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Ryders Alley & Edens Alley

22 Mar

I spend a lot of time in downtown Manhattan these days – like really downtown, below the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s fairly new for me. It used to be the East Village where I spent my time (for a long time) and then the West Village and now it’s this. I’m happy with it – apparently I was already calling this my favorite neighborhood a couple years ago – and though I don’t spend as much of my time outside in it as I’d like to, I still do get to notice a few things. (Incidentally, isn’t it funny that the most important and powerful people in the world, the ones making decisions that affect all our lives, are essentially inside all of the time – instead of being, ya know, outside in the actual world?)

So yeah, I’m glad I’m not one of those folks (and trust me, they keep trying to recruit me); I can still squeeze in the time to walk around and look at things. When I’m doing that downtown, of course, I often try to imagine some semblance of what the place must have looked like in the way back days of the 1600s and 1700s, when almost every building around here was made of wood or brick, and rarely more than 2 stories high, when most of the roads were dirt, with fences and gardens, tree-lined lanes and brooks and streams, marshy swamps, the river (ocean) lapping right up on the shoreline. I mean, it’s pretty much irreconcilable with today, right? That’s why it’s so damn fascinating to imagine.


A case in point is Edens Alley. This tiny little jaunt of a street, connecting to the slightly longer Ryders Alley, appears on maps as early as 1776, though it’s likely even older. But look at it today! It’s quite possibly the least attractive or exciting alley in Manhattan, especially when you consider that Gold Street, which it runs into, has been completely covered in scaffolding for some time and so is wreathed in semi-darkness (or downright darkness) at all times of day. But of course that very unattractiveness and lack of excitement makes it fascinating – to me at least. What did this use to look like? I have no idea really, but suffice to say, it wasn’t this.


Ryders Alley, which Eden Alley connects to, likely takes its name from one John Rider, a prominent British-born lawyer of the late 17th century who lived near here in lower Manhattan (when NYC was only lower Manhattan). There are city records of a John Rider purchasing paving stones for his street, though whether it was the same John Rider as the lawyer we can’t really say. But it appears that the whole L-shaped alley was called some variation of Ryder (or Rider, Rudder, Ridder) from the time its name started appearing on maps. It likely wasn’t until the early 2000s in fact, when the Downtown Alliance started installing new street signs in the area, that this smaller portion of the alley was dubbed Edens Alley at all. In making that name choice the Downtown Alliance were themselves going off an earlier (though apparently not entirely substantiated) claim that Ryders Alley had been called Edens Alley before the 1840s – a claim that some older maps would seem to dispute.


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The Eden that Edens Alley refers to was one Medcef Eden, a brewer who lived and worked on Ryder Street (or Alley) in the mid- to late 1700s. In fact he owned almost 20 buildings fronting the street; it’s been posited that Eden Alley was essentially a driveway for horse carts, a loading zone for Eden’s brewery. In Eden’s day the alley would have climbed Golden Hill – what was, at the time, the highest point in (very) lower Manhattan, and where Gold Street takes its name. There’s not much left of the hill today, though you can still see some of its incline in Edens Alley.

Golden Hill, according to an 1898 New York Times article, took its moniker from an “abundant crop of grain, which it’s said waved gracefully in response to the gentle breeze and looked, in truth, like a hill of gold.” By Medcef Eden’s time it had become a residential enclave as well as the site of the first “blood incident” of the American Revolution: the Battle of Golden Hill (and something, personally, I had never heard mentioned before). Coming some six weeks before the Boston Massacre – on January 19th, 1770 – the “Battle” (which maybe more appropriately should have been titled the “Riot”) occurred a few days after British soldiers had chopped down a “liberty pole” erected by the New York Sons of Liberty – the third or fourth pole to have been erected and destroyed since 1766. On Jan. 19th, British soldiers were patrolling the city posting handbills decrying the Sons of Liberty as enemies of society when they were waylaid by a mob of patriots – led by the ubiquitous Isaac Sears (someone I can hopefully write about again some day).  Sears and company seized some of the soldiers and tried to haul them off to the mayor’s office; when reinforcements came (from both parties) things turned violent, with injuries suffered on both sides – and maybe, or maybe not, one death.



So yeah, that all happened on – or at least near – this shitty (amazing) little alley, which today is essentially some asphalt between 3 giant walls of concrete and brick – probably holding some very important and powerful people, no doubt. But do any of them even think about the past? About all the other things that happened here? The other ways of living? I mean just take a walk, outside, and think about it? It puts me in mind of Sebald, (though I guess I’m always only half a step away from Sebald): “I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” Not to be too much of a downer, but it’s true! Though to be fair, last time I walked down here some kids were smoking weed. Outside. That made me happy.




Nassau Street & John Street

3 Feb

This is officially perhaps my favorite part of Manhattan these days – the whole strip of Nassau and Williams Street running between Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. What the hell is going on down here? I mean, this is really a forgotten corner of the island, though granted a forgotten corner of the island that teems with tens of thousands of people every weekday. But just check out the stores! Not hip; that gives you some indication of the assumed prospects of the place. I feel like I’ve been citing the AIA Guide a lot lately (though why shouldn’t I?) but they get what I’m talking about too, calling it, “one of Lower Manhattan’s least recognized – an therefore most intriguing – areas.” Right on guys.

I was biking up Nassau the other night – very slowly, head craned upward as I tend to do – and was stopped dead by number 63. What I’m always looking for in the city is the juxtaposition, or maybe you could say the anachronism. Or to to put it more simply: the old shit, especially when it’s next to the new. 63 Nassau has that feel – and it speaks to why I’m really digging this area in general. This is an old old part of the city – not quite the Financial District, not quite the Civic Center – and there’s a lot of remnants kicking around. 63 Nassau is also one of only three or four buildings in New York attributed to James Bogardus, the pioneer figure in cast-iron architecture. He took out a patent on the technique in 1850 and worked in the medium till sometime in the 1860s. And very little is actually known about his works.

63 Nassau

The beauty of the cast-iron facade was that it could be pre-fabricated and then transported and assembled onto a building – mimicking the look of ornately carved masonry at a distinctly cheaper cost, and with the added benefit of being fireproof. 63 Nassau Street was constructed without the cast-iron facade in fact, probably around 1844, and not by Bogardus, who was an inventor, not an architect. He didn’t add the facade we see today until sometime in the late 1850s, making it one of the earliest cast-iron facades in the city. If he did indeed add the facade –  in truth it’s all an educated guess at this point as building and architectural records in New York back then just weren’t what they are today. One clue that it was Bogardus are the circular medallions (or “rondels”) of Benjamin Franklin sitting at the base of two of the columns. The other two columns originally bore medallions of George Washington – something that was a bit of a Bogardus calling card.

Bogardus was born in Catskill, New York (in 1800) a few hours up the Hudson River, though his family could trace their lineage way back to the New Amsterdam days. Bogardus was a descendant of Everardus Bogardus (good name), the second minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam (we’re talking the 1640s here) and somebody I’ve mentioned before. Bogardus’ congregation – the first formed in the city, and the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in the country – met on South Williams Street before building a church on Pearl, back when these streets all looked pretty different. No buildings still stand in Manhattan from the city’s New Amsterdam days, but you gotta think some must have been when Bogardus (the younger) was around. In fact his grafting of cast-iron facades onto older buildings can almost be thought of as an up-dating of the city, placing the 1850s present onto the tired face of the past. It’s interesting to think how in that way facades can be deceiving. They’re so much of what we see of a building – they basically are a building when it comes to appearance – and yet they’re mainly just cosmetic. I’ll think it walking around Greenpoint all the time, passing endless vinyl-sided two story houses (some with sloped roofs and everything) that I’m sure are made of wood and that are probably as old as the shingle or clapboard-sided beauties that make you pause a moment as you pass them. If all the old buildings in New York where covered in vinyl would they still be old? What if all the steel and glass condos going up today were given cast-iron facades? A city’s aesthetic is mainly determined by the appearance of its buildings right, and its buildings appearance must be mainly determined by their age. So what’s the most prevalent era in New York as represented by its architecture? I’m gonna have a beer and think about it. Can anybody answer that?

John Street & Dutch Street

15 Jul

Let’s get back to churches. And back downtown. I know we were gonna wait until summertime to really (drunkenly) enjoy these tiny streets, but I haven’t been able to stay away from them. And here’s one nice accomplishment: January is already over. Congratulations everybody! Looks like that whole time-keeps-passing thing is still going on. Awesome. Let’s learn some facts.

I hope you’re not bored by me writing, “this something is the oldest something in New York/Brooklyn/the United States.” I can’t help my proclivities. And there always seems to be another such something to find. This week it’s the John Street Methodist Church, about five blocks north of Wall Street by the corner of John and Dutch Street. It’s the oldest Methodist congregation in the country, having formed in 1766 when preacher Philip Embury began holding services in his living room. Its various church buildings have occupied this spot since 1768. Embury was born in Ireland, the son of “Irish Palatines,” a group of about 3,000 German Protestants who came to Ireland in 1710 as refugees from the War of Spanish Succession. They were converted to Methodism in large numbers and Embury was already a preacher by the time he emigrated to the U.S., though he had let his practice wane. It was at his cousin Barbara Heck’s insistence (supposedly after she came home to find him playing a game of cards) that he began preaching again. She’s sometimes called the “foundress of American Methodism” – by the time Embury’s first church was built in 1768 it had a congregation of around 400 people.

Methodism itself came out of the Reverend John Wesley’s 18th century revival movement within the Anglican Church, which stressed a return to the Gospel (as opposed to ornate ritual – a general theme of Protestant reform). It was Wesley who converted Embury and many of his fellow Irish Palatines. Throughout his life Wesley insisted he was a member of the Church of England, working within it for reform, though he brought about the formal separation of American Methodism from the Anglican Church in 1784 (although the American Revolution helped too), under the name of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was only four years after his death, in 1795, that Methodists in Great Britain officially split from the Church of England as well.

Methodists in the northern United States, including New York, were early advocates against slavery. From 1787 they condemned the institution and welcomed blacks as full participants in the church. One of John Street’s early members was Peter Williams, born into slavery in New York and raised as the slave of a tobacco merchant, where he learned the trade of cigar making. He was already a member of the church in 1778, when his master returned to England, leaving Williams for sale. The church trustees found it embarrassing that a well known Christian would be sold at auction, and so they bought Williams themselves for forty pounds and made him a sexton. They weren’t too embarrassed to ask that Williams buy back his freedom though, out of his earnings – in wasn’t until 1785 that he was formally emancipated.

And it didn’t take long for the congregation to feel that racial integration wasn’t really what they were after. Fear of black leadership in the church and concerns that there was a growing rift with southern Methodists, caused blacks to be pushed towards the fringe. In response black parishioners moved to form their own, independent institutions. In 1796 Peter Williams joined with James Varick to establish Zion Chapel, in the old Five Points neighborhood, as a place where black Methodists could worship free from animosity. They hadn’t intended to break away from the John Street Church, just to worship separately, but by 1799 they’d decided they would be better on their own. They obtained permission from the bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church to form a new congregation and in 1801 they formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known as “Mother Zion.” In 1821 it broke entirely from the Methodist Episcopal Church to become its own denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their building stands today on 137th Street.

The current John Street Church building is the third such to occupy the site. The second one went up in 1817 and was torn down when John Street was widened, although the pews and a lot of the interior were saved and transferred over. The current building was finished in 1841, designed in an early Italianate, or “Neo-Renaissance” style, though I’ve also seen it called Georgian, or “Neo-Classical.” Who can tell the difference? And the distinction, as with so many buildings, only applies to the facade – the exposed sides of the building are just straight red-brick walls. To me, the neatest aspect of the church is its location – still standing on John Street after all these years, now surrounded by skyscrapers. Trinity Church and Saint Paul’s Chapel had more land to begin with, and though they’re both downtown, you don’t get the same claustrophobic, anachronistic sense that the John Street Church gives you. Who actually belongs to this congregation? What’s it like to be a Methodist – a downtown New York City 2010 Methodist?

(Originally posted Feb. 5th, 2010 on