Borders Over Time

Official Borders
The total area of Manhattan’s Community District 3 as per 2012 census data is 1.7 square miles. Alphabet City as we have grown to know it today takes up a significant portion of this area in the Lower East Side. Its name comes from the lettered Avenues A, B, C, and D that run through the area, and so we physically define the area as Avenue A to the East River from West to East and 14th Street to Houston Street from North to South. However, it has not always been known as “Alphabet City.” As stated in the Gentrification section, the term was popularized by real estate developers as an easy way to refer to the area. Before the 19th century, the area had barely been inhabited and was still very rural land. We can see a gradual progression of the area’s growth with the maps provided.

This is a map from 1797. As you can see in the top right corner, Alphabet City was very rural and barely inhabited by this time.
This map from 1851 is the first time we see Tompkins Square park as the park was only created in 1850.
This map from the 1920s shows the range of ethnic groups in the area as well as the more defined borders.
This is a map from the 1980s. Once again, we can see Alphabet City in the top right corner with Tompkins Square park in the middle.
This is present day Alphabet City.

The Effects of Borders
In speaking to a member of the community, Father Pat Moloney, Alphabet City was not even called Alphabet City until the 1980s. Father Pat came to the area in 1956 when Alphabet City was still just the Lower East Side. He described the different avenues A, B, and C as nearly “complete different countr[ies]” where Avenue A consisted of the upper mobility working class, Avenue B was the “frontier,” and Avenue C was “Indian country” or the “bad lands.” No one wanted to live on Avenue C because it was a “Ghetto” but “in the best sense of the word Ghetto.”

This deserted border on Houston shows the lack of use.

With personal experience walking around, I could feel a shift in walking from outside Alphabet City to inside Alphabet City. The space generally grew quieter and there was less activity on the sidewalks. It felt slightly more run down than the rest of Greenwich Village all though there was a blend from Second Avenue to Avenue A. In her novel The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says “blight typically occurs along city waterfront” althought they “are not inherently noisy, dirty or disagreeable environments” (258). The border of the East River Sound accompanies Alphabet City, and though it is a quiet, clean space, the area still remains relatively unused and decaying. Jacobs also states “The root trouble with borders, as city neighbors, is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets” (259). Avenue A seemed to serve as a “dead end” that kept out the rest of New York. The people in the area either worked there, or lived there and thus Alphabet City appeared as a sort of “vacuum” as Jacobs describes it, leading to the “running-down process” of the area (259). This explains the general underdeveloped feeling I had when visiting the area.

Works Cited

  1. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.
  2. New York City Department of City Planning, 2010-2012.
  3. “A New&Accurate Plan of the City of New York in the State of New York in North America.” Map. 1797. Print.
  4. “Map of the City of New York Extending Northward to 15th Street.” Map. Matthew Dripps, 1851. Print.
  5. “Map of the Borough of Manhattan and Part of the Bronx” Map. 1920. Print.
  6. “Mapped Streets.” Map. New York City Department of City Planning, 1982. Print.
  7. “Tompkins Square/Alphabet City Slow Zone.” Map. 2005-2009. Web. 15 November 2013.