Volume 79, Number 36 | February 10 - 16, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Villager file photo by Elisabeth Robert

Open for business, then and now. Maiden Lane: July, 2007.

Memories of Maiden Lane
Like Billy Pilgrim, Wolf walks backwards through a long, varied story

BY STEPHEN WOLF

At the end of Martin Scorsese’s brutal, bloody film “Gangs of New York,” we watch as more than a century of Lower Manhattan evolves before our eyes in just a few moments. We see a rugged, wooden town only a few floors high — then the massive, cathedral-like towers of the Brooklyn Bridge; next, the tall and stately Woolworth Building — and finally, the World Trade Center; our shimmering, shattered heartache.

I prefer to play that scene in reverse — the way Billy Pilgrim imagines things in Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” — and as I stroll narrow Maiden Lane (that runs from Broadway down to the South Street Seaport and the East River far downtown), I’m really walking backwards through our city’s long and varied story.

Before the Diamond District moved uptown, Maiden Lane was at its center. The 1936 film “15 Maiden Lane” starred Claire Trevor as an undercover agent who infiltrates a gang planning a jewel heist. With Cesar Romero as the thief and a murderer, the film was directed by Allen Dwan (best remembered for his “Sands of Iwo Jima” with John Wayne).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, English novelist Amelia Edith Barr wrote the historical novel “The Maid of Maiden Lane.” Set in 1791, it vividly describes a neighborhood in which “The skies of Italy were not bluer than the skies above it…the sunshine of Arcadia not brighter or more genial. It was a city of beautiful, and even splendid, homes; and all the length and breadth of its streets were shaded by trees, in whose green shadows dwelt and walked some of the greatest men of the century.”

By the mid-nineteenth century, Maiden Lane was one of the earliest streets lit by gaslight (Broadway got there first). Before gas lanterns lit those winding, busy streets, Maiden Lane was one of the first to burn in the Great Fire of 1835 that destroyed 674 buildings. Wealthy New Yorkers had once shopped here beneath a skylight-covered corridor known as the New York Arcade — built in 1827 and running for only a single block between Maiden Lane and John Street.

Travelling even further back in time, we could have visited Thomas Jefferson — who had a home here. One night, in 1790, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison came for dinner. That’s when — and where — they finalized the decision to move the new nation’s political headquarters to a swampy site along the Potomac River.

Fly Market — the oldest and one of the city’s finest food and provisions markets, lay at Maiden Lane’s edge along the waterfront as early as 1728 — and before that, with a grim slave auction nearby, the street was the site of the city’s first slave revolt on April 6th, 1712 (when eight white people were killed and many more injured).

In 1664, the English stole New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York to honor the king’s brother and simply translated “Maagde Paetgje” to “Maiden Lane.” Years earlier, the Rutgers, an old Dutch family of brewers and landowners, lived on Maiden Lane before settling on their estate near Chatham Square. The family has a street named after them not far away, as well as a small rectangle of Rutgers Park — a block-long patch located between two short streets near the river. Henry Street near East Broadway is named for young Colonel Henry Rutgers, who served in the Revolutionary War.

There’s a reason why all the streets below Houston have names rather than the practical numbers imposed by the grid plan early into the nineteenth century. Wall Street was once a wall, Canal Street once a canal, New Street and Broad Street — well, you get the idea. Other streets were named for English royalty (William, Ann), the wealthy (Delancey, Cortlandt), or the famous (Fulton and Franklin).

But why was this one called Maiden Lane?

The reason, and one of the sweetest stories of old New Amsterdam, is told in a lovely poem by Louise Morgan Sill. Once an editor for Harper’s Magazine, she authored the poetry collection “In Sun or Shade.” Published in 1906, she takes us back to our city’s beginning — when Broadway was just a country road and Maiden Lane served a most special purpose.

Down Maiden Lane, where clover grew,
Sweet-scented in the early air,
Where sparkling rills went shining through
Their grassy banks, so green, so fair,
Blithe little maids from Holland land
Went tripping, laughing each to each,
To bathe the flax, or spread a band
Of linen in the sun to bleach. 
More than two centuries ago
They wore this path—a maiden’s lane—
Where now such waves of commerce flow
As never dazed a burgher’s brain.
Two hundred years ago and more
Those thrifty damsels, one by one,
With plump, round arms their linen bore
To dry in Mana-ha-ta’s sun. 
But now!  Behold the altered view;
No tender sward, no bubbling stream,
No laughter,—was it really true,
Or but the fancy of a dream?
Were these harsh walls a byway sweet,
This floor of stone a grassy plain?
Pray vanish, modern city street,
And let us stroll down Maiden Lane.
 
Nearby was Dandy Lane — where young men lingered and leered at those lovely, burdened maidens carrying bundles to and from the river; but that little street’s been lost to time. There’s still a jewelry store at 15 Maiden Lane, and now the street resembles many others downtown. Except for the formidable, fortress-like Federal Reserve, its tenants are pizza joints, nail salons, banks and a Starbuck’s.

Ms. Sill sailed for Paris a century ago and never returned, but she saved a piece of our city more enduring even than the concrete and steel towering above us now along Maiden Lane.

Historic information from “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.

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