New York: Stockade City

Part of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center area in lower Manhattan includes reopening several of the streets that were closed for the initial construction. On the map, these reopenings appear to reconnect the flow of some of the oldest streets in the city. Greenwich Street, for example, which was laid out in 1739 along the high-water line of the Hudson River, and which was cut in two in 1965, will be restored. A portion of Cortlandt Street, laid out in 1733 by Philip and Frederick Van Cortlandt and also closed in 1965, will be resurrected as Cortlandt Way, a pedestrian mall.

The restoration of the haphazard net of old streets is not as much a reopening as the map would suggest, however. Fired by fears of terrorist attacks, the NYPD maintains a high presence in the area around the World Trade Center with security checkpoints and barriers intended to discourage another attack. Michael Powell has written about the effect the increased security has already had on the residents and workers in the area, and expressed on Twitter his belief that letting security concerns dictate design will result in an urban fortress.

Powell’s remark on Twitter reminded me that New York began its life as a “stockade city,” literally, with a stockade of wood and earth running just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center along Wall Street. Fearful of attack from New England, Director General Petrus Stuyvesant had ordered the wall built to protect the land side of the city, which was fortified on the waterside by Fort Amsterdam and a battery along the Hudson.

Then, as now, the city’s security measures created controversy among its residents. Stuyvesant’s wall crossed property lines, cutting off lots and generating disputes in court. Stuyvesant also recommended that no building be allowed within a cannon shot of the wall. The burgomasters and schepens concurred and issued a decree in October, 1657. (Coincidentally, part of the current WTC site is probably within that no-build zone.)

The city’s decree appears to have carried little weight with the residents of the island, who typically ignored such things when they found them inconvenient. In the end, New England did supplant New Netherland, but the takeover was negotiated and Stuyvesant’s fortress was never fully tested. Nevertheless, modern lower Manhattan was shaped by the security concerns of its founders.

Security threats from other sources also shaped the city. Aside from the potential threat of war, attacks by fire and disease were more common and immediate dangers to the city. Water Street is so much wider than the other old streets in lower Manhattan because it was laid out at a width of 40 feet to protect ships at the wharves and docks from the spread of fire from the city. Improvements in firefighting eventually allowed the city to expand outward into the surrounding rivers.

Many of the old slips that now lie buried under the streets of Manhattan were filled in to improve sanitation. The tidal waters of the harbor deposited all manner of trash and refuse in the stagnant slips, which became fetid. The prevailing medical opinion of the day was that foul air itself caused the regular outbreaks of yellow fever, and an effort was made beginning in the early 19th Century to drain and fill the reeking swamps and slips along the East River. (The strategy had some success inasmuch as it reduced the amount of stagnant water where yellow-fever-carrying mosquitoes bred, but the actual source of the disease was not identified until 1900.) At the same time, Greenwich Village experienced a small population boom with each outbreak as city dwellers fled for the countryside and healthier air. Wealthier New Yorkers built or purchased their homes around open spaces like Gramercy Park to protect themselves from disease by improved air flow.

New York has been designing for security for 300 years, sometimes actively and sometimes incidentally. The city has adapted as each threat has passed and been replaced by a new one, but the designs have left enduring marks still visible today.

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Manhattan’s Memorial Street Names

Manhattan is not unique in having several streets named for famous war figures and local veterans. Where it differs from other American places, however, is that the veterans honored with Manhattan street names are mostly confined to three conflicts: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and World War I.

That New York City would honor so many figures from the Revolution is not surprising, perhaps, given its central position in several key battles. General George Washington was a national hero, of course, but was closely linked to New York City, where he was inaugurated. Washington’s name has been used widely in Manhattan (and is presently the most common personal street name in the country). Of the other streets named for Revolutionary War veterans, most were named around 1799, at a time when the war was still fresh in the city’s history.

It is not as obvious why the veterans of the War of 1812 are so frequently honored with Manhattan street names, but in historical context it becomes clear. The war was the young nation’s first major international conflict after independence and rekindled animosity toward the British. As had happened after the Revolution, the city sought to remove from the map some of the references to its former subservience to England. Replacing Charlotte Street, named for the bride of King George III, with Pike Street, after  General Zebulon Pike who was killed at the Battle of York in 1813, was considered an act of patriotism.

The war also coincided with the adoption in 1811 of the plan that created Manhattan’s numbered street grid. The street commissioners’ plan proposed the elimination of the practice of naming streets for landowners or notable figures, and assigned numbers (and a few letters) instead. At the time, the city already had some numbered north-south streets east of the Bowery. Realizing the confusion that would be caused by duplicate street numbers, the Common Council renamed the old numbered streets in one fell swoop in 1817. They chose new names from among the fallen veterans of the recent war. This would be the last major adoption of war memorial street names for a hundred years.

Over the course of the rest of the 19th Century, Manhattan grew along its ordered grid, which was initially laid out as far north as 155th Street. By the late 19th Century the properties above 155th were beginning to be purchased by developers. Streets were laid out and named, but many existed only on paper into the 20th Century. Freed from the constraints of the grid, streets could once again be named for people and were laid out to conform to the landscape and to earlier settlement. As was the case before 1811, local property owners were a common source for street names. A few streets were named for famous American authors. The numbered street naming system was partially extended and some streets were given placeholder letter names. As areas like Inwood were coalescing in the early 20th Century the nation once again entered into war, and in 1920 several Inwood streets were renamed after young men who had died in battle. The area’s connection to the Revolution was preserved in the names of Fort Washington Avenue and Fort George Hill. The city’s only Civil War general honored with a street name was recognized with Wadsworth Avenue and Wadsworth Terrace. (Generals Sherman and Sheridan are honored with squares.)

In the years between the World Wars, not only had Manhattan become fully developed, but the city grew increasingly reluctant to rename streets. No World War II figures have been recognized with a Manhattan street name.

Below is a list of veterans after whom Manhattan street names were chosen in honor of their service.

Revolutionary War

  • Peter Gansevoort – Fort Gansevoort stood on the Hudson River near present Gansevoort Street, which is named for the fort.
  • General Nathanael Greene – Greene Street
  • General Horatio Gates – Horatio Street
  • The Marquis de Lafayette – Lafayette Street is named for the French general who fought on the side of the Americans.
  • General Alexander McDougal – Macdougal Street
  • Colonel Robert Magaw – Magaw Place
  • General Francis Marion – Marion Street (now Cleveland Place)
  • General Hugh Mercer – Mercer Street
  • Colonel Alexander Scammel – Scammel Street (now closed)
  • General William Thompson – Thompson Street
  • General David Wooster – Wooster Street

War of 1812

  • William Henry Allen – Allen Street
  • General Joseph Bloomfield – Bloomfield Street
  • Lt. Col. Joseph Bogart – Bogart Street (now closed)
  • Lt. Col. John Chrystie – Chrystie Street
  • Stephen Decatur – Decatur Place (now obsolete)
  • Lt. Joseph Eldridge – Eldridge Street
  • Lt. Col Benjamin Forsyth – Forsyth Street
  • Lt. Augustus C. Ludlow – Ludlow Street
  • General Zebulon Pike – Pike Street, Pike Slip

Civil War

  • General Philip Sheridan – Sheridan Square
  • General William Tecumseh Sherman – Sherman Square
  • General James S. Wadsworth – Wadsworth Avenue

Mexican-American War

  • General William J. Worth – Worth Street. Worth was also an officer in the War of 1812.

World War I

  • ____ Daniels – Daniels Street (now closed). First name unknown.
  • Philip S. Finn – Finn Square
  • ____ Henshaw – Henshaw Street. First name unknown.
  • William Moylan – Moylan Place (now closed, but the sign still exists).
  • General John Pershing – Pershing Square
  • ____ Staff  - Staff Street. First name unknown.
  • Sgt. Alvin C. York – York Avenue

 

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Bowery Number 3

When New Amsterdam was under the control of the Dutch East India Company, the company laid out several large farms, or boweries, in the countryside northeast of the city for the use of company officers. The largest and best of these farms was Bowery Number 1, a 120-acre plot reserved for the Director General and granted in 1651 to Petrus Stuyvesant, the last director under Dutch control of the island.

South of Bowery Number 1 was Bowery Number 2, also granted to Stuyvesant. Bowery Number 3 was situated south of the second bowery and was granted to Gerrit Hendrcksen in 1645 and 1654. All three boweries were bordered on the west by the Bowery Lane, corresponding to modern Bowery.

Bowery Number 3
The Schout’s Bowery, Bowery Number 3
Image via NYPL Digital Collection

 Also called the Schout’s Bowery, Bowery Number 3 was about 50 acres and was sold to Phillip Minthorne, who divided the western half of the property into nine individual farms, one for each of his children. (Much of the eastern half of the bowery was sold to John Jacob Astor.) This fanlike arrangements of Minthorne farms is clearly visible in the 1776 Ratzer map below.

Minthorne Farm 1776
The Minthorne Farms, 1776
Image via NYPL Digital Collection

By the early 19th Century, the city had grown into the southernmost of the Minthorne farms. The farms were located at the intersection of the old city and the new rectangular street grid adopted in 1811 and some oddly-shaped parcels were created where the old property lines clashed with the new parallel streets. When John Randel surveyed the island beginning in 1818, this clash was evident.

Randel Map of Farms
Minthorne Farm Lines in the New Grid Plan
North Street is now East Houston, and has been widened to the north.
Image via Museum of the City of New York

What is remarkable is that some 200 years later, the patterns of these early farms are still evident, as can be seen in the current New York City tax maps that show modern property lines.

2013 Tax Map
Many current property lines follow the old boundaries of the Minthorne farms.
Image via nyc.gov

The angled south wall of this building at East 1st Street and 2nd Avenue (Block 443, Lot 7 above) runs parallel to the old southern boundary of Bowery Number 3, which is marked by the angled fence in the lot south of the building (Lot 6 above).

E 1st and 2nd Ave
East 1st Street and 2nd Avenue
Image via Google Maps

Several of the northern Minthorne farms belonged to Mangle Minthorne by 1818, and most of the eastern half of the old Schout’s Bowery belonged to John Jacob Astor. That meant fewer boundaries to thwart the grid, so modern property lines in the rest of the area were oriented to the parallel streets. There is one exception, however, where a small portion of the old northern border of Bowery Number 3 is still evident.

Hillyer Farm
The diagonal property line in this block marks part of the northern boundary of Bowery Number 3.
Image via nyc.gov

Looking back at Randel’s farm map, it appears this diagonal property line corresponds with the northern line of the farm of William Hillyer, which was carved from the eastern half of the old bowery, surrounded by Astor property.

HIllyer 1818
Part of the northern line of Bowery Number 3 (in blue), bordering the farm of William Hillyer.
Image via Museum of the City of New York

The modern map holds another ghost of the Minthorne farms in the blind alley called Extra Place.

Extra Place
Image via openstreetmap.org

The story goes that when Phillip Minthorne was dividing his property into nine equal portions for his heirs, there was a small oddly-shaped “extra” plot at the southwest corner. This plot is visible on the Ratzer map below. Modern Extra Place stands at the eastern border of this parcel.

Extra Place
The “extra” Minthorne parcel
Posted in Bowery, Lower East Side, Streets | Leave a comment