In 1992 I had a short-lived job at a print shop on Greenwich Street in the far West Village. I would take the train to West 4th and make my way southwest in the maze of Village streets to Greenwich between Charlton and Spring. As it happens there was once street that was the most convenient and I would use it more than any other street: Downing.
It’s one of the Village’s obscurer routes. It’s not in the Historic District so there’s not much online about it — if a street is in a Landmarked district, the city posts PDFs describing every building on every street in the district.
But the wisdom of Yogi is pervasive. “You can observe a lot by watching.” And, a cursory look at Downing Street will reveal much. You will note, in the title card above, that Downing Street is narrow even by Village standards.
Note that several dwellings on Downing Street possess very wide front entrances.
On this 1909 Bromley atlas plate of Downing Street notice several dwellings lining the street that are marked with X’s. In the legend, an X means a stable or garage. Thus we can determine that Downing Street once served in large part as a place to stable horses. Carmine Street, one block north, is quite wide and Downing Street likely served the businesses and homes there.
On the right side of the map is a street that no longer exists; Hancock Street was absorbed by 6th Avenue when it was extended south when the IND subway was built along it in 1928.
The construction of 6th Avenue created some odd-shaped spaces. Churchill Square, named for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (his mother Jennie was born in Brooklyn, and his grandfather Leonard Jerome was a successful stock speculator, railroad builder and sportsman who built the Jerome Park Racetrack, later Jerome Park Reservoir, and was the namesake of The Bronx’ Jerome Avenue).
(Now closed) 10 Downing, a winery actually on 6th Avenue at the corner of Downing. The naming of Manhattan’s Downing Street has been speculated about by historians for many years. Some say both Bedford and Downing Streets are named for the ones in London, England, but those streets don’t intersect, though they are both in the Trafalgar Square area.
London’s Downing Street, where #10 is the Prime Minister’s residence (hence Churchill Square) was named for Sir George Downing, who changed political affiliations like the rest of us change shirts. He was one of Harvard’s first nine graduates in 1642. He returned to England and joined up with Oliver Cromwell in his overthrow of the Crown, becoming minister to the Hague and France. After Cromwell’s death he joined the Royalists, and Charles II returned him to the Hague, representing England again; along the way he betrayed a friend who was a colonel in Cromwell’s forces, sending him to the executioner.
Downing was Britain’s envoy to the Netherlands in 1674 when “New Orange” or New Amsterdam was handed over to the British (this time for good) in exchange for Surinam. A tenuous connection, but perhaps a real one. [Information from The Street Book by Henry Moscow, 1978 Hagstrom]
6-story apartment building on the NE corner of Bedford and Downing Streets.
The City has installed retro versions of Type F lampposts, which, in smaller versions, once lit most of Manhattan’s side streets. These new versions are taller with bases that match the heavier, long-armed Corvingtons.
#45’s statues as a former garage, and likely a stable earlier, is confirmed by the words “Tassi Garage” found just under the roofline.
Similarly, #49’s old stable status is marked by ole Dobbin grinning above the arched doorway.
There was a time, in the 1960s, when the western section of Downing Street between Bedford and Varick was in the crosshairs of Robert Moses, who wanted to build Verrazano Street between the intersection of W. Houston and 6th Avenues west to Varick in order to accept traffic from the wide and busy Houston. This would have meant a lot of demolitions.
Verrazano St. would also have been a feeder road toward the propsed Lower Manhattan Expressway. The project actually got under way in 1962 when the city began buying property and condemning buildings along the proposed route. However, LOMEX was eventually killed by community opposition, and so was Verrazano Street.