Monday, August 18, 2008
Cherry Hill: the lost Lower East Side neighborhood
Cherry and Catherine streets, looking towards the Manhattan Bridge anchorage, in the once glorious Cherry Hill neighborhood. Pic courtesy Knickerbocker Village, who guesses photo to be from 1920s)
Yesterday I went searching for remnants of the old Cherry Hill neighborhood. There are none, as far as I could tell. It's not the first New York City neighborhood to entirely vanish in the rush of progress -- is it, Robert Moses ? -- however it may be the one that began with the most impressive pedigree.
I'm not referring to the part of Central Park called Cherry Hill or even the upstate farm of Cherry Hill, best known for the prominent New York family the Van Rensselaers and a fabulous murder that occurred there. Downtown Manhattan's Cherry Hill once lay near the waterfront in the area more literally called Two Bridges today, between the Brooklyn Bridge and the area just northeast of the Manhattan Bridge.* Although the Two Bridges Historical District was created in 2003, in fact most of its early history has been eradicated.
In 1890 Jacob Riis, in documenting what the neighborhood had become, referred to its early days as the "proud and fashionable Cherry Hill." Named for a Dutch cherry orchard, Cherry Hill featured a row of homes with a beautiful vista of the East River and hosted no less than George Washington's during his first term as president, at 1 Cherry Street. Although he later moved to 39 Broadway, the neighborhood remained high on the list of the rich and important, including John Hancock (at 5 Cherry Street) and DeWitt Clinton (who moved into Washington's old home).
Even as late as the 1824, the area featured fine homes such as that of Samuel Leggett, founder of the New York Gas Light Company (later Con Edison), who enjoyed New York's first interior gas lighting.
If you're looking for a symbolic date of Cherry Hill's demise, look no further than April 3, 1823, birth date of William 'Boss' Tweed, who was born here and worked at a Cherry Hill chair shop in his early years.
As many well-to-do neighborhoods would later do, Cherry Hill devolved into a slum, paralleling the decline of nearby Five Points. Its well-intentioned tenements soon became the worst in the city. Located in the Fourth Ward, Cherry Hill abutted the saloons, boarding houses and brothels along Water Street, including the legendary Hole In The Wall (today's Bridge Cafe). None of this would assist the neighborhood in escaping its fate.
Cherry Hill is probably most unfortunately known for its most horrific slum -- Gotham Court, "one of the worst tenements along the East River." It would later be made infamous in Jacob Riis' renown 1890 blistering survey of "How The Other Half Lives." (An image from a version of this book is above.) According to Riis:
"It is curious to find that this notorious block, whose name was so long synonymous with all that was desperately bad, was originally built (in 1851) by a benevolent Quaker for the express purpose of rescuing the poor people from the dreadful rookeries they were then living in.
How long it continued a model tenement is not on record. It could not have been very long, for already in 1862, ten years after it was finished, a sanitary official counted 146 cases of sickness in the court, including “all kinds of infectious disease,” from small-pox down."
Gotham Court and the rest of Cherry Hill were not long for this world. In the wake of Riis expose, Gotham Court was demolished in 1897. By that time, efforts were made to construct more amenable tenements, including those built at 340, 342 and 344 Cherry Street in 1888. (See below, courtesy of Maggie Blanck)
By that time, the anchorage to the Brooklyn Bridge -- and in 1909, with the Manhattan Bridge anchorage -- would block in the neighborhood from the circulation of the city. The construction of traffic ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge and the downtown section of the FDR Drive (opened in 1942) obliterated much of what remained.
In its place would be more ambitious housing "super projects," most notably one in the form of the Alfred E. Smith Houses, built in 1953 and named for the governor and saavy politico born very close by, at 25 Oliver Street. His old street and a couple around it may give you the closest idea of what some areas of Cherry Hill may have looked like in earlier years.
The neighborhood is one of the few staving off gentrification -- by design, as it's mostly public housing. Given its rather uniform appearance, I found it quite impossible to picture Cherry Hill's early days here.
*I would say Cherry Hill ran up along the East River to just a few blocks from Corlear's Hook, which still exists in name as a park. Although that's just a guess on my part!