Gotham Court and the Lower East Side neighborhood of Cherry Hill

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.

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)

 

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.

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.  The Two Bridges Historical District was created in 2003, just to the north of the site of old Cherry Hill.  Indeed there is nothing much left of the Cherry Hill neighborhood at all.

 

In 1890 Jacob Riis, in documenting what the neighborhood had become, referred to its early days as the “proud and fashionable Cherry Hill.” (pictured below)

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).

Below: An illustration of the more genteel days of Cherry Hill, taken from the book When Old New York Was Young (written in 1902)

Courtesy Internet Archives Book Images
Courtesy Internet Archives Book Images

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. Here’s a picture of the first gas-lit home at 7 Cherry Street. (More information here)

louisa-leggett-001

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.

Below: Mullen’s Alley in Cherry Hill, picture taken by Jacob Riis in 1890. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

1

 

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.

Below: Blindman’s Alley at 22 Cherry Street, taken by Jacob Riis

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Cherry Hill is 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.  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.”

Below: photo from Gotham Court by Jacob Riis, 1890. “Minding the baby; Baby yells a Whirlwind Scream, Gotham Court.”

MNY200983

 

 

How long Gotham Court continued to be a so-called 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.”

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

In 1894, the New York Tribune went as far as to make several attempts to describe Gotham Court as a prison. From the piece ‘Life in Gotham Court’:

“The side alleys are narrower. They are not more than three or four feet wide.  In order to enter either of these alleys one has to pass through an iron arch.  The gate has been taken away, but enough remains to give unpleasant suggestions of a penitentiary…..

The idea is not dissipated by the appearance of the houses inside the alley.  The small windows with tiny panes of glass, the low, dark doors, through which iron gratings can be seen, and the bare brick walls are like those of a prison.  The people move about free, as the prisoners do during ‘exercise hour’ at the Tombs.  All the doors are alike, all the windows are alike, and all are dilapidated, forlorn and forbidding.”

 

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.

Two maps — one block of tenements in Cherry Hill in 1890 (from a map by Jacob Riis) and a Google map of the same block today:

2

1

Given its rather uniform appearance, I found it quite impossible to picture Cherry Hill’s early days here.

 

A shortened version of this article originally ran August 18, 2008. I’ve left the comments from that original run as they relate to the history.