Looking Straight Down

Another army air corps photo, looking down in April 1937 on lower Manhattan. There are a few interesting details to this view, starting with the fact that you can judge the height of the buildings very effectively by their shadows.

A shot like this helps explain the use of the word “canyons” to describe the streets after the first generation of skyscrapers had been built. Those buildings, with neither the setbacks required by the 1916 zoning law nor the plazas required by the 1960 zoning law, filled their lots full height and threw the streets into deep shadow.

This view shows something I talked about last week at the GSMT: how incredibly densely packed New York’s blocks used to be. Only two of the open spaces visible here existed in 1895: Battery Park (at the upper left corner) and City Hall Park (mid-upper-right, in line with the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, with two buildings in it). The other parks – the plaza at the end of the Manhattan Bridge and Mulberry Bend Park (now Columbus Park) between the Manhattan Bridge Plaza and the hexagonal New York County Courthouse – came later. Foley Square, the irregular open space north of the courthouse, has always been open space, but has never been much of a park.

You also get a sense of how close things are. The low-rise neighborhood north (right) of the Brooklyn Bridge and south of the big institutional buildings at Foley Square is the south end of the Lower East Side. Parts of it are famous: Mulberry Bend Park was made by tearing down an entire block of tenements between the curve in Mulberry Street and the corresponding bend in Baxter Street. The Mulberry bend tenements had been made infamous by Jacob Riis, and were “reformed” through demolition.

The street layout has been changed – partially by a desire to obliterate the past and partially by the redevelopment of a slum as part of the civic center, but the southwest corner of the Mulberry bend block is very famous: it was the original Five Points, named after the intersection of Anthony, Cross, and Orange Streets. Anthony was renamed Worth Street and later extended to the east; Cross was renamed Park Street and later eliminated west of Mulberry (the one-block stub of the street is now Mosco Street), and Orange was renamed Baxter Street and later eliminated south of Worth. Anyone looking for the romanticized version of the Points will find only the back of three courthouses and a park facing a T intersection. The horrible reputation of the Points for poverty and crime led to, again, effective erasure. In the photo above, that process is about two-third complete.

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