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.
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.