It snowed a lot on Monday; you might have noticed. I suppose that’s March’s modus operandi, hitting you with a nice dose of winter just as you’re getting ready to put it to bed. So why not roll with it? Enough of this endlessly looking forward – let’s turn the tables on this month and embrace the here and now. If it’s snow we’re gonna get, then that’s what we’re gonna work with. Should we maybe make a snowman, or go sledding? Are you kidding, it’s fucking cold outside! All I’m talking about is taking a little walk along a snow-lined block, somewhere with a nice winter wonderland aesthetic. We have a lot of those to choose from. The first one that popped into my mind was Stuyvesant Street, where it runs into Tenth.
I love this city. I love its patterns and the many ways it works. But I realize that so much of what I seek out are the exceptions – the areas where something else sneaks through. The cliche might be to say the places where we feel humanity, the individual, reigns a little stronger. But I don’t go for that: I find New York to be incredibly human, and humane, in all its forms. The only steady rule here is that you’re going to have to deal with people. I’m okay with that. Still, it is a tribute to New York’s mythic force – what you could almost call its hegemony – the certain things we even call out as exceptions. Like Stuyvesant Street, which runs diagonally through the street grid between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. A diagonal street! In the East Village! How many people in other towns are going crazy over something as simple as that? How many people are in this town? I know I’m not the only one.
Stuyvesant Street, as you might guess, gets its name from the Stuyvesant family, who owned a large farm and estate here until early into the 19th century. The Bowery, from the Dutch word “bouwerij” for farm, was the main access road from New York. Stuyvesant Street was the road that ran off from the Bowery to their manor house, which was situated around where Saint Mark’s Church stands today, on 2nd Avenue and Tenth Street. When the manor house burned down in 1778 the land was donated to the Episcopal Church with the stipulation that they build a chapel. Saint Mark’s was finished in 1799, making it the second oldest extant church building in Manhattan. The tiny Bowery Village, which had sprung up around this area, began to grow in number around that time, aided by Petrus Stuyvesant III laying out a street grid on his property. Farmers would meet here to sell their wares, since it lay outside the city of New York and its taxes. It’s worth mentioning that one reason population growth was slow before that was for fear of the highwaymen lurking in the Bayard woods to the south. Now can we all just take a moment and freak out over a statement like that? Woods and highwaymen hanging around in what is roughly modern day SoHo? All right? I’m freaking out, how’s it going for you?
The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 laid out the grid system that we all know so well today. It showed some definite foresight as to Manhattan’s exponentially growing population, laying out a street plan up to 155th Street at a time when New York itself lay mainly below present day Houston. In a further presentiment of the city we know today, no geographical features were taken into account in laying out the grid. These streets were going up be it over hill, stream, swamp or meadow. So how do you sneak a diagonal street into that pattern? Basically you have a lot of money. Stuyvesant Street was a busy thoroughfare at the time and that was the reason given for it being allowed to stay, but it couldn’t have hurt that one of the most powerful families in the city lived on the block. Well sure, it was powerful men making the rules, so why not powerful men making exceptions for them. Maybe that’s where a lot of New York’s anomalies line up with the general story of this city: they were made in large parts possible because of money. I don’t know, I came too late for that debate. I just walk around here. Stuyvesant Street is one of the few streets in Manhattan that actual runs true east-west. And that’s nice, because the sun is shining. It’s supposed to break 60 degrees this weekend. So forget anything I said about snow, or cold, or embracing the moment. Or yeah, embrace the moment, just not the moment yesterday. Or you know, what the hell, embrace everything. Go on, do it.
(Originally posted Mar. 6th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)