Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tenth Avenue beginnings ….

In effort to get some of the past few weeks' work to congeal into something beyond simple counting on the one hand and "ooh, look at that!" on the other, I've started work on an informal essay on the "signs of change" on Tenth Avenue from its southernmost corner on up to — well, I'm not sure how far on up to, at this point, but let's say on up to 110th Street, though that may prove to be too much.

Foot of Tenth Avenue at 23rd Street
Commissioners' Plan of 1807 (north is towards the right)

Though the planned essay is meant to be informal, it's not meant to be as informal as the posts on this blog, and as seems always to be the case, the result even of intending to tighten the screws a bit brings unexpected as well as expected results.

What I expected was that it would be seductively easier to start researching and writing about the content or subjects of the photographs beyond what one can actually see in them.

But then some of that is surely desirable, especially for a conjectural readership who may not know the avenue in the way that long term residents do.

And also, the "signs of change" I'm looking at are of interest because they, or their meanings, are shared at least by people for whom the avenue is a regular part of their lives, and, more broadly, by people for whom such signs in any large scale urban setting would be meaningful. So what I can bring to bear of my own experience, not specifically personally, but as a member of the community defined by those who know something of the avenue and its signs — or of such avenues and such signs — is no more or less essential than the knowledge and experience of any reader of a text is essential to its understanding.

What was unexpected was a difficulty I discovered in determining the southernmost corner of Tenth Avenue, which, as it turns out, has a history all its own, stretching back over 200 years!

I'll tell you a little bit about it (possibly more than either you or I ever wanted to know).

Most of the story is disclosed by maps, even though they often, especially in the earlier part of the 19th century, before the Civil War, tend to contradict one another — the result, I imagine, of some map makers and printers copying earlier maps by others, either outright or with only partial updates, and then dating them with their current date of publication, even if their content was already well out of date and superseded by other, more recent maps.

Let us begin just before the beginning, with William Bridges' 1807 "Plan of the City of New York with Recent and Intended Improvements." This is a good place to start because it is the last map to be produced prior to the appearance of the famous "Commissioners" map of 1807. The significance for our purposes of Bridges' map is simple: there is no Tenth Avenue, actual or planned, to be found on it.

The Commissioners' map and plan has its own fascination, especially in its details, but that's another story for another post, so I won't allow myself that digression here. The map of 1807 itself, which defined Manhattan's characteristic "grid," shows Tenth Avenue starting just below 23rd Street (and just above 22nd Street), that is, right where the avenue is terminated by the Manhattan shoreline as it was at that time, before a series of landfills extended the island out into the Hudson, first to Eleventh Avenue, later to Twelfth, and even, briefly, to a nominal "Thirteenth" Avenue.

I will mention that the Commissioners' Tenth Avenue extended unbroken all the way from this starting point northwards to just west of the old Kings Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

Maps by City Surveyor Thomas Poppleton in 1817 and derivative maps by William Hooker in 1817 and 1821 don't extend far enough north to reach Tenth Avenue's starting point at 22nd/23rd Street, but do show that the shoreline build-out, already underway lower on the island, did not yet extend above Greenwich Lane, which is now (I believe) Little West 12th Street.

J. F. Morin's map of 1828, William Chapin's of 1831, and the "Fireman's" map of 1834 also show no shoreline build-out here, but do show Tenth Avenue now extended (in concept or reality?) down to a point between Greenwich Lane and 12th Street.

J. H. Colton's topographic map of 1836 definitely (?) shows the shoreline built-out above 14th Street, and also shows the extension of the avenue down to just below 12th Street.

The British Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge's map of 1844 shows the shoreline built out below as well as above 14th Street, but D. H. Burr's map of 1846, Dogget's map of 1848, and Atwood's map of 1849 fail to show any shoreline build-out below 14th Street, though they do show the extension of Tenth Avenue down to below 12th Street.

Hayward's 1850 map shows the shoreline built-out to Eleventh Avenue, as does Vielé's very famous topographical map — still used to locate the natural watercourses below today's artificially raised ground level in Manhattan.

Subsequent maps of the city's wards (1870), railroads (1885), and streets (1886) show the same situation for Tenth Avenue as Vielé's, though the 1886 map shows West Street extended diagonally past Tenth Avenue and on up to Eleventh.

Maps of 1902 and 1903 show West Street extended up to 29th or (probably) 30th Street, and a 1911 map by the People's Publishing Company (Chicago) shows this extension as "Thirteenth Avenue" between 23rd Street and 30th Street.

Thirteenth Avenue appears again on a Rand McNally street map of 1934, but thereafter, at least by the time of the Gousha road map of 1941, shows West Street — actually the elevated West Side Highway by this time — extended up to its present position, with no further shoreline build-outs.

This would seem to take us far afield of the southern terminus of Tenth Avenue, then or now, were it not for the interlude represented by the West Side Elevated Highway, begun in 1929 and opened from Canal Street up to 22nd Street in November, 1930. As a result, Tenth Avenue, though extended, as before, down to Little West 12th Street or just below, flowed into the remains of West Street below the elevated but with no local access to the elevated highway itself.

Forty-some years later, in 1973, the elevated highway just above Tenth Avenue's terminus between Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort Street collapsed. The subsequent demolition of the elevated highway, and the long process of rehabilitating West Street — the long-running "Westway" controversy I must leave to another post if indeed I get to it all — led eventually to Tenth Avenue running side by side with the new West Street from 13th Street down to Horatio Street.

And for the pedestrian, it is not at all obvious that it isn't Tenth Avenue for yet another block south, down to Jane Street.

So where Tenth Avenue begins is a whole history in itself, and even today there is ambiguity to footed eye, if not to the cartographer.

I'll start, however illegitimately, with "Tenth" Avenue and Jane Street — inclusiveness may not always be a better principle but it's often a more interesting one, especially since, in this instance, the changes in neighborhood character around the foot of Tenth Avenue — perhaps I should call it the "extended foot" of Tenth Avenue, from 13th Street down to Jane Street — are so extreme that a look at "signs of change" and actual change on Tenth Avenue that ignored them would be highly remiss, to say the least.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Howe,

    I just came across this blog today after having viewed your marvelous website almost since its inception and would just like to humbly offer my praise and admiration for your work which makes my day better each time I visit the website. And now, following your blog here makes my day a lot more rewarding.

    Why ? I am not a Photographer of merit or an archivist of renown, just a blogger who writes on subjects that touch me, an Indian who immigrated to America over 30 years ago. Leaving India, my birthplace and home for 26 years has made me a nostalgia buff. Residing in New Jersey and working in NYC for many years made me a New Yorker at heart and in spirit more than anything else in America did. I moved to Texas in 1996 and that move was another upheaval which I will never be free of, same as moving away from India was an uprooting of my entire being. That same feeling of nostalgia for all things Indian pervade my feelings for NYC. And so, I am always delighted to see the daily sights that I lived with in the Big Apple so thoroughly documented and presented as you have done. People the world over may see your website and enjoy the views but for many like myself it is a piece of our hearts preserved.
    Of course I was and will forever be heartbroken by the tragedy of 9-11.

    I cannot watch even a simple Hollywood film with scenes of NYC without trying not to sob !

    So a big thank you and continued success in all you do, Mr. Howe !

    Fred M. Miller