Sunday, July 14, 2019

Then and Now: Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, NYC

Bleecker Street at 7th Avenue, Manhattan

Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, randommusings.filminspector.com
Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, NYC, in 1979.
This is an interesting picture because of what it shows, but also because of what it doesn't show. History in New York City is in plain sight and yet hidden by lack of memory. The above picture shows Bleecker Street at Seventh Avenue. It is a fairly typical row of houses on Bleecker Street, apparently from the mid-19th Century. You can always tell those apart from more recent buildings due to the cornices - and the fact that they often have the year of construction up near the roofs. Since this photo interested me and shows a slice of Greenwich Village that usually doesn't get a lot of attention, I did this comparison of Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street from 1979 to 2017.

Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, randommusings.filminspector.com
Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, NYC, in November 2017 (Google Street View).
Our first order of business is always to make sure that we have the right location and compare the structures. Here, it is fairly obvious that we are looking at the same row of buildings, as virtually nothing about them has changed. Well, one thing has changed - the three on the right are painted in noticeably darker colors. That's probably just due to modern tastes, pastels and whites were more fashionable in Manhattan decades ago, whereas now darker is seen as classier or something. One thing that darker colors are better at than pastels is that they tend to show their age less noticeably. So, it's not really a surprise that the pink building in 1979 turned into a dark red, and the tan building to its left turned became an even darker red. Dark red seems to be almost a code for "historic," and one is more likely to consider a 1850s row house as historic in 2017 than in 1979. So, paint it to match the plot.

Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, randommusings.filminspector.com
Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, NYC, in November 2017 (Google Street View).
Let's make a larger point about this scene, however. We're in Greenwich Village, so we know the normal grid rules applied to Manhattan in 1811 don't apply. However, notice the nice view we have of this block of houses (284-289 Bleecker Street). Does that strike you like a little unusual? Usually, in Manhattan, you can't just back up indefinitely to get a better view. However, here we can get a nice long view of these buildings on a side street. What gives? Well, there is a very good reason for this.

Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, randommusings.filminspector.com
Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, NYC, in November 2017 (Google Street View). Bleecker Street is on the right, Barrow Street on the left.
This photo may make the situation a little plainer. Notice the little pizza joint next to the red tenement? Kind of an odd triangular shape. Well, the answer to why this is unusual (and, for Manhattan, it is unusual) is that there used to be quite a different scene here. Back in the early 20th Century, there was no Seventh Avenue at this spot. It ended several blocks north, at 11th Street. However, in 1914, the powers that be decided to extend 7th Avenue south to Varick Street. This enabled the construction of both the new road through the neighborhood and also a subway line underneath it (the New York City Subway IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line, known more familiarly now as the 1,2, and 3 train, opened in 1918). All they had to do was blow up a bunch of buildings just like those four colorful tenements. Oh, and a church or two as well. At that point, those buildings were only about 50 or 60 years old, so who cares, right? Plus, it was kind of a grimy area with a reputation for crimes at the time and the city planners probably saw it as a chance to clean things up a bit. Now, of course, the entire neighborhood would be full of historic buildings if they hadn't made that decision. But, you wouldn't have that nice view of those buildings.

Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, randommusings.filminspector.com
Seventh Avenue at Bleecker Street, NYC, in November 2017 (Google Street View).
A look down Bleecker Street gives a better view of the impact of the Seventh Avenue Cut (as it was called) of 1914. Notice that building on the right? Barely visible on the right in the 1979 photo, it is somewhat oddly shaped. It wasn't originally built that way. Its end was lopped off in 1914 for the construction of 7th Avenue and the subway. So, after over 100 years, the effects of that decision remain on display. The only reason that the photographer in 1979 was able to get that angle for his or her photograph was because of the 1914 Seventh Avenue Cut. Without it, that building on the right would have been intact and blocked the line of sight. They just sliced off half of the building and built a new exterior wall, and there it remains after over 100 years. Sometimes, the history of Manhattan is revealed more by what you don't see rather than by what you do.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Manhattan is constantly changing, and sometimes what remains acts as a map to what has been lost. Please visit some of our other pages in this continuing series!

2019

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