HISTORY NOW!

We live with history in our built environment; history enriches our lives and gives us a sense of place. These are stories about historic places.

Changing Streets and Names: Bleecker Street

BY BRIAN J PAPE, AIA, LEED-AP

The charm of the Village is undeniably wrapped up in the unusual street layouts. But that ‘charminess’ can be confusing. In earlier issues, we explored early streets, such as the “Monument Lane” aka “Road to the Obelisk” aka “Greenwich Lane,” and crooked West 4th Street. The rhetorical question is, “Why did the city fathers make the choices they did?”

This 1807 map was by William Bridges, city surveyor, prior to the establishment of the 1811 grid street layout. The 1811 map was redrawn by the otherwise less known William Bridges from Randel’s original and engraved by Peter Maverick. Credit: NYPL Archives (Pape notes added)

Today, Bleecker Street runs from the Bowery on the east to Abingdon Square on the northwest, where it meets up with Bethune Street. Let’s see how Bleecker Street came to be.

In 1785 the city council held approximately 1,300 acres, or about 9% of Manhattan Island in “Common Lands” in the center of the island, but there were private farmsteads as well. The city hired surveyor Casimir Goerck and a partner, Joseph F. Mangin to create an official map of Manhattan. It was unclear how some existing grids especially in the Lower East Side, if carried farther north, would mesh with other existing layouts in the Common Lands, which was already the basis of numerous property transfers and leases.

Legal historian Hendrik Hartog writes that the city council’s choice of the grid was resonant with the political values of the country, only recently having gained independence from Great Britain. The grid was, “… the antithesis of a utopian or futuristic plan.” (And they certainly didn’t want the mess that London, Paris, or even downtown Manhattan modeled.)

By 1807, the ‘city fathers’ disavowed the Goerck-Mangin 1803 map and determined to lay out the city streets in a uniform grid pattern by turning to the authority of state legislature.

Streets of Greenwich Village and much of the city south of Houston Street were generally named and developed, so the jurisdiction of the state Commission was Houston Street to 155th Street, only over to “Art Street,” and “Greenwich Lane,” now Greenwich Avenue; streets could go into the Hudson River and East River 600 feet beyond the low water mark.  The basepoint for the cross streets was First Street just above Houston Street, from the intersection of Avenue B and Houston to the intersection of the Bowery near Bleecker Street.

When 20-year-old surveyor John Randel, Jr. was commissioned to provide a plan, begun in 1808 and completed in 1810, he worked from a small building at the NE corner of Christopher and “Herrings” Street, the future Bleecker Street. This intersection is wider north of Christopher, since the former street south of Christopher didn’t align quite right with the northern street right-of-way.

Bleecker Street is named for Anthony Lispenard Bleecker and his family. Bleecker was one of NYC’s most wealthy and powerful men, as a banker, merchant, auctioneer, a founder of the New-York Historical Society, and a vestryman for Trinity Church, which owned most of the land west of the Bleecker farm. In 1808, Bleecker and his wife deeded the land along the northern border of the Bleecker family’s farm to the city, for Bleecker Street, which ran between the Bowery to Broadway.

So, where did the rest of today’s Bleecker Street come from? As shown on the 1807 Bridges’ map, most of the work was already in place for a united Bleecker Street, despite certain inaccuracies of the plan and a misspelling occasionally. In the map by D. H. Burr in 1834 and in Bromley’s Atlas of Manhattan 1921, the streets had been labeled “Bleeker” Street, causing confusion that lasts to this day. When the Department of Transportation inadvertently dropped the “c” in the street signs in 2006, it created a major uproar. The 1807 map shows Bleecker Street parallel with Bond Street, and aligned with Romaine Street, a street mapped but never built. In actuality, Bleecker bends at Mulberry Street, and didn’t align with First Street, unlike Bond Street aligning with Second Street.

Carroll Place: A short street between Thompson Street and the present LaGuardia Place (which was formerly Laurens Street), this short street was later renamed for Bleecker too.

David Street: The former name of a street from Broadway to Hancock Street (later Sixth Avenue). Its intended name was probably St. David’s Street, since that is how it appears on the Bayard West Farm Map. David was also a name used for Herring Street, at least in the vicinity of the present Perry Street, circa 1810. In 1829 it became part of Bleecker Street along with Herring Street. (Reportedly, David Street was also the former name of Clarkson Street between Varick and Hudson Streets, probably a very brief usage.)

Herring Street: Named for Elbert Herring, whose farm was also adjacent to the Trinity Church holdings north of the Bleecker farm. Herring’s farm included much of the future Washington Square Park and NYU area, to a western border marked by the bend of streets west of Bedford Street. A 1784 Herring or Haring Farm map by David Haring spotlights the various spellings often found in historic records; they refer to the same persons. Note on the 1807 map that it is spelled “Herrings” Street. Until 1829, Herring Street ran northward from the other cross-town streets, from Hancock Street.

One might ask, since the city fathers were so intent on linking up pieces of streets to have continuous names, why they didn’t continue Bleecker to the river? Conversely, one might lament the loss of such an important family name like the Herrings, since their name could easily have remained on that north-running leg, rather than adding Bleecker. Was it political rivalry? Thankfully, they didn’t choose to give it a number, like Fourth Street.


Village Preservation, Gilbert Tauber’s Oldstreets.com, city records and Wikipedia provided historic notes.