If you traveled back in time to the far East Village of the mid-19th century, you would see a neighborhood sustained mainly by one industry: shipbuilding.
Along the East River, thousands of iron workers, mechanics, and dock men—many who were recent Irish and German immigrants—toiled in shipyards and iron works in what was then called the Dry Dock District, east of Avenue B.
Marshlands were filled in, and row houses, shops, and churches (like the recently restored St. Brigid’s on Avenue B) went up for workers and their families.
“In sight and sound of their hammers along the water-front these master workmen and owners built themselves homes,” wrote the New-York Tribune in 1897.
One lovely row was a stretch of Greek Revival–style houses on East Seventh Street (the “Fifth Avenue of the Eleventh Ward,” as the block was called)—between Avenues C and D.
The circa-1840s row was built on “the profits of the sea,” the Tribune stated, describing them as “buildings of fine window casings and door frames and artistic mantels, yet with curious narrow halls and low ceilings . . . both within and without they show themselves to be houses of character.”
Perhaps they were occupied by high-level shipbuilders at first. But as residents of the Dry Dock District gained power and ran for office, the houses acquired a new distinction: “Political Row.”
Political Row “has furnished many office-holders, and there were more office-holders and patriots who are willing to serve the city and county, the State or the country at large, living on that thoroughfare now than on any similar stretch of highway in New York,” stated the Evening World in 1892.
“Electioneering goes on there from one end of the year to the other.”
The beginning of Political Row’s end came at the turn of the century, when many of the original houses went down and tenements built in their place.
Newspapers wrote descriptive eulogies, mourning a neighborhood that was “an American District” now colonized by a second wave of immigrants.
Two score years ago,” wrote the New York Times in 1902, the “streets were then lined with trees covered with luxuriant foliage, and each house had its own green patch of yard.”
“Then Avenue D . . . was a thoroughfare that was made brilliant every Sunday by a promenade of all the youth and fashion of the neighborhood.”
Today, five houses on the south side remain. Their facades have been altered; three sport pastel paint. Wonderful details over doorways and windows maintain their character and harken back to a very different East Village of another era.
The row’s future is in danger; the owners of number 264 (right) have applied for a permit to demolish it.
The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation is rallying to get the house landmark status, so it can’t be torn down.
Read about the GVSHP’s efforts to save the row and preserve a bit of the East Village’s history.
[Fourth image: New York Times headline, 1902; fifth image, Novelty Iron Works, East 12th Street and the East River, 1840s; MCNY 60.122.7]