Sunday, July 3, 2016

Mr. Knapp needs a staff: 165th Street

"New York, New York
So nice they named it twice"
lyrics by Gerard Kenny

But what about 165th Street in New York? It's named twice too.

Two streets named 165th Street, one right after the other. Google map.
Or, rather, there are two 165th Streets, one right after the other. And, the streets - especially the northern of the two 165th Streets -  didn't have the reputation of being particularly nice. In 1912, a New York Times reporter said it was "a useless lane." And Reginald Bolton, local historian, wrote in the 1920s that the street "exists only as a blot upon the neighborhood."

How did the street end up like that?

Going back about 175 years, we'd find a road in this location called Croton Street. But, let's go back further in time and work our way forward.

Before the Europeans arrived, the Lenape Native Americans were the inhabitants of upper Manhattan. The land at what is now 165th Street was a forested spot and with big outcrops of bedrock that jutted out of the ground. 

Later, after the English took Manhattan from the Dutch, land in northern Manhattan was allotted to residents by Governor Dongan, but our plot in question remained in an unclaimed, uncultivated section bordered by farms and estates to the north and south.

In 1712, that uncultivated stretch of land was divided into 12 plots, and our plot was allotted to Captain Johannes Benson, a Scandinavian who had previously purchased land in what is now Harlem. Interestingly enough, Captain Benson served as the Surveyor of Highways in Harlem. I wonder what he would have thought of two streets with the same name?

The land changed hands a few more times, and then, in 1803, George Wear the blacksmith bought the plot and set up shop. The blacksmith's plot was a skinny strip of land, set at angle.

A nearby landowner named Shepherd Knapp purchased a bit of land from the blacksmith, and that bit of land is now the northern of the two 165th Streets. So, why did Knapp need that land when he already had a large estate nearby?

1867 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.
As a young man, Shepherd Knapp learned the leather tanning business in lower Manhattan. He worked his way up in the city to become the president of Mechanics Bank of New York. He bought land in upper Manhattan to be his country estate.

Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

A wealthy landowner needs a staff, and the staff need places to live. So, Knapp purchased land from George Wear the blacksmith and built wood-frame homes on it for his workers.

To access the homes, Knapp cut a road and called it Croton. 

Why the name Croton?

I don't have direct evidence about why Knapp named his street of workers' cottages Croton, but I have a hunch.

The Croton Aqueduct that carried fresh water from upstate New York into Manhattan was a big construction project that was completed in the 1840s, just about the time Knapp purchased land from the blacksmith. Knapp was a leading proponent of building a reservoir in the neighborhood, and that reservoir was indeed built in the 1860s. (It's now Highbridge swimming pool on 173rd Street.)

I have a hunch Knapp named his private street after his interest in the project, the reservoir along the Croton Aqueduct.

Knapp died in 1875 and his estate deeded Croton Street to the city.

The Croton Street name still shows up in 1916, when the city was growing up around it. Pink indicates brick buildings while yellow is for wood structures. Those wood structures are what The New York Times called in those years "ancient shanties" on a "worthless thoroughfare."

1916 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

A few short years later, the street name is gone, as are any buildings on the triangle.

1921-23 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Add a soldier's name

Something else happened between the 1916 and the 1920s maps. A local man named William J. McKenna enlisted to fight in World War I. He was sent to France and served as in Company D Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun Battalion. A few months later, he died in action at the age of 30. 

The little triangle was eventually named after him, and the land is now McKenna Square, part of the NYC Parks Department.

In the 1980s, it was updated with a Greek temple structure and new benches. I haven't figured out why a Greek temple was chosen for the park, so I like to think of the ghost-like structure as a memorial to the little wooden dwelling houses that once stood on this stretch of land.

A look at the street over the years

Keep an eye on the building marked with the star. It remains in all the photos. All views are looking to the east, toward Amsterdam Avenue.

Before 1923. The street remained unpaved until the building were torn down.
Photo from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

1941. Note the triangle section is now a seating area with benches in the middle of the two 165th Streets.
Photo from New York Public Library Digital Collections.

2015. The old building is still there! 
The lots on the left are now the site of Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics. 
McKenna Park is to the right, out of the picture range.

Old Croton Street and the little triangle park that remains captured my heart when I learned about the place. In fact, the history of that particular place is what inspired me to start this History Underfoot blog, and I use a photo of McKenna Square between the two 165th Streets as the header on my blog and as my Twitter and Facebook logos. History is indeed underfoot, wherever we are.

List of sources.