Saturday, January 4, 2014

New York backstreets by Theodore Corbett

The Alley. A backstreet History of New York’s Communities (revisiting an article by Theodore Corbett)

Voices, the journal of New York Folklore   Volume 28 Spring-Summer 2002

New York City’s alleys were created as amenities for aristocratic and bourgeois residents. In the twentieth century, alleys survived the age of the automobile and the decline of central cities; they have been gentrified and protected for their contributions to the quality of life in our cities. Now they are waiting to be studied as microcosms of vernacular architecture and social history.

(A carriage house entrance on North Row, Washington Square, New York City, still has its old doorway, built to accommodate a horse-drawn wagon or carriage. This alley, modeled on the mews of London, served wealthy residents of the city.)    Photo by Theodore Corbett.

In the nineteenth century, the rise of carriage traffic in New York State made it necessary to keep animals in cities and villages, causing the creation of urban alleys. Alleys were spaces where valuable animals could be kept in barns or, as the century wore on, decorative and substantial carriage houses. Alleys were thus constructed as amenities, places that improved the value of a property, and a convenience to the household they served. Yet paradoxically, alleys were hidden behind the main house, not to be seen by respectable people—for the owners preferred to display their carriages and themselves formally, traveling on the most fashionable main streets.

After the Civil War, the alleys’ original function as an amenity declined, as they became populated by working class residents. Often, alleys were sites for both low-income housing and commercial development, because the housing was cheaper than on the main street and the space was ideal for small-scale enterprise. Such neighborhoods were the forerunner of the urban ghetto. Only in the twentieth century, with the gentrification of alley structures by returning professionals, did the alley reacquire the prestige it had originally held, sometimes to the extent of forcing out both the working class and commercial establishments.

Because alleys were back streets, the sources for their study are scarce and require the application of interdisciplinary techniques. My approach treats planned alleys as built and social landscapes to be investigated as vernacular architecture, and then viewed as service, residential, or commercial space that attracted the working class. 


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