then. How did it change?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I guess everyone decided they loved the helter-skelter streets too, and wanted to live there, and now St. Vincent’s is a coop.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    Another engrossing post. And thank you for the link to ‘When Old New York was Young’. I’m enjoying it immensely. You have introduced readers to so many interesting books I, at least, would never have heard of.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! Hemstreet wrote several books about old New York, and I’m always uncovering fascinating nuggets in them.

  4. Kevin Says:

    And theres the old Northern Dispensary on the right in the pic. I remember when it was a dental clinic in the 70s. I spent many hours in those chairs. Such a beautiful intersection, even now.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Interestingly, the map gives a source date of 1879. Are those elevated train lines it shows? (No subways were built until 1904.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yep, they have the elevated lines up there. What I like is that they list the names of the competing companies who built those lines!

  6. John Miller Says:

    I had the experiences of getting caught in the street mazes of the Village. I thought it was just my poor sense of directions. At least now I can tell my family that, “No, I am not a candidate for a retirement home,” something the family talks about frequently these days.

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