ON BROADWAY ALLEY

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Manhattan’s grid, first imposed in 1811, is remarkably rigid between 14th Street and 59th, with very few interruptions from the system of north-south avenues and east-west streets. This is a situation unlike that of most Northeast cities, and indeed, many cities west of the Mississippi, when built on flat plains, also emulate the strict checkerboard system.

In older Northeast cities, or the oldest parts of those cities, the street system may follow a rough grid, but there are plenty of diagonals and meanderings. There is also a wealth of small alleys and dead-ends, used to enter the back doors of businesses, but also home to out-of-the-way dwellings. Unusually, NYC never developed very many of these alleys, especially in Manhattan.

There are exceptions such as Stuyvesant Street, between East 9th and 10th Streets and 2nd and 3rd Avenue, which used to be the driveway to the Stuyvesant family farmhouse when the area was completely rural, and Asser Levy Place on East 23rd Street — a cut-off former section of Avenue A. And then, there’s Broadway Alley, between East 26th and 27th Streets immediately west of 3rd Avenue.

 

Broadway Alley, by some accounts, was laid out as early as the 1830s as a break between surrounding buildings. This 1882 atlas plate shows such a break, but doesn’t name the alley.

 

By 1909, mapmakers began showing the name “Broadway Alley.” Note the individual dwellings shown on the east side of the alley. Today, just one remains.

Broadway Alley is approximately five blocks east of the actual Broadway, which is the longest street in Manhattan and the Bronx. There is speculation that along the way, it acquired the name because local property owners wanted to impart a gay, (in the ‘upbeat’ sense of the word) theatrical aura to the place. However, as you might expect, in its almost 2-century history, it has been home to prostitution and crime. It was once lined on its east side with stables and tenement houses. A story holds that the Barnum and Bailey Circus had kept their elephants in the alley at one time.

Virtually all of that colorful history has been bleached out by time, though. Let’s see what we have….

 

Only the East 27th end (the north end) gets a DOT sign. There had been one on the south end, but it gets stolen frequently. The north end of Broadway Alley received a pave job about a decade ago, and the parking is free, so local drivers take advantage of this ungated end.

 

Of the tenements that used to line the east side of the alley, only one, #8, remains. Presumably #2, 4, 6 have been lost to time. In 2012, #8 was home to The William Morrison Communications Agency.

 

The adjoining garage doors appear suitably aged.

 

A concrete slab holding the sprinkler is etched with the building number.

 

About halfway down the alley going south, the pavement cuts off and the remainder is dirt road, with concrete chips and the occasional weed. There are some signs of remaining Belgian block pavement, and the alley likely once had those along its whole length. A metal fence with barbed wire protects 3rd Avenue business from any miscreants tempted to do a break-in. The rears of some 3rd Avenue buildings extend all the way to the alley, but #8 is the only building that faces Broadway Alley.

 

Probably the rear end of a 3rd Avenue restaurant.

 

Looking north, past #8, to East 27th.

 

The owner of an East 27th Street building has placed a lamp on the wall facing the alley. As we’ll see, it’s not the only illumination.

 

Looking north from East 26th. A chain link fence has been installed to keep out the curious.

My favorite feature over the years has been the Type G wall bracket lamp placed diagonally at East 26th Street and the alley. Oddly it doesn’t seem meant to illuminate the alley itself, but merely call attention to it. It has likely been here since the 1910s, and has used a variety of luminaires using incandescent and mercury on up to the yellowish-light sodium of today. I’d love to see a photo of this from previous decades to see what kind of lights were affixed to the pole.

Unfortunately it appears to be in desparate need of a paint job or rust will claim it.

For more…

On a Manhattan Byway, Feeling Dirt Beneath Feet [NY Times from 2005]

7/5/12





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13 Responses to ON BROADWAY ALLEY

  1. D. says:

    On both of the maps, somehow E. 26th St. is north of E. 27th St.

    But thanks. I worked in that neighborhood for about 14 years and thought I had explored it pretty thoroughly, but I don’t remember Broadway Alley.

  2. RM says:

    8 Broadway Alley used to be the home of Kaye Labs, a place that repaired and modified audio equipment. Kaye moved to Vermont some years ago.

  3. Chee Ef says:

    KW – map JPEGS are both the 1909 version.

  4. Richard Morris says:

    I’m curious (from a UK perspective) about the ownership of the alley and the gate. Is the alley in public ownership and is the gate therefore unlawful as an obstruction of the highway? That would be the position in England.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I lived on 26 St, a couple of doors from Bway Alley in the 60′s and 70′s. The gate at that end was put up partly in response to a rape that occured during that time. The city did not put it up, private citizens put it up. Also, the light was no longer there so citizens put a light or two in the alley. People used to walk their dogs there and it was very dirty. The gate stopped that, too. The owner of Caliban Restr on 3rd Ave paid for some of this, as did some other businesses in the area.. A florist and a hardware firm, both of whose names I’ve forgotten, also an Italian restr that had the corner and a mid block spot. They all chipped in to make the area safer because we couldn’t get the city to act. The light in your photo was installed later by the city. The alley was cobble stones back then.

    • mike says:

      Amazing i lived on the 2 floor of the building on the west side of Broadway alley. I vividly remenber that rape, i actually heard the scream and saw and upstairs tenent bring down a blanket. do you recall ! did you know it is theonly unpaved street in the city of NY!

    • mike says:

      do you recall the resturant ONCE apon a stove directly across the st between 24/25st and 3rd ave. Great place in 1970, always filled with celebs Joe Boyle Leslie west Huge Obrien, Vidal sasson. great neighborhood grew up on 3rd ave between 29/30 above simons hardware, still have a relative live on 25st just off of 3rdave. been there 74 years! lots of memories from that part of NYC

  6. Anonymous says:

    One more detail of the area, Kaye Audio may have been there to be adjacent to RCA. The big pretty brick building on the South side of 26 btw 3rd and Lex was an RCA factory of some sort before it was the Carpenters Union School and eventually the Baruch Library. Hooray for Baruch for saving a very attractive building. It is made with those nice fine small bricks that Stanford White was so fond of. You don’t see them very often any more. Carnegie Hall was built with them. Most of the examples of this masonry are gone, victims of the wrecking ball.

  7. Pingback: The Last Dirt Road In Manhattan « Scouting NY

  8. pb says:

    I lived at 8 Broadway Alley in the 1980′s. The apt. was on the second story and directly above ‘The Book Worm’ bookstore. The door in the picture opens to a staircase that leads up to the apartment door. It was an expansive space with two bedrooms at opposite ends. My bedroom window faced the alley so you can imagine the sounds that I heard late at night in that alley in the mid 80′s

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