Alphabet City, Manhattan (History)

Alphabet City is a neighborhood located within the East Village in the New York City borough of Manhattan. Its name comes from Avenues A, B, C, and D, the only avenues in Manhattan to have single-letter names. It is bordered by Houston Street to the south and by 14th Street to the north, along the traditional northern border of the East Village and south of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Some famous landmarks include Tompkins Square Park and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

The neighborhood has a long history, serving as a cultural center and ethnic enclave for Manhattan’s German, Polish,Hispanic, and Jewish populations. However, there is much dispute over the borders of the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, and East Village. Historically, Manhattan’s Lower East Side was 14th Street at the northern end, bound on the east by East Riverand on the west by First Avenue; today, that same area is Alphabet City. The area’s German presence in the early 20th century, in decline, virtually ended after the General Slocum disaster in 1904.

Alphabet City is located in New York’s 12th and 14th congressional districts, the New York State Assembly’s 64th and 74th districts, the New York State Senate’s 25th district, and New York City Council’s 2nd district. It is represented by Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velázquez, State Senator Dan Squadron, Assemblymen Sheldon Silver and Brian Kavanagh, and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez. The neighborhood is regulated by Manhattan Community Board 3. The neighborhood lies within the New York Police Department’s 9th precinct, and its schools fall within Manhattan’s 1st school district.

 

HISTORY

Founding

Until the early 19th century, much of what is now Alphabet City was an extensive salt marsh, a type of wetland that was part of the East River ecosystem. The wetland was drained, and a patch of the river bed reclaimed, by real estate developers in the early 19th century.

Like many other neighborhoods on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Alphabet City became home to a succession of immigrant groups over the years. By the 1840s and 1850s, much of present-day Alphabet City had become known as “Kleindeutschland” or “Little Germany”; in the mid-19th century, many claimed New York to be the third-largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin and Vienna, with most of those German speakers residing in and around Alphabet City. Moreover, Kleindeutschland is considered to have been the second substantial non-Anglophone urban ethnic enclave in United States history, after Philadelphia’s Germantown.

By the 1880s, most Germans were moving out of Kleindeutschland and relocating Uptown, to the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. Eastern Europeans replaced Germans as the dominant ethnic group in Alphabet City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, the area was considered part of the Lower East Side, and it became home to Eastern European Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. It consisted of tenement housing with no running water, and the primary bathing location for residents in the northern half of the area was the Asser Levy bath house located on 23rd Street and Avenue C, north of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town. During this time, it was also the red light district of Manhattan and one of the worst slums in the city.

20th Century

By the turn of the 20th century, Alphabet City was among the most densely populated parts of New York City. This density was partially a result of the area’s proximity to the city’s garment factories, which were the major source of employment for newly arrived immigrants. After the construction of the subway system, workers were able to relocate to other parts of the city that were previously too remote, such as the Bronx, and Alphabet City’s population decreased dramatically.

By the middle of the 20th century, Alphabet City was again in transition, as thousands of Puerto Ricans began to settle in the neighborhood. By the 1960s and 1970s, what was once Kleindeutschland and the red light district had evolved into “Loisaida” (Spanglish for “Lower East Side”). Alphabet City became an important site for the development and strengthening of Puerto Rican cultural identity in New York (see the Nuyorican Movement). A number of important Nuyorican intellectuals, poets and artists called Loisaida home during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero.

During the 1980s, Alphabet City was home to a mix of Puerto Rican and African American families living alongside struggling artists and musicians (who were mostly young and white). Attracted by the Nuyorican movement, low rents, and creative atmosphere, Alphabet City attracted a growing Bohemian population. At one time it was home to many of the first graffiti writers, b-boys, rappers, and DJs. The area also had high levels of illegal drug activity and violent crime. The Broadway musical Rent portrays some of the positive and negative aspects of this time and place.

 

Etymology

In the original layout of Manhattan streets, north-south streets east of First Avenue were designated Avenue A, Avenue B, etc. In Midtown and north, Avenue A was eventually renamed as Beekman Place, Sutton Place, York Avenue and Pleasant Avenue; Avenue B was renamed East End Avenue. (There were no avenues farther east in this part of the city.) Farther south, the avenues retained their letter designations.

The name ‘Alphabet City’ is thought to be of rather recent vintage, as the neighborhood was considered to be simply a part of the Lower East Side for much of its history. Urban historian Peter G. Rowe posits that the name only began to become used in the 1980s, when gentrification spread east from the Village. The term’s first appearance in The New York Times is in a 1984 editorial penned by then mayor Ed Koch, appealing to the federal government to aid in fighting crime on the neighborhood’s beleaguered streets:

The neighborhood, known as Alphabet City because of its lettered avenues that run easterly from First Avenue to the river, has for years been occupied by a stubbornly persistent plague of street dealers in narcotics whose flagrantly open drug dealing has destroyed the community life of the neighborhood.

A later 1984 Times article describes it using a number of names: “Younger artists … are moving downtown to an area variously referred to as Alphabetland, Alphabetville, or Alphabet City (Avenues A, B, C and so forth on the Lower East Side of Manhattan)”.

Tomkins Square Park Riots

In August 1988, a riot erupted in Tompkins Square Park when police arrived to evict a large encampment of homeless people from the park. The police had been sent there to enforce a curfew enacted in response to over a decade of complaints from residents about the round-the-clock lawlessness and noise emanating from the park. The police showed little restraint, with several demonstrators injured, and much ensuing public disapproval.

Grentrification

Alphabet City was one of many neighborhoods in New York to experience gentrification in the 1990s and early 21st century. Multiple factors resulted in lower crime rates and higher rents in Manhattan in general, and Alphabet City in particular. Avenues A through D became distinctly less bohemian in the 21st century than they had been in earlier decades. Apartments have been renovated and formerly abandoned storefronts are now bustling with new restaurants, nightclubs and retail establishments.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space opened on Avenue C in the building known as C-Squat in 2012. A living archive of urban activism, the museum explores the history of grassroots movements in the East Village and offers guided walking tours of community gardens, squats, and sites of social change.