Unchanging

While I was looking at maps for the Consolidated Exchange, I was reminded of an anomaly in the pattern of streets and blocks in lower Manhattan. I knew the cause, but not the timing, so I decided to trace it backwards through time.

The anomaly is Coenties Slip, a triangle of open space in the congested streetscape of the area. A “slip” is the space between piers or bulkheads where a ship can dock, so obviously this used to be such a space that was filled in during the extension of Manhattan into the East River. For reference, Pearl Street, which runs more or less left to right at more or less the middle of the sheet, is the original East River shore. Everything east of that (down the page) is landfill. The map above is from 1955 and shows the elevated highway over South Street (the modern edge of land) as well as various subway tunnels.

Here’s 1923:

The big S curve through Coenties Slip is the elevated train on its way down to the South Ferry terminal on the far lower left. The streets and shore are the same. Let’s jump backwards and look at 1852:

Now we’re getting somewhere. South Street is in two discontinuous parts, broken by two berths at the edge of Coenties Slip. Note that Old Slip, off to the right, is entirely filled in. The fact that Coenties Slip is mostly filled in may have been very recent. Here’s a map from 1850, but one that is less accurate and may represent an older condition:

Coenties Slip is entirely open, although divided in two unequal parts by a pier. Old Slip is filled in, the eastern end of Wall Street is still the Coffee House Slip and the eastern end of John Street is still Burling Slip. Back to 1840:

We’re now before the slips were being abandoned. Old Slip, Coffee House Slip, and Burling Slip are open, dividing South Street into fragments. Coenties Slip is the same as 1850. Back to 1824:

It turns out there was a Whitehall Slip at the foot of Whitehall Street. The next map, from 1804, requires careful attention:

All of the slips but Whitehall are there and named as such, but they hardly look any different that the adjacent wharfs. (For what it’s worth “SP” and “WF” are great abbreviations for this purpose.) The reason becomes clear when you look at the streets. The only portion of South Street present is the short stretch from Whitehall Street to Coenties Slip. Everywhere else, Front Street is the last street before the river. We’ve now gone back far enough that landfill was still being placed on the river, so the slips were to yet as deep, north to south, as they would become when the land was extended out to South Street. As a result, the triangle of Coenties Slip was not yet so wide at its eastern edge. Back to 1797:

Coenties Slip is mostly open, with just a small piece of dividing pier. The river piers are shorter as well. Finally, back to 1767:

A lot of landfill took place between 1767 and 1797. Given the events of 1776 to 1783, I’d guess that most of it happened in the second half of that period. Burling Slip is named Rodmans Slip. Old Slip does not exist because it’s part (the south end) of the open area framed by Hunter’s Key and Murray’s Wharf. The triangle of Coenties Slip is there, but seems secondary to the long Albany pier. A lot of streets changed name after the Revolution, in some cases reverting to names they had during the Dutch colonial period. The western Dock Street and Queen Street, for example, are South Street. The rest of Dock Street is now Water Street. Kruger’s “Warf” and Burnet’s Key are the future Front Street.

In short, the line of the Albany Pier in the mid 1700s set the south edge of the future Coenties Slip, and the street pattern set the north edge, and that triangle is still present in our streets today.

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