The other day, I was out scouting alleys, and decided to take a walk up to Broadway Alley, which runs from East 26th – 27th between Lex & 3rd.
Broadway Alley doesn’t get much filming*, but I figured I’d take some pictures and see what the current status was.
Broadway Alley has a pretty great alley look, with crumbling, grime-covered brick, tangles of fire escapes, graffiti and barbed wire. But as I walked down the alley, I noticed something I’d never seen before…
…Was that dirt I was walking on?
Is this where the pavement ends? Could this be the last dirt road in Manhattan??
Officially, the last two Manhattan dirt streets were paved over in 1938, an event important enough to make the NY Times:
Both were pretty far north: Laurel Hill Terrace up in the West 180’s…
…and Payson Ave, way up in Inwood:
While it’s neat to think that the DOT somehow missed this one forgotten road, Broadway Alley is actually privately owned, and has been since its inception. According to the NY Times, the route was laid out sometime between 1827-1832. By 1860, it appears on maps as Broadway Alley, perhaps selected to give newly constructed buildings here some class. Below, a 1909 map:
A NY Times reporter visiting the “unfortunate” thoroughfare in 1879 was none-too-impressed: “On the one hand are stables with ragged stable boys lying in the sun and enjoying more odors at a breath than Coleridge found in Cologne. On the other is a broken and blistered and dingy and half-windowless row of tenement houses with dusky African faces grinning from every pane, African babies, with curly heads, lying in the gutter, and African matrons sitting on flag-stones talking the latest gossip.”
When you enter from 27th Street side, you’ll find that the northern portion has been paved, and is actually pretty clean and non-descript for an alleyway.
But about halfway down, the pavement ends and the fun begins.
One of my favorite bits are the ancient wooden garage doors, located on the last remaining tenement from the days when Broadway Alley was lined with the fronts of buildings, rather than the rears.”
This is where the photogenic alley stuff kicks in, like the web of fire escapes set into ancient brick:
And really, what makes a more archetypal alley than corrugated steel and razor wire fencing?
If you look closely, you’ll find small patches of Belgian blocks, suggesting a time when these once covered the entire byway:
A brick arch hidden in grime:
At the southern end is this fantastic Type-G wall lamp. While the actual light is a (pretty silly looking) modern addition, the base has been in place since the early 1900’s:
Doing some research after shooting Broadway Alley, I see that I’m about the last person to realize there’s a dirt road left in Manhattan. The NY Times alone has written about it three different times (ha, that last article almost reads like there isn’t an ounce of dirt in the five boroughs), and I see that Kevin Walsh of Forgotten-NY did a piece on it just this last July.
But is this really the last dirt road in Manhattan?
As I continued working my way north scouting alleys, I finally came to Sylvan Court up in Harlem:
Sylvan Court is a delightful little alley leading to a series of townhouses built in the late 1800’s:
Unfortunately, the block isn’t landmarked, so who knows what will happen? Note the boarded-up property on the left:
A little too charming for the dank, dilapidated NY alley scene I was scouting for, but definitely a place I hope to one day see playing a starring role on the big screen:
Then, as I was leaving, I noticed something: dirt! A second unpaved road in Manhattan!
Though it loses points for not being a through road, I actually think I like it more for how it brings you back to a time when these buildings were stables, and the surrounding area was a farming village.
Because both Broadway Alley and Sylvan Court are private, I don’t think you can technically claim either as an official, DOT-overlooked dirt road. But it’s nice to know the pavement ends somewhere.
PS – Why isn’t Broadway Alley seen in more movies? Because it’s privately owned, each building wants $5,000 for the six feet in front of their property, and $30,000 or so is a little steep when you can just film in the far superior Cortlandt Alley for free.
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