Last Dirt Road(s) in Manhattan

Speaking of the last commercial stable in downtown Lexington and alleys, check out the last dirt roads in Manhattan!

Sylvan Court. Image via Scouting New York

Broadway Alley is a 265 feet long 13-foot-wide dirt road that was laid out sometime between 1827 and 1832 and Sylvan Court is a tiny alley in Harlem – both are unpaved. As such, they are probably the last two dirt roads in Manhattan!

I became aware of these interesting holdovers when I chanced upon Scouting New York written by film location scout, Nick Carr.  If you love New York, quirky architecture and/or historical places jump on over to his site  – I may or may not have spent the better part of a day over there tootling around in his archive. I think I might be (definitely am) a little obsessed now – not to mention I’m jonesing for a trip to the city!  Carr probably has the coolest job ever. And whether he’s aware or not (though I think he probably is, judging by his familiarity with the NY landmark system), he’s a preservationist. When the Gothamist asked him in December of 2008 what he would change about New York, he said this:

I would put more of an emphasis on preservation in the outer boroughs. There’s a ton of amazing buildings and homes in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island that are dilapidated or being torn down and replaced by hideously boring condominiums, and I think people 20 or 30 years from now will look back in horror at what was lost.

Right on, Chris!  Anyway, I digress. Back to Manhattan’s last remaining dirt roads…

Broadway Alley via Google Maps

Broadway Alley

There is a lot of information available about Broadway Alley. The New York Times has done no less than four stories about it during its history.  The Alley runs from E 26th Street to E 27th street about halfway between Lexington and 3rd Avenues.  It first appears on maps as Broadway Alley in 1860. In its earliest incarnation, it  ran behind a blacking (for stoves, boots, shoes, etc) manufacturer. Then around 1850, buildings (probably residences) were constructed along the west side of the alley.

Broadway Alley Garage Doors.  The etched 8 indicates this buildings is #8 Broadway Alley.  Image via Scouting New York

It appears that for most of its history, the alley was home to a largely poor and black population.  In 1879, the New York Times reported (warning – this excerpt is disturbingly racist/classist):

Broadway-alley — if the reader has never been so unfortunate as to pick his way through it – is . . . a dirty causeway just to the west of [Third] avenue, and at the rear of one of its gigantic rows of tenement houses. On the one hand are stables with ragged stable boys lying in the sun and enjoying more odors at a breath than Colerige 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 the flagstones talking the latest gossip.

Cast iron Type G wall lamp, probably from the 1910s. Image via Forgotten New York

In 1995, the Times reported none of the buildings surrounding the alley opened into it any longer; however, in a 2005 article it appears that at least two homes had entrances into the alley and at least one still had a Broadway Alley postal address.  Today, the alley is exclusively used for (free!) parking. Two chain link gates help control the flow of people through the alley.
Even though I’m not an archeologist, my fingers are itching for a shovel! Can you imagine what might be unearthed? Horse shoes, glass bottles, tools…

Evidence that the alley was probably paved with Belgian block at one time. Image via Scouting New York

Sylvan Court

Sylvan Court is off of 121st Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues  in Harlem, and as its name suggests, it is not a through street/alley.  It is also partially paved (as you can see in the photo at the top of this post) so it might not actually constitute a “dirt road, ” but it is too neat not to include in this post.

Sylvan Court/Mews Townhouses. Image via Scouting New York

The dirt track lies behind a small metal fence and leads back to a paved courtyard surrounded by ca. 1899 red brick Italianate townhouses.   The townhouses range from 976 square feet to 1620 square feet.  Several have been renovated, and  #4 is currently on the market (though I’m not a fan of the interior renovation, I’m happy that the buildings are being cared for).  According to Wikipedia (hence, take this with a grain of salt – I couldn’t find any info to back this up), Sylvan Court is the remainder of Harlem’s Old Eastern Post Road, which connected NYC and Boston.

Sylvan Court Entrance via Google Maps

 Sylvan Court is sometimes also called Sylvan Mews.   Mews is a term used to describe a row of stables/carriage houses, often with second story living  quarters, built around a court or along a street behind large city houses.  The word can also refer to groups of garages or to a narrow passage or confined space.  To me, these townhouses do not look like they were ever stables or carriage houses,  since they are two story structures on raised basements.  Therefore, they are probably referred to as “mews” based on the latter definition.  My other guess would be that these townhouses replaced stables that formerly sat on the site.  The need for stables and carriage houses in cities diminished greatly in the early 20th century. The Sylvan Court townhouses were constructed around 1899 right on the cusp of the transition away from horse powered transportation.  Either could explain why Sylvan Court is not landmarked, though four other NYC mews are.

So how is it possible that there are any unpaved roads in New York City?  Both Broadway Alley and Sylvan Court are privately owned and therefore beyond the scope of the DOT.


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  1. Pingback: This Week « Bricks + Mortar

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