Alphabet City, Manhattan
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.
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.
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[who?] 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[by whom?] 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.
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.
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)".
Tompkins 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. It is referred to as the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot or simply the Tompkins Square Park Riot.
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.
Notable past residents
- Louis Abolafia, artist, social activist, folk figure, and hippie candidate for President of the United States
- Rosario Dawson, actress
- Bobby Driscoll, actor
- Allen Ginsberg poet, 206 E. 7th Street
- Madonna, singer
- Charlie Parker, jazz musician lived at 151 Avenue B between East 9th and East 10th Streets
- Geraldo Rivera, TV personality, resident during the late 60s - early 70s
In popular culture
- In Marvel Comics, Alphabet City is home to District X, also known as Mutant Town, a ghetto primarily populated by mutants. The ghetto was identified as being inside Alphabet City in New X-Men #127. It was described in District X as having the 'highest unemployment rate in the USA, the highest rate of illiteracy and the highest severe overcrowding outside of Los Angeles'. (These figures would suggest a large population.) It was destroyed in X-Factor #34.
- The photo and text book Alphabet City by Geoffrey Biddle chronicles life in Alphabet City over the years 1977 to 1989.
- The photo book Street Play by Martha Cooper.
- A fictional version of NYC's Alphabet City is explored in the Fallen Angels supplement to Kult.
- Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep took place in Alphabet City, with the novel's main character, David and his family, living there.
- The fictional 15th Precinct in the police drama NYPD Blue appears to cover Alphabet City, at least in part.
- The series Law and Order: SVU frequently makes reference to the dangers of living in that area of the city.
- The 1996 TV movie Mrs. Santa Claus is primarily set on Avenue A in Alphabet City in 1910.
- The 2005 motion picture Rent, starring Rosario Dawson, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, and Tracie Thoms, is an adaptation of the 1996 Broadway rock opera of the same name by Jonathan Larson (which itself is heavily based on Puccini's opera La Boheme) and set in Alphabet City on 11th Street and Avenue B, although many scenes were filmed in San Francisco. Unlike the stage musical, which was not set in a specific period of time, the film is clear that the story takes place between 1989 and 1990. Although this leads to occasional anachronisms in the story, the time period is explicitly mentioned to establish that the story takes place before the gentrification of Alphabet City.
- Character actor Josh Pais, who grew up in Alphabet City, conceived and directed a personal documentary film, 7th Street, released in 2003. Shot over a period of ten years, it is both a "love letter" to the characters he saw everyday and a chronicle of the changes that took place in the neighborhood.
- The 1999 film Flawless, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, takes place in Alphabet City with all filming taking place there.
- A 1985 movie by Paul Morrissey, Mixed Blood was set and filmed in the pre-gentrification Alphabet city of the early 1980s
- A 1984 movie called Alphabet City, about a drug dealer's attempts to flee his life of crime, took place in the district. It starred Vincent Spano, Zohra Lampert and Jami Gertz.
- The Broadway musical Rent takes place in Alphabet City. The characters live on East 11th Street and Avenue B. They hang out at such East Village locales as Life Cafe.
- The Broadway musical Avenue Q takes place on the fictitious Avenue Q, which is, for the sake of the plot, located in Alphabet City. One of the main characters mentions he is looking for cheap accommodation in Alphabet City.
- Avenue A is mentioned in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical Show Boat when the Dahomey natives on display at the Chicago World's Fair admit "Our home ain't in Dahomey at all!/Oh, take me back today to Avenue A!" in old New York"
- Avenue B is an album by Iggy Pop, who wrote the album while living at the Christodora House on Avenue B.
- Avenue D is referenced in the Steely Dan song, "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" off the 1975 album Katy Lied
- Alphabet City is an album by the band ABC.
- The punk house and independent gig venue C-Squat is called so because it sits on Avenue C, between 9th and 10th St. Bands and artists to emerge from the former squat include Leftöver Crack, Choking Victim, INDK, Morning Glory and Stza. Leftöver Crack makes several references to "9th and C", the approximate location of C-Squat in the song "Homeo Apathy" from the album Mediocre Generica.
- The Fleshtones proceed through Avenues A, B, C and D in their song "Take A Walk With The Fleshtones" on their album Beautiful Light.
- Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams references Avenue A and Avenue B in his track "New York, New York".
- U2 references the neighborhood as "Alphaville" in their song "New York".
- The song "Poster Girl" from the 2005 album Never Gone by the Backstreet Boys chronicles the romantic adventures of a young, carefree girl living in Alphabet City.
- Avenue B is the title of a song by gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello on their album Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike
- Loisaida part of Alphabet City at the time of Tompkins Square Park Riots is the setting of an eponymous novel by Marion Stein.
- "Selling the Lower East Side - Geography Page". Upress.umn.edu. Retrieved 2010-10-15.
- "Exhibitions". The Villager. October 4, 2006. Retrieved 2009-08-22.
- Foderaro, Lisa W. (May 17, 1987). "Will it be Loisaida of Alphabet city?; Two Visions Vie In the East Village". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-22.
- Rowe, Peter G. (1999). "Civic Realism". MIT Press. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- Koch, Ed (April 27, 1984). "Needed: Federal Anti-Drug Aid". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- Freedman, Samuel (November 4, 1984). "Metropolis of the Mind". The New York Times. section 6, page 32, column 1. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- Shaw, Dan (November 11, 2007). "Rediscovering New York as It Used to Be". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 12 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-12.
- "Geoffrey Biddle". Retrieved 24 October 2010.
- whatyouwrite (2006-09-13). "Street Play, Photographs By Martha Cooper « Whatyouwrite.Com". Whatyouwrite.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2010-10-15.