New York is about as modern as any city in the world. Once it began marching northward in 1811 with its grand grid design, all of the new blocks were both spacious and predictable. Over the years, the never-ending building boom replaced older structures with new modern spaces at remarkable speeds. Even in old New York, where the streets curve and do not possess a great sense of order, the buildings have generally been modernized or replaced. This is why a visit to Minetta Lane, which is both the setting and name of my latest book, was so special. As I made the left from Sixth Avenue onto Minetta, it felt as if I went back in time.
The street is so narrow it doesn’t support the vehicular traffic in the area. I stood at the intersection of Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, which was often referred to as The Bend, and admired the buildings, which appeared to be a throwback to a simpler time. I thought back to what may have transpired at this small, but important, intersection in the early days of city, when it was known as New Amsterdam.
Beginning in the 1640s, the Dutch permitted the partially free Black population to call this area home. The Blacks were only considered partially free because their freedom depended on the timely payment of an annual fee. The path currently occupied by Minetta Street/Minetta Lane was on the side of a brook called Minetta Creek. This path became known as The Negroes Causeway. Minetta Street was built on top of the brook when it was boarded over in the 1820s. By 1829, when slavery ended in New York, the area was home to most of Manhattan’s Black population. People started to call it Little Africa.
Irish immigration into the area picked up steam in the 1840s and by the late 1800s, the area became a mixing bowl of Black and Irish. In 1896, Stephen Crane, a well known writer of the time, wrote, “the Minettas are the two most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in the city.” Crime was rampant in the Minettas—anyone who didn’t belong became targets. The neighborhood featured Black and Tan Saloons, mixed race bars of a morally questionable nature, as well as openly gay bars. Italians moved into the area around the turn of the century and that influence can still be seen today with scores of fine Italian restaurants spread throughout the surrounding blocks.
The area eventually was cleaned up around the time that Theodore Roosevelt was New York’s Police Commissioner, but interesting things continued to happen on Minetta Lane. For example, in 1962, Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin in the Wind” at the Fat Black Pussycat at 11-13 Minetta Lane. In 1973, Al Pacino, who was playing Frank Serpico, moved into 5–7 Minetta Lane.
Minetta Creek has been covered up for almost 200 years and many think it has finally gone dry. One doorman in a nearby hotel, however, claims that every once in a while, the creek still manages to bubble-up into the hotel garden. I think it bubbled just a little bit for me today.