I was walking up Henry Street in the Lower East Side recently, taking photos for a future examination of the street, when I encountered a Forgotten NY treasure that I have known about since I began shooting photos all over town in 1998. It’s a short, two-block alley tucked along the west side of the Manhattan Bridge approach …
A forbidding place, actually, which looks like mugger central. (As you will see I did not bother walking on it.) The name of it is Mechanics Alley and the Department of Transportation has gone so far as to install a new sign in the fairly readable Clearview font. It begins at Henry Street just east of Market Street and runs two blocks southeast to Monroe, though it’s marked only as far as Madison.
However, I’ve found that this isn’t the same Mechanics Alley that was there in bygone days before the bridge was built. There was indeed a Mechanics Alley in the vicinity, but it wasn’t this one.
A bit of history: the older Mechanics Alley likely wasn’t dominated by machinists and repair shops, as would come to mind with the word ‘mechanic.’ Many older East Coast downtowns have short streets or alleys named “Mechanic” — look at all the listings on this wikipedia page. These days ‘mechanic’ means anyone who repairs machinery but in a previous era, it also included the sense of ‘skilled artisan.’ A Mechanic Street would be found in a part of town containing tradesmen, shopkeepers and also repairmen. The many “Mechanics Institutes” in cities such as San Francisco use the word in that sense, as does the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen on 20 West 44th Street in midtown.
Why isn’t this the ‘older’ Mechanics Alley?
This 1842 map shows a short alley between Henry and Madison east of Market (circles) and a second alley south of it, between Monroe and Cherry. In 1842 these streets had just recently been laid out. Some houses, marked a, b and c, are also shown.
By 1879 these two alleys had been given names. Note that the one between Henry and Madison is named “Birmingham Street” and the one between Monroe and Cherry is “Merrimack Alley.”
Now, this is the only place I’ve seen a reference to a Merrimack Alley. The two sources I trust, Kenneth Dunshee’s book “As You Pass By” and Gil Tauber’s website Old Streets don’t mention a Merrimack Alley at all. There may be a reason for that, as you will see on the next alley plate.
By 1891, the two alleys are still there, and a third, Pelham Street, is also in place. But Merrimack Alley had changed to Mechanics Alley.
Or had it changed? In the 1800s records were often kept by hand, sometimes in elaborately scripted and ornate cursive hand. It’d be easy to substitute one word for the other. There is an instance of this on record in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg where many of the streets are named for signers of the Declaration of Independence. One street, McKean, had its name forever changed to Keap when some cursive handwriting was misinterpreted. It can happen everywhere. I think this alley was always named “Mechanics” and not “Merrimack.”
By 1915 the Manhattan Bridge approach had ben run through the area, condemning a lot of houses. Birmingham Street has evaded destruction, though, on the east side of the bridge between Henry and Madison. Mechanics Alley, to the south of the image between Monroe and Cherry, wasn’t so lucky and was right in the path of destruction.
This 1925 plate shows the present-day Mechanics Alley alignment: I’ve set off in red a bare spot along the west side of the bridge that runs for two blocks. A couple of decades ago, the DOT apparently decided to sign this “Mechanics Alley” apparently in tribute, or homage, to the older alley between Monroe and Cherry that the Manhattan Bridge had destroyed.
Turning our attention to Birmingham Street, in 1949 Hagstrom still listed it as a short street running from East Broadway southeast to Madison Street.
In his site Manhattan Past, Don Rogerson states that Birmingham Street had its name changed to Livingston Place in 1954. The street was then closed in 1962 when a parking garage was built in its place.
There is a short street running along the east side of the bridge, ending at Henry Street. The DOT signs it as a southern extension of Forsyth Street.
Amazingly the Google Photo Truck, or perhaps a handheld camera, has traversed the length of the “new” Mechanics Alley. Shown is its intersection with Madison Street and a Manhattan Bridge stanchion.
Looking north along Mechanics Alley from Madison toward Henry.
Mechanics Alley, looking south from Madison toward Monroe.
Mechanics Alley at its southern end at Monroe Street.
This Google map shows the correct configuration of Henry Street, Mechanics Alley and Forsyth Street.