Posts Tagged ‘alleys of New York City’

This alley was once an exclusive New York street

September 18, 2017

These days, it’s a dark, narrow footpath between Laight and Beach Streets in Tribeca, with Belgian block paving yet no streetlights or street signs telling you where exactly you are.

But in the 19th century, this was St. John’s Lane, a rich and fashionable residential street that faced the back of St. John’s Chapel (below) on adjacent Varick Street.

Completed in 1807, St. John’s Chapel and nearby St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, as it was supposed to be called originally) were the centerpieces of the booming city’s new St. John’s Park neighborhood.

By the 1820s, what was once a swampy area called Lispenard’s Meadows in colonial times had become a posh, genteel English-style enclave for Knickerbocker merchants and other well-heeled professionals whose fortunes rose in the first half of the 19th century.

Trinity Church owned the land, and church officials sold lots surrounding the private park to upscale buyers. (They tried to rent them at first, but New York’s wealthy didn’t like that arrangement.)

Those buyers in turn built Georgian-style row houses surrounding the park and chapel. They also fenced in the park and planted beautiful gardens.

“Catalpas and cottonwoods, horse chestnut and silver birch trees were planted throughout, and gravel paths wound among them and the ornamental shrubs and flower beds,” wrote Charles Lockwood in Manhattan Moves Uptown.

St. John’s Park had a well-deserved reputation as a polite and refined neighborhood with a peaceful green space. But its standing changed when Cornelius Vanderbilt put down railroad tracks on one side of the park. In the late 1860s, Trinity Church sold the park to Vanderbilt, who built a railroad station where once were flowers and trees.

The rich left, and their homes became boarding houses and tenements. Commercial enterprises and poorer New Yorkers moved in.

St. John’s Lane still survives in a once-again-posh Tribeca, unmarked and unknown. A plaque at Albert Capsouto Park on Canal Street recalls St. John’s Park as well.

The gorgeous chapel itself hung on until 1918, when it was bulldozed. You can still see images of it at the Canal Street 1 train station, where it’s memorialized on the subway mosaics opposite the platform.

[Second image: unknown; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

A haunted speakeasy in a Greenwich Village alley

April 29, 2013

12gaystreetJimmywalkerCrooked little Gay Street looks like the perfect place to open a speakeasy.

So it’s hardly a surprise to learn that one existed here in the 1920s.

Called the Pirate’s Den, the illegal bar was run out of number 12, a Federal-style house built in 1827—back when Gay Street was just a slender stable alley in up-and-coming Greenwich Village.

See the metal arch placed in front of the building? It supposedly marked the bar’s basement entrance.

Gaystreet1894Located near other Village speakeasies, such as Julius’ on West 10th Street and the Red Head on Sixth Avenue, the Pirate’s Den was more of a tourist trap than a place for locals.

“[It featured] clanking chains, clashing cutlasses, ship’s lanterns, and patch-eyed buccaneer waiters,” writes George Chauncey in his book Gay New York.

Twelve Gay Street isn’t only known for its liquor joint rep. After the Pirate’s Den closed down, Mayor Jimmy Walker, a notorious partier and playboy, moved his showgirl mistress here, turning the house into kind of a second Mayoral home.

Could he be the mysterious figure in a top hat and tails, dubbed the Gay Street Phantom, who is said to creep around the stairs at night?

“The historic Gay St. property, on the corner of Waverly Place, is rumored to be inhabited by a restless spirit who walks the creaking floorboards at night,” states a 2009 New York Daily News article.

[Top photo: Streeteasy; bottom, NYPL Digital Gallery]

Tracking defunct Fitzroy Road through Chelsea

July 2, 2012

Most of the city is rectangular now, but New York used to be crossed by bending roads that followed the natural landscape.

Few survived after the street grid was established in 1811.

That includes Fitzroy Road, named for Charles Fitzroy, a British lieutenant who married the daughter of local landowner Sir Peter Warren.

Fitzroy Road, closed in the 1830s, once led from Greenwich Village to Chelsea and then met with Bloomingdale Road.

A 1920 New York Times article says it began on today’s 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

From there, it ran north to 20th Street, where it turned northwest across present-day Eighth Avenue, then back along Eighth Avenue to 23rd Street. That’s where it started veering back and forth from the east to west side of Eighth Avenue until 42nd Street.

At first, it doesn’t seem like any remnant of Fitzroy Road survives. But the same 1920 Times article notes that up until a few years ago—meaning the early 1900s—some vestiges existed.

And perhaps they still do. There’s an unnamed alley running in interrupted spurts between pre-1900 buildings from 15th Street (below, inaccessible thanks to a door and brick wall) and 21st Street (above, behind a gate) just east of Eighth Avenue.

Could these alleys be pieces of former horse paths—or perhaps they’re the last bits of colonial-era Fitzroy Road?

What life was like in squalid “Blind Man’s Alley”

June 28, 2012

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]

Is Sylvan Court the tiniest alley in Manhattan?

October 10, 2009

Unpaved and demapped, little Sylvan Court is a half-block blind alley off 121st Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. It’s an extension of equally obscure Sylvan Place, which runs from 120th to 121st.

Sylvancourt

The two-story houses on Sylvan Court were probably used as stables in the late 1800s, when Harlem was more of a sleepy village than the expansive urban neighborhood it would become by the early 20th century.

Sylvancourtcloseup

The homes aren’t in the greatest shape; the alleys of the West Village and Brooklyn Heights feature similar carriage houses that have been lovingly restored, not left to the elements. But they sure are charming. Unlike other alleys and mews in the five boroughs, they don’t have landmark protection.

Sylvan Court shouldn’t be confused with Sylvan Terrace—a better-restored mews dozens of blocks northwest.