22 March 2009

Where the Streets Had a Name

Walking around Yorkville, it occurred to me that one of the cultural depletions New York has suffered over the past two gentrifying, blandifying decades is a death in nomenclature.

Once upon a time, Gotham was such a colorful town that mere numbers were not enough to properly characterize streets and avenues. Colloquial nicknames, appropriate to certain drags, cropped up on their own, a function of popular perception among the street-level denizens of the time. 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth, for example, was Swing Street, owing to the number of jazz clubs and nite spots packed tightly into that happening block.

Some of these unofficial street names are still common parlance. 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth remains Restaurant Row to the world. 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth is still called Diamond Row. And 48th between Sixth and Seventh is Music Row—at last, for the next year or so. But many other names have dropped out of use as the city has careened toward willful homogeneity.

I've compiled a partial list of former New York street names, now only recalled by oldtimers and historians. Take a look and imagine what the town that held those throroughfares musta been like:

Now: Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street
Then: Bookseller Row, home to countless used book peddlers

Now: Eighth Avenue from 42nd to 57th
Then: Minnesota Strip, because, in the 1970s, the area was swarming with teenage prostitutes from the Midwest

Now: 52nd Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues
Then: Swing Street (see above)

Now: Doyers Street
Then: The Bloody Angle, because the Chinese Tong gangs would fight it out on this short, crooked street

Now: Park Row
Then: Newspaper Row, the location of all the city's great papers

Now: Myrtle Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Then: Murder Avenue, for obvious reasons

Now: Eighth Avenue, in Bay Ridge
Then: Lapskaus Boulevard, home of a large Norwegian population

Now: Broadway, from 42nd Street to 57th
Then: The Main Stem, the Great White Way, Mazda Way, The Rialto, Coffeepot Canyon, all old terms from when Times Square was the center of American entertainment

Now: Broadway from the 50s to the 70s
Then: Automobile Row, home to many car dealers

Now: 72nd Street between Lexington and York Avenues
Then: Bohemian Broadway, the center of Czech life in New York

Now: 86th Street between Lexington and York Avenues
Then: German Broadway, the center of German life in New York

Now: 79th Street between Lexington and York Avenues
Then: Hungarian Broadway, the center of Hungarian life in New York

Now: Heath Avenue at Albany Crescent, in The Bronx
Then: Blood Alley, owing to the slaughterhouse nearby

Now: Alexander Avenue in the Bronx
Then: Doctors Row, where you went to get well

Now: West 133rd Street in Harlem between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue
Then: Jungle Alley, home of many a nightclub

Now: Second Avenue between Houston and 14th Street
Then: Yiddish Rialto, the center of Jewish theatre in New York

Now: West 138th and West 139th between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard
Then: Striver's Row, a set of townhouse where upwardly mobile African-Americans moved in the early 20th century


David Freeland said...

Thanks for compiling this excellent list. By the way, the Cotton Club was not located on the block of West 133rd Street that became known (by downtown white visitors) as Jungle Alley. The Cotton Club was farther north, on Lenox Avenue. But one of the very first and best Harlem nightclubs of the 1920s, the Nest, was indeed located on West 133rd - along with a host of others. Many of the buildings that housed these clubs still stand today.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thank, David. I've corrected the listing.

Larvik said...

As an avid reader of Lost City and similar blogs, and as a New Yorker for 10 years I have to ask a serious question -

Does New York suck?

Is there any outstanding redeeming quality left that really makes you feel good about the city? It seems to me, that everything that used to be interesting and compelling about NYC has been replaced by something much much worse.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

An important question, David, and I feel a bit strange answering it in the comments section, rather than making an independent post about it. In sort, New York sucks more than it used to. It's lost a lot of value, but it still retains a lot of value. That's why I and other bloggers fight for it. There's still more history and culture and grit and heritage here than you'll find in a dozen other cities, despite the whitewashing efforts of Bloomberg and the developer cabal. Also, there's a certain amount of architectural texture that can't be erased, owing to landmarking, so that gives one hope, providing a base upon which additional preservation can be built.

That's what I can say for now. I'm going to think about going into this in more depth as an independent post.

Larvik said...

Yeah, it's funny. I feel alot of the despair inside of me, the type that gets expressed on your blog and many others. It's hard to reconcile those feelings against the ones that I have on any given weekend, when I feel like the whole world is right outside my door. Whether it's walking my dog up to Roosevelt Park and watching the Chinese kids play basketball, or sitting at the bar in my local french cafe, or sitting with my girl at our favorite vegan restaurant in Chelsea, I still feel lucky to be here.

I will say this though - either I'm just becoming an old grouch, or the conversations you happen to overhear in today's NYC are almost always so inane and emptyheaded as to make you wonder if our society truly is getting dumber. That's one of the main problems that I seem to encounter. Sitting at any cafe or restaurant or even getting a shard of wordage from a passerby, it is often of the overly loud,often crass, almost always of the "me,me,me" variety. Maybe it's just that the neighborhoods I frequent these days seem to be largely made up of people in their 20's, or maybe those are the ones that are the loudest and most unaware of how to act in public. Sorry for the ramble.

As an aside, your neighborhood profiles are my favorite section and answers my usual question of "what is still good", to generalize. Thanks for those.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

You're right about the conversations, David. The level of smart, "New York" conversation has gone way down. People just are rooted in the same cultural foundations they once were. It's all movies and television and internet, and there's just not a lot of "there" there. Still, when I go to my wife's temple and here the intellectual discussions there, which range far and wide, and are deeply serious, I take heart.

NYC taxi photo said...

this list is great, a great starting point to inspire me to look up the history of all these places. I once had a passnger who told me of Myrtle Avenue's old sir-name, I thought it was just a name shared by a few, had no idea it was so infamous.

I was kind of glad the city stopped putting up extra sign posts to be honest, but only because it just adds to confusion. what if instead of extra street names, they put up brown historical signs with short essays about each place, like they have already in historical neighborhoods like greenwich village, and Long Island City. Though I doubt a sign of any kind would be put up to remember murderer's row, or the bloody angle.

Anonymous said...

Some commentator on another blog had a post about how in the 1990s people suddenly became colder and more cliquish. She wrote that before then people would strike up conversations with strangers on the bus, in cafes, and so on and then suddenly stopped. I noticed the same thing. A few years ago it suddenly became alot harder to strike up a conversation in the bar, and if you succeeded you often wished you hadn't, because the conversation was really uninteresting.

I'm remembering this after David's post because the two complaints are similar, and they jibe with my own observation, but this isn't much discussed elsewhere. I was wondering if I was imagining it.

I've just returned to New York after a fourteen month absence, and one change I noticed is that the cell phone people are mostly gone. When I left, you couldn't walk around for pleasure anymore because there was always someone ahead of you using a cell phone or text messaging, walking really slowly and weaving around the sidewalk so you couldn't pass. It seems to be much easier to walk now. These people all seemed to show up at once in early 2004 and now they seem to have left. I wonder where they came from and where they went.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Ed: I imagine an increase in texting and the popularity of headsets have cut down on the number of sidewalk cell phone users. One gizmo replaced another. At least texting is relatively silent.

hollarback said...

I was in Pageant books the day some a-hole came and started measuring things. I asked at the front if they were selling, got a very rude "No". (well excuse me) A year later it was a lame ass lookin empty bistro. Still makes me sad. I don't even go down there if I can help it when I am in town.

I can only see downtown the way I remember it in movies.

Great blog.