28 September 2011

Dickensian Courtyard Off Freeman Alley

Off Freeman Alley, the narrow little street off Rivington near Christie on the Lower East Side, just to the right as you approach Freemans, the unbearable and always busy hipster chow house and swilling den, is a hidden courtyard right out of Dickensian London. It's home to the gallery Mulherin and Pollard, and the entrance happened to be open when I passed one afternoon recently.

The courtyard's untouched oldness stunned me, its utter 19th-century-ness. What have these bricks seen? A lot of squalor, that's for sure. Desperation. The crime that alleys always suss out of the surrounding streets. Immigrant striving. Laundry hung out. Kids carting growlers from the local saloon. Turkeys delivered on Thanksgiving from Tammany Hall ward heelers.

This stairway is slowly losing its battle with balance, gravity and time. Takes a while for the years to slowly bend metal to its purpose.

How long, I wonder, has this tree choked out an existence among the city's smog and congestion? Yet, it's probably older than anyone who lives in the surrounding buildings. Hasn't got much a purchase there within its brick cage.

What purpose did this wooden and metal post once serve, embedded in an ancient brick wall now covered with vines? A lovely time capsule, this courtyard.


upstate Johnny G said...

Another great "Lost City" find! Thanks so much! Since I read this piece I've been flitting about on Google Maps for the nabe, and I think there might be another lost courtyard in the middle of the north side of Kenmare between Elizabeth and Bowery. The aerial shot indicates a very large tree (canopy nearly 100 feet across which should indicate a very old tree) and in the street view I can make out a space between buildings and what looks like a narrow passageway with a tree deep inside it. Might be worth checking out.

And while we're on the topic of hidden places in the area, do you happen to know what's the story with Alexander's Garden? I hear it was saved from the auction that allegedly claimed other such gardens in recent years (there's probably a heckuva "LC" story right there....more lost historic spaces). A website says that it leads to the Marble Cemetery but on my map that cemetery is marked as being in the next block. The Garden is a couple of blocks north of where you found this little gem. Would love to know more about it and more about the history of the Marble Cemetery - was it really for wealthy people who wanted marble mausoleums that weren't on holy ground??

Looking at aerial photos and graphic maps it looks to me as though the blocks in this area were once riddled with little alleys that led from the streets back deep into the block's interior to give access to the rear of the buildings. Looks to me that many of these interior spaces still exist (don't know if they would be considered public rights of way) but are often blocked at the street by later infill buildings.

Mitch said...

I bet that tree is not all that old. It isn't very big around.

I was disappointed about 10 years ago when the Brooklyn Botanic Garden had to cut down the trees they had planted after the end of WWI in commemoration of the people who died in the war. They said that the trees have a lifespan of about 80 years.


upstate Johnny G said...

Heh, heh, they were having you on when the Botan Garden folk told you trees only live 80 years. I have a photo from 1906 of the house I grew up in and the big maples in the front yard were medium maples in the picture. I last saw them in 1999 or so and they were going great. I think there's little doubt they were over a hundred years old then. Also there are some truly ancient oaks in England that are hundreds of years old.

You can't always tell how old a tree is by how big a diameter the trunk has. Trees grow by adding layers (when we cut them down, those cross sectioned layers are the rings we count to see how old the tree is), one layer a year, but the thickness of a given layer depends on the growing conditions that year. Thus it is possible for a "thinner" tree to be older than a "thick" one.