I recall the first time when I first traversed from the rugged and rowdy street life of MacDougal onto Minetta Street, it was as if I entered a different time and place. Despite being sandwiched between the traffic frenzied Sixth Avenue of Americas and the bohemian (or hipster) line of stores on MacDougal, Minetta Street offers a pocket of serene-ness. It was not until I researched further did I realize that there are two streets perpendicular to one another – Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, which are commonly referred to as the “Minettas.”
Perhaps this transport to a different time has historical ties to its past of bucolic charm. From the firmly paved roadways, one would never guess that beneath it was a running, fresh stream, called Manetta. In the 1640’s, the plot of land which the Minettas resided on had no formal, paved streets. The ruling Dutch and “partially freed” slaves were permitted to purchase plots of land there, under the requirement that an annual fee was paid. This land came to be known as “the Negroe’s Farms.”
“What happened of this stream?” This query lead me to dig up research conducted by the Mannahatta Project, a collaborative effort of scholars, researchers, scientists to reconstruct and understand the natural ecology that vastly populated the space and was particular to Manhattan Island. Researchers of the Mannahatta Project were able to discover hundreds of ponds, streams, wetlands, valleys that were leveled out for the Commissioner’s plan in 1811 to redevelop the city streets to the grid system. Due to the increasing industrialization in the city, many of these water sources were re-zoned for development. The Collect Pond, which provided one of the freshest water resources in Manhattan for 200 years, was polluted with chemicals from nearby tanneries and the overpopulation from the neighboring Five Points area.
Manetta stream in the 1820’s went into subterranean existence, and the Minetta’s in the coming decade came to increase in population. In 1830, three years after slavery had been abolished in New York City, 14,083 freed African-Americans lived in the area. Old dirt paths that branched off from farms were quickly converted to Minetta Street and Minetta Lane. This area came to be known as “Little Africa.” For several decades, the area lived peacefully as if they were in a suburb within a city. In the late 1870’s with the rise of pubs checkering adjacent streets near the Minettas, this invited various types of intermingling – bringing in crowds as diverse as Irish youth gangs and writers. One of the most infamous pubs towards Sixth Avenue and West Fourth, the Hell Hole, where Irish writer Eugene O’ Neill would frequent, was a rumbling house of violence due to the heavy alcoholic intoxication of pub visitors. Violence would often break out and Minetta’s reputation became tainted by its adjacent streets. In 1896, Stephen Crane called the Minetta’s, “until a few years ago, two of the most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in the city.” Minetta’s came to be dotted with speakeasies and brothels, oftentimes knifings and violence would erupt. At one point, the Minetta’s had the most active prostitution area in the Village. By 1912, the brothels were shut down and in 1917, Minetta’s reputation was known in guidebooks as “village bohemia.”
The quick transition from this violent history to the peaceful stabilization of Minetta still remains a wonder to me. I question whether part of turn around had anything to do with the city bombing of the Sixth Avenue end, close to the Minetta’s. I wonder if this was the City government’s effort to demolish the areas deemed “degenerative” as part of a city-wide effort to establish and beautify more public spaces.
I do believe though, that much of the tranquil charm of both Minetta Lane and Street can be attributed to Vincent Pepe, who in the 1910’s decided to contribute to the city redevelopment plan as a Greenwich Village developer. A young Italian immigrant who followed his father into the real estate industry of New York City, Pepe was able to leverage his connections to purchase several building, lots on the Minettas, including houses and tenement buildings. Pepe was able to combine 13 buildings to the west of Minetta Street and transformed the backyards into a common garden with a back entrance. To the east of Minetta Street, Pepe and his business partners were able to aquire 1,3 and 5 Minetta Lane and 17 Minetta Street. With a large stake in property ownership, Pepe was able to execute his vision in continuing to build spaces to support and enrich the growing community. Pepe stated in a promotional brochere “The artist, the writer, the creator of beauty in any medium – these are the men for whom the Minettas should be preserved.” The street zoning, with its unique angling and narrowness, was meant to provide a sense of enclosure from the rest of the city. In an article written in 1923 for the New York Times, the Minetta’s were said to be “As free from noise and as peaceful as though miles away.” Although indeed, Pepe’s vision materialized into reality, the area was home to a diverse population of residents beyond the artists and bohemian crowd.
Callahan, Jennifer. “City Lore; Minetta Moments.” New York Times, January 30 2005.
Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes / Minetta Lane and Minetta Street; Vestiges of a Develop’s Greenwich Village Enclave.” New York Times, August 29, 1999.
Sanderson, Eric W., and Marianne Brown. “Mannahatta: An Ecological First Look at the Manhattan Landscape Prior to Henry Hudson.” Northeastern Naturalist 14 (4):545-570.