As far as I’m concerned, Cortlandt Alley between Walker and White Streets is the most beautiful of Manhattan’s few remaining back alleys.
It’s the archetypal image of a New York City alley – narrow, dank, secluded, and bordered by decaying loading docks, rusting fire escapes, and graffitied brick walls. I love the fact that if you stand back far enough, you can even see towering skyscrapers in the distance, as if we’re in a sort-of oasis in Manhattan (see the above picture).
There are other alleys, sure, but none with the romantic flair of this section of Cortlandt. And a lot of them are rapidly disappearing: half of Franklin Place and all of Theatre Alley have been recently lost to renovations.
I love the labyrinth of fire escapes, the loose wires, drainage pipes…
…and especially the storm windows, which look strong enough to keep out the fiercest hurricane.
You never know what you’re going to find in Cortlandt Alley. Most of the time, it smells like piss, and there’s trash everywhere, but today, I noticed a broken peacock feather lying on the sidewalk.
But what is really going on behind the facade of Cortlandt Alley? Hollywood would have you believe that, to find adventure, intrigue, or danger, you simply need go to the nearest New York alley. Is this true for Cortlandt? What unlawful transactions are taking place behind the rusted roll gates and service entrances? What dens of iniquity are being run in this seamy back street of Manhattan?
Today, I decided to find out for myself.
See the gated entrance on the left in the above photo? I’ve passed by it many times in my scouting career, and have always heard people yelling inside. What could they be up to? Something insidious, no doubt. The gate happened to be partially open today, and I decided to risk a look.
I pushed open the iron gate and made my way down an ancient set of wooden stairs, which creaked loudly as I went…
As I passed into the lower portion, I prepared myself for what would assuredly turn out to be the lair of a notorious, deadly gang of…
…ping pong players.
Yep, if I had taken time to actually read the small sign posted over the gate outside, I would have realized that this is the home for the New York Table Tennis Federation Training Center:
According to the group’s website, the NYTTF opened its doors in 2004 and is the largest table tennis facility in New York, with over 6,000 square feet of playing space. You can become a member for monthly access, or just go play at their hourly rate of $10/person. Hours are from 1p til about 10:30p, depending on the day. They also hold regular tournaments.
If you look in the above picture, you’ll see a bunch of elderly Asian men playing. DO NOT BE FOOLED. This place takes ping pong – er, table tennis very seriously, and these guys were VERY good. This isn’t a pool hall, with a bar providing half the entertainment. It’s all about the table tennis here, and while beginners are certainly welcome, experts and even Olympians regularly practice here. Check out a great article on the NYTTF regulars here.
Also, don’t forget: you’re on the edge of Chinatown, and table tennis is the national sport of China. Your competition will be fierce.
To me, the dank alley is the most cliched shooting location in New York, because unlike the Brooklyn Bridge or Empire State Building, its very archetype (dark, steamy, full of intrigue, adventure, and danger) is an entirely fictional creation of Hollywood. Ironically, in reality, what you’re likely to find on the other side of a rusted gate entrance (say, a table tennis hall with a largely Asian clientele) is far more original than anything the movies regularly cook up.
That said, I do appreciate alleys for their beauty as a rare piece of forgotten New York. There’s really nothing you can do to save or preserve them (certainly, whatever is worth landmarking is rarely found among loading docks), and their value is in their scarcity. And they’re so easily ruined; just go a block south to the next portion of Cortlandt Alley and you’ll see how easily a great alley can disappear with the construction of a modern high-rise.
Here’s hoping what remains of Cortlandt sticks around for a long time to come.