Danger and Intrigue in Cortlandt Alley

As far as I’m concerned, Cortlandt Alley between Walker and White Streets is the most beautiful of Manhattan’s few remaining back alleys.

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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).

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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.

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I love the labyrinth of fire escapes, the loose wires, drainage pipes…

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…and especially the storm windows, which look strong enough to keep out the fiercest hurricane.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I pushed open the iron gate and made my way down an ancient set of wooden stairs, which creaked loudly as I went…

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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…

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…ping pong players.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Here’s hoping what remains of Cortlandt sticks around for a long time to come.

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19 comments

  1. One of my favorite places to shoot! Whenever I’m in Chinatown I try to take a little diversion to see if there’s anything happening in Cortland Alley.

  2. I used to live about a block from there. It’s very common to see films being shot there and on the streets perpendicular to it. I love that little alley. Well done.

  3. As soon as you asked the question, “What goes on behind those doors?”, I thought of the ping-pong place. Do they still have the sign on their door saying it’s available as a holding area? That’s how I first stumbled upon it.

  4. Interesting take on shooting in the alley…

  5. Great yet again. Almost the answer to my request, which is that Im looking for a dank basement that can double as a abandoned school music room with rusted music stands and rusted chairs piled up. As an actor I’m trying to do a video-make my own project -because acting jobs are getting scarce for my age group. (60s)
    Thank you, Peter

  6. I wonder if this is the same alley from MC Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out”?

  7. I used to live right here, I was excited when they shot a scene for a movie called ‘Cheese’ in this alley. Of course, that was a codename for Cloverfield.

  8. Ha! I walked down Cortlandt Alley a couple of Saturdays ago and thought the exact same thing. I saw a couple of Asian men follow each other through that doorway, and, convinced the table tennis sign was simply a front, I too suspected their involvement in some kind of shady, subterranean Asian mob dealing. Top bravery points to you for daring to venture through those doors!

  9. If you happen to be a Table Tennis Aficionado like myself, there’s another club in midtown that’s billed a little less serious and a little more hipsterish. http://www.spinyc.com/info.php They have a restaraunt, many tables, and they have a private room with a single, mirror-finish table, private bar and sound system for example.

  10. Any doubts I may have had as to whether table tennis was a real sport were settled once and for all when I watched some of a women’s match on TV during the 2004 Olympics. Despite being obviously well-conditioned, both players were literally dripping with sweat.

  11. My favorite memory of this alley was the first time I noticed it – there was a homeless man halfway down taking a “shower” with a bottle of water, naked of course.

  12. I saw Cortland Alley for the first time yesterday and thought it was so adorable and old-time. I figured it must have been used in Streets Of New York…it looked so familiar. It’s best to go see when active during a workday. I discovered it yesterday because I went to a Best Buy press event in one of the converted loft spaces in one of the buildings. We were supposed to enter at the front on Broadway, but the elevator was broken, so a publicist had to take all the journalists attending the event to the freight elevator in the back and it was quite an experience. That “lift” must have been the same one from when they built the building in the 1800s! Happy summer, everyone!

  13. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays..

  14. This page is great, it’s like someone has read my mind. I too once stumbled on that table tennis center through the rear entrance. But more important, the kitchen window of my 4th floor apartment of 59 Franklin St. faces the southernmost block of the alley directly, and it is an image I have fallen in love with over the years. I’ve taken countless pictures in all sorts of weather. And it’s fun to always see filming going on, from one camera operations all the way to things like Cloverfield. I’ve chatted with a painter, Lloyd Goldsmith (www.lloydgoldsmith.com) who sets up his easel on the street below and has made Cortlandt Alley his subject on a number of occasions. I’ve invited him upstairs to do a painting from my vantage point. If he does, it won’t be the first time someone has painted the alley from my fire exit! I’d be happy to share my alley pics with anyone who’s interested.

  15. Amazing! I thought I was alone on this. :p
    Very well written, I only wish my city, Austin, had a bigger downtown.

  16. Lived across the street on Canal for many years. There is a car chase scene in the first Highlander movie that was shot there.

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