Both a “First Street” and a “1 Street” on the Street Commissioners’ Map of 1811? And a “Second Street” and a “2 Street”? … And a “Sixth Street” and a “6 Street”? Yup.

by johntauranac

The Street Commissioners’ Map of 1811 as depicted here has north to the right.

 

I gave a tour the other day for the Museum of the City of New York in conjunction with their marvelous show, “The Greatest Grid,” a celebration of the Street Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.

As I was doing my homework and plotting the route on the Street Commissioners’ Map, my eyes wandered to an area south of “North Street,” the aboriginal name for today’s East Houston Street, and east of Bowery Road, “when, what to my wondering eyes should appear” on the map but First Street, and Second, Third and Fourth Streets and, though interrupted by Orchard Street, Sixth Street. All the streets were north-south streets, all were given ordinal numbers, and all were spelled out. This is odd, said I to myself.

One of the basics of the gridiron plan was that “streets” – in opposition to “avenues” – went crosstown, or east and west from river to river, and they were numbered, beginning with “1 Street,” as the commissioners had it on their map. However, here we are presented with numbered streets going north and south, and not just numbered streets, but duplicative numbered streets. There were two First Streets, two Second Streets, and so on.

The street commissioners had abandoned all hope of making sense of the streets south of today’s Houston Street and simply accepted them, and those numbered north-south streets were there first. First, Second and Third Streets were already making their trajectory north from Division Street by 1789, according to a map of that year, and they were still there 22 years later, along with two more streets that had been cut through and accorded numbers (Orchard Street was already “Orchard Street.”). The streets were part of the Delancey Farm, land that was confiscated after the Loyalist Delancey family had fled the scene. Their property was sold off, and I assume the streets were given those simple names to distinguish boundaries for sale purposes.

The street commissioners intentionally choose not to rock the established boat. They simply incorporated the existing street names in the “unimproved” section of their map, despite the obvious confusion over the duplicative nature of the street names. They ignored their proclamation that numbered streets would go east and west, and they accepted the fact of the confusing street names without commenting on their anomalous position. They could have said “Caveat emptor cartae. The following street names are duplicated….” Or, to avoid confusion, they could have begun their numbering at 7 Street instead of 1 Street. Or, perhaps they believed that the average map reader would suffer no confusion because of this subtlety: the numbered streets with ordinal numbers were spelled out (“First,” for instance) in distinction to the numbered streets with cardinal numbers that were presented as numerals (“1”).

Clearly, even the above-average reader was confused. In 1817, the Common Council rode to the rescue and changed the aberrant numbered north-south street names south of Houston Street: First Street to Chrystie, Second to Forsyth, Third to Eldridge, Fourth to Allen, and Sixth to Ludlow (all men distinguished by military service).

And to think that I saw it near Mulberry Street.

An afterthought: I recently bumped into Gil Tauber, who operates the best on-line trove of old street names of New York, called, originally enough, “Old Streets of New York” (www.oldstreets.com). He already knew all about what I had just “discovered.” It’s not easy being a babe in these woods, all apologies to Sarah Palin.

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