In a recent blog post about taking a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) on Sutton Place, I mentioned that, because of the geography of Manhattan, there are occasionally Avenues east of First. I was recently in one of these areas; a subdivision of the East Village informally called “Alphabet City.” Avenues A, B, C, and D stretch between Houston Street to the south and 14th Street to the north, between First Avenue and the East River. Avenue A later reemerges as Beekman Place, Sutton Place, York Avenue, and Pleasant Avenue at various points to the north, while Avenue B reappears briefly as East End Avenue between 79th Street and 92nd Street – Avenues C and D are the easternmost parts of the island of Manhattan and only exist in Alphabet City.
Interestingly enough, the area was originally a saltwater marsh, but was drained and developed in the early 1800’s. In the mid-19th century, it became a hub for German immigrants, but after they decamped for Yorkville in the 1880’s, the neighborhood grew into one of the most densely populated areas of Manhattan. By the 1980’s Alphabet City was home to many struggling artists (immortalized in Jonathan Larson’s Rent), but since then, has been increasingly gentrified (with the increased housing prices to prove it).
For this dérive, I began by walking from Second Avenue and 3rd Street in the East Village, until hitting Avenue A. Just on the east side of Avenue A is the entrance to Upright Citizen’s Brigade East. One of three theaters run by UCB (the other two are in Chelsea and in Los Angeles); UCBEast showcases improv and sketch comedy seven days a week – at very affordable prices. The streets in Alphabet City are surprisingly quiet and tree-lined, although many garage doors and brick walls have become the canvas for expressionistic and colorful murals. This street art is such a part of the character of this neighborhood that there is even a children’s book called Alphabet City –Out on the Streets (by Michael de Feo) that illustrates the alphabet with the backdrop of street scenes in the neighborhood.
Continuing past Avenue B, turn north on Avenue C to experience the most bustling ambiance of the avenues in Alphabet City, every block showcasing trendy boutiques, restaurants, or bars. At Avenue C and 10th Street, stop inside the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) for a reminder of the community activism that has long been a part of this neighborhood’s character. MoRUS also holds exhibitions relating to the historical implications of housing cycles within different urban neighborhoods. Closed Monday and Wednesday, but open other days from 11-7, there is a $5 suggested donation for admission, well worth it to support a volunteer organization that promotes ecologically-sound urban environments. MoRUS also supports the network of community gardens that flourish throughout the Lower East Side. These community gardens sum up the feeling of Alphabet City today – a community with an abundance of opportunities for entertainment but also with pockets of quiet. Street art, nightlife, and gardens – all part of the complicated mix that makes Alphabet City another unique place to live in New York City. Viva la vie bohème!