Roads to Nowhere (2008)

The one-block streets of Manhattan, almost over before they begin

Manhattan's a fairly easy town to navigate. Straight lines, sequentially numbered streets, and (OK, sometimes haphazardly) numbered avenues. The Energizer Bunny could feel right at home on, say, Eighth Avenue or 14th Street, both of which keep going and going and going. It's only when you fall off the grid—and into the Lower East Side, the West Village, Tribeca, and the Financial District—that the streets begin to angle off and turn in on themselves, not to mention into weird subdivisions and hidden cul de sacs and obscure dead ends that most people in their right minds would only stroll down by accident. Some of these streets are over before they begin—a single block in length and going nowhere, fit for neither man nor beast (nor their metropolitan equivalents, pedestrian and car). When you're on one of them, the normal hum of city life seems removed somehow, like you're on the outside of a fish tank looking in on the action.

A few of these super-short streets are geographic conveniences, shortcuts between two others—like Cornelia Street and Jones Street, for example, both of which link between Bleecker Street and West Fourth and then get cut off, having served their purpose. But just because they have short lives doesn't mean they don't have their own macabre attractions: The after-hours detritus from Cornelia's mini-Restaurant Row (Po, Home, Cornelia Street Café, and others) provides a late-night amusement park for industrial-size rats and roaches.

Others are semi-private conveyances, 19th-century holdovers now closed off to hoi polloi: Washington Mews, between University Place and Fifth Avenue, is the still-cobblestoned playground of NYU's French department, while Milligan Place and Patchin Place are two cute little ducklings nestled in the reeds off of West 10th Street and 6th Avenue. They're all pretty enough for a Hollywood period piece, but you're not part of the cast‹they're gated, and bad things happen to people who don't belong there.

But Manhattan still has some darker nooks and crannies, one-block passageways that sometimes peter out before you've had a chance to realize you've made a wrong turn. MacDougal Alley, for example, jumps east off MacDougal Street between West 8th Street and Waverly Place, just to the north of Washington Square Park, going nowhere. Nearby, the Siamese twin sisters of the Village, Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, each just a block long, curl up together in a strangely quiet playpen circumscribed by some decidedly unquiet babysitters: MacDougal Street, 6th Avenue, Bleecker Street, and West 3rd Street.

Life on these Lilliputian streets can play tricks on you. Lonely souls on Asser Levy Place, for example, east of First Avenue in the shadows of Bellevue Hospital Center, can be forgiven for hearing the echoes of traffic from the nearby FDR Drive and thinking the passing cars sound freakishly like the screams of Bellevue's mental patients. Not far from there is Broadway Alley, which runs parallel to Lexington Avenue between East 26th and East 27th streets and seems strangely peaceful by comparison.

All roads, by definition, are man-made, so it's hard to think of some one-block roads as "artificial" as opposed to "naturally occurring." But some of Manhattan's creepiest single blocks are the intended consequences of bridge-and-tunnel cloverleafs, and others are strangely serene arteries surgically inserted through the heart of housing projects. Renwick Street, for example, suffers in silence around the Holland Tunnel entrance just north of Canal Street, while poor Morris Street is split into two forlorn little pieces on either side of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. In either case, pedestrians have to keep on their toes to avoid the occasional driver careering out of town. And giving would-be jumpers off the Manhattan Bridge a dry place to land seems to be the only purpose of Mechanics Alley, which hunches in the shadow of the bridge between Henry Street and Madison Street where a dead end ought to be. Meanwhile, Baruch Drive, running south of Houston by the FDR Drive into the Baruch Houses, and Peter Cooper Road, the crooked heel of 22nd Street that meanders east of First Avenue through Peter Cooper Village, reflect the best intentions of the kindly urban developers of the '60s: tree-lined bucolic curves that almost manage to obscure the fact that you're in the middle of a housing project. But just try walking down one of these short and winding roads at night, when you lose sight of the corner behind you and the one in front of you is nowhere to be seen.

Tribecais rife with one-block streets that pop up at unexpected moments, sudden corners that arrive at a bebop rhythm that keeps pedestrians off balance: York Street (between St. John's Lane and Sixth Avenue); Franklin Place (between Franklin and White streets), Benson Street (which runs from Leonard and dead-ends before reaching Franklin), Catherine Lane (between Broadway and Lafayette). They're all exactly what you expect from Tribeca—oddly quiet and angled the wrong way toward the sun, providing questionable light that disappears too early in the day thanks to the discolored cast-iron buildings that seem to close in on you from all sides at once.

Probably because it has the most gnarled and tangled history, Lower Manhattan is the borough's grisly center of one-block streets. In the Bermuda Triangle between City Hall Park and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, there are James Street and Mosco Street, Dey Street and Liberty Place, Theatre Alley and Ryders Alley and Edens Alley, the mangled curve of Doyers Street and a snippet of what used to be Rose Street. Mosco, in a previous life, used to be Cross Street, which was at the heart of the infamous Five Points. On the other side of City Hall, there's Trimble Place (between Duane and Thomas streets, east of Church Street), cowering beneath the hulking, windowless, concrete monolith of the AT&T Long Lines Building, looking like something ripped out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And the Financial District's Mill Lane (between William and Stone) is probably the shortest street in Manhattan‹which is the only thing that keeps it from being the scariest (well, that and the fact that Delmonico's sits at one end of it).

The most godforsaken single-block street is probably the decrepitude known as Weehawken Street, a useless little block that serves no obvious function for anyone but transvestite prostitutes, hidden behind what amounts to a façade off the West Side Highway between West 10th Street and Christopher Street. But the scariest, most dehumanizing single block in town is the L-shaped nightmare of Marketfield Street (between Broad and Beaver), with its cramped and dingy atmosphere, so narrow that it's dark even on the sunniest of days. Even the Energizer Bunny would curl up into a fetal position if he found himself stuck in there.


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