Posts Tagged ‘East Village history’

The tiny historic district on an East Village block

March 29, 2021

From its Dutch colonial beginning as Peter Stuyvesant’s bouwerie to its later incarnation as a haven for immigrants and artists, the East Village is steeped in history.

Several historic districts acknowledge this rich backstory. But one of the most overlooked is the East 10th Street Historic District, perhaps because it’s so small. The entire district is merely a one-block stretch of 26 row houses and tenements that got its start when Tompkins Square, just across the street, was in the idea stage.

The beginning of East 10th Street goes back to the 1820s, when the heirs of Peter Stuyvesant, former governor-general of New Amsterdam, started selling off parcels of land from his estate.

The growing city of New York at that time was pushing its boundaries beyond Houston Street, and fine row houses for the wealthy were going up on Bond Street, Lafayette Street, and the newly created St. Marks Place.

In 1833, the Stuyvesant descendants sold all the lots on East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to a respected residential developer named Thomas E. Davis—the man who turned St. Marks Place into a stylish enclave, according to the East 10th Street Historic District Designation Report. (Below, an 1833 map with St. Marks Street already on it, while East 10th Street is undeveloped.)

“It was a savvy business move,” states the report, “for that same year the state legislature passed an act creating a public square just across the street on the blocks between East 7th Street and East 10th Street from Avenues A to B.”

Then and now, building in New York City is never easy. While the city was laying out and fencing in Tompkins Square in the 1830s, Davis was figuring out how to shore up the swampy ground under East 10th Street. (He likely didn’t want the homes that would eventually be built here to suffer the fate of the new houses that went up around the Bowery in the 1820s, which soon began sinking into the ground.)

Finally in the 1840s, with the city recovering from the Panic of 1837, the first houses were finished in this much-anticipated new residential district. Number 301, on the far right in the photo above, was completed in 1844, notes the designation report. Within the decade, several others would go up as well, designed in the popular Italianate style as well as Greek Revival.

The first residents of the row houses, however, may not have been the prominent New Yorkers their designers had hoped for. The report explains that in the 1840s and 1850s they were occupied by a ship joiner, a merchant, a butcher, a Rabbi, and a purveyor of artificial flowers. By this time, the city’s elite were moving northward to Union Square and Gramercy Park.

“The elegant row houses of East 10th Street were built at the beginning of a radical demographic shift in New York City that would swell the city’s population and completely transform entire neighborhoods, including the still-developing area around Tompkins Square,” states the report.

Their time as single-family row houses overlooking a peaceful square was ending. The East 10th Street homes were subdivided into separate apartments in the coming decades of the later 19th century; on the eastern end of the street, tenement-style buildings, like the ones above, would be constructed.

“By 1860 the block on East 10th Street facing Tompkins Square was nearly complete, with almost every lot improved with a substantial brick building that survives to this day,” notes the report. One exception: the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York Public Library, an elegant Classical Revival building designed by McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1904 (below photo, middle).

Through the 20th century, many of the buildings have had facelifts, and demographic changes once again influenced the type of residents living inside them.

East Tenth Street’s development mirrors the development of the neighborhood, and as you walk past these lovely buildings, you can feel that adrenaline rush of potential and possibilities that continues to draw people to the East Village.

[Third image: Hooker’s New Pocket Plan of the City of New York; sixth image: “Tompkins Park, N.Y. City,” Saul Kovner, 1934]

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Bowery Village

October 9, 2017

Stand at Cooper Square looking toward St. Marks Place: this honky-tonk corner in today’s East Village was once the center of a 19th century outpost known as Bowery Village.

Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, Bowery Village sprang up around Petrus Stuyvesant’s estate. (Petrus Stuyvesant was a great-grandson of Peter, the director-general of New Amsterdam in the 17th century.)

It’s hard to imagine the concrete and brick East Village of today as a struggling farming community. The illustration above gives an idea, though it depicts Union Square, where the Bowery (now Fourth Avenue) and Broadway meet.

In the late 1790s, this area was part of a “rugged belt of land, with here and there a garden and a solitary house, to diversify the bareness of the stunted pasture lots with their dilapidated fences,” states an 1864 history of the Bowery Village Methodist Church. This church was a centerpiece of the community and was located at Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues.

Early on, Bowery Village “consisted chiefly of a long unpaved street of struggling houses . . . dreaming little, as  yet, of the Russ pavement and car track,” the church historical document recalled.

After Stuyvesant laid a street grid—while keeping diagonal Stuyvesant Street, which lead from the Bowery to St. Mark’s Church (above right in the 1820s)—people moved in, driven from the city downtown by heat and disease.

“Throughout the 18th century it remained sparsely settled—a few houses plus blacksmith, wagon shop, general store, and tavern—partly from fear of highwaymen lurking in the Bayard Woods,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

Like other villages across Manhattan, Bowery Village functioned as something of a suburb. “Because Bowery Village lay just outside the city limits, farmers could sell there without paying a market tax,” wrote Burrows and Wallace.

“Wagon stands soon flourished along Sixth and Seventh Streets, along with a weigh scale for Westchester hay merchants. Comfortable residences went up along the upper Bowery, still a country road edged with blackberry bushes. . . . “

“Artisan house-and-shops arrived too; so did groggeries, a brothel, and a post office (in truth an oyster house where the postrider left mail for the village). From 1804 the community even had its own (short-lived) newspaper, the Bowery Republican.”

The enclave also had its own graveyard between First and Second Avenues and Eleventh Street, possibly this one, noted on later 19th century maps.

Not much remains of Bowery Village. The city quickly marched northward and subsumed it by the 1850s, as it did Greenwich Village to the west.

One remnant is St. Mark’s Church itself, still on Second Avenue and Tenth Street. Built on Stuyvesant family land, it was consecrated in 1799.

Another survivor is the Stuyvesant Fish House (above left), a wedding present for Stuyvesant’s daughter and her husband, Nicolas Fish (parents of Hamilton Fish, New York governor and senator), at 21 Stuyvesant Street.

This wide Federal-style house was built in 1804, predating Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat.

“Bowery Village’s cohesion appeared to be short-lived,” wrote Kenneth A. Scherzer in The Unbounded Community.

“With the development of the surrounding wards it rapidly broke down, and with the settlement of “newcomers” who replaced the established residents in the late 1830s, Bowery Village ceased to exist in both reality and in name.”

That’s the East Village to this day: a constant push-pull between old timers and newcomers. Find out more about both in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: Ephemeral New York; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post 1819; fifth image: Edward Lamson Henry; fifth and sixth images: Ephemeral New York]

When Second Avenue was known as Lovers’ Lane

November 14, 2013

Does the lower end of Second Avenue, in the East Village, make you feel especially romantic?

SecondavenueloverslaneDidn’t think so. But over 100 years ago, the stretch from 17th Street to Houston Street was considered so scenic and lovely, it was actually known as the “East Side Lovers’ Lane.”

“It is interesting to note that never before has the term ‘Lovers’ Lane’ been given to so wide a thoroughfare as Second Avenue,” wrote The New York Times in 1911, in an article about plans to widen what was then a Polish and Hungarian immigrant par residential, part commercial avenue.

Secondavenueloverslane1868“If Second Avenue is a lovers’ lane, doubtless  the removal of the sidewalk encroachments would furnish more room for happy couples to promenade and contribute to its gayety.”

New York has had several Lover’s Lanes: Maiden Lane may have been one in Dutch colonial days; Central Park and Riverside Park also had tree-lined paths designated for couples. And Brooklyn Heights’ Love Lane has a sweet story behind it.

But back to Second Avenue. In 1942, a neighborhood group led by a minister called on the city to make Second Avenue a lovers’ lane again by planting trees.

Secondavenueloverslane2013The minister “hastened to add that he was looking for civic improvement, not for a new trysting place,” another Times article noted.

Trees were brought in, but it doesn’t seem like the lovey-dovey vibe caught on ever again.

[Middle image: Second Avenue at 11th Street in 1868; from the NYPL. Bottom: Second Avenue looking south from 14th Street]

A secret house behind an East Village tenement

December 10, 2012

AvenuebbackhousesideThe city’s oldest neighborhoods are dotted with backhouses, some easily seen from the street through a crack in a fence or tiny alley.

But most are out of sight, sealed from street view and reachable only through surrounding buildings—like this two-story little home behind 206 Avenue B between 12th and 13th Streets.

A 30-year resident of 206, an old-school tenement constructed in 1900, describes the back house as a former carriage house.

That’s certainly possible; as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation explains in their excellent Off the Grid blog post, some backhouses started out as stables.

“In these cases, a single family house was built, typically in the early 19th century, with a stable for the family’s horses located behind, accessible through either a side passageway or a tunnel or ‘horsewalk‘ through the house.”


Other times, backhouses were simply cheap buildings put up in courtyards so landlords could pack in more families and score more rent.

“Thus sometimes these backhouses had windows with little light or air, as they were often mere feet from the walls or windows of the front house or tenement or neighboring buildings,” states Off the Grid.

AvenuebbackhousedistantI’m not sure how the ivy-covered back house at 206 Avenue B came to be.

Considering the East Village’s history as a rough, crowded enclave of wave after wave of poor immigrants, it’s likely an example of the latter.

Off the Grid has more photos and history of these charming, sometimes rough-around-the-edges buildings.

And like its counterpart at 206 Avenue B, this backhouse in the West Village, unfortunately, has been cordoned off from street view forever.

When Avenue B was the “German Broadway”

June 18, 2012

A lot has been written about the East Village’s late–19th century incarnation as an enclave called Kleindeutschland, aka Little Germany.

Tompkins Square Park was the center of this vibrant neighborhood.

And while “Avenue A was the street for beer halls, oyster saloons, and groceries,” Avenue B was the neighborhood’s commercial artery, known as the “German Broadway.”

“Each basement was a workshop, every first floor was a store, and the partially roofed sidewalks were markets for goods of all sorts,” states  All the Nations Under Heaven: an Ethnic and Racial History of New York City.

I wish some trace of Avenue B’s German past still existed.

Instead, I’ll just imagine the shops that probably occupied the lower level of 45-47 Avenue B, built in 1880.

And I’ll imagine that the Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession in the City of New York still worshiped at this church on Avenue B and 9th Street, built in 1847 and home to the Lutherans since 1863.

The photo, from the NYPL Digital Collection, dates to the 1930s, but the church was torn down in 1975.

East 13th Street’s most famous downed tree

August 29, 2011

Some of the toppled trees caused by so-called Hurricane Irene are impressive. But none will be missed as much as the pear tree that stood on an East Village corner for more than 200 years—before being felled by a winter storm and then an out-of-control wagon.

The story begins in the middle of the 17th century. That’s when New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant went back to his native Holland, returning to the city with a flowering pear tree.

Stuyvesant planted the tree on his Bouwerie, or farm, “as his memorial, ‘by which,’ said he, ‘my name may be remembered,” a nearby plaque reads.

As the tree grew, so did New York. Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street sprouted around it, and the tree remained on that corner until February 1867 (above photo, from the NYPL).

“After a massive winter storm, which had weakened the tree, two drays (low flat carts without sides or with very low sides, used for heavy loads, especially by brewers) collided, one of which was thrown against the tree with sufficient force to send the 200-year-old veteran to the equivalent of its knees,” reports a Villager article from 2005.

“With its demise went one of old New York’s popular sightseeing attractions and perhaps the last living vestige of the Dutch presence in the city.”

“The tree was taken down, but a Stuyvesant descendant gave a cross-section of its trunk to The New-York Historical Society, where it is enclosed in a glass case on the fourth floor.”

Here’s Third Avenue and 13th Street today.

The East Village’s Yiddish Hall of Fame

September 25, 2010

So what’s a Hollywood Walk of Fame–style memorial to Yiddish theater stars of the 19th and early 20th centuries doing in front of a Chase bank branch on Second Avenue and 10th Street?

It was created by the Second Avenue Deli in 1984, which occupied this site for decades until 2006. 

About 30 plaques are embedded in the sidewalk, each bearing the name (or in some cases two names) of some of the biggest celebrities who graced the theaters and vaudeville houses that lined Second Avenue.

There’s a plaque for Abraham Goldfaden (left), billed as the founder of Yiddish theater and the “Yiddish Shakespeare,” according to his 1908 obituary in The New York Times.

Fyvush Finkel, Bruce Adler, and Molly Picon, above right, also have stars. Many of the others, unfortunately, are too worn down to read.