Astor Place in the East Village of New York
On the Hodgepodge Area in Lower Manhattan Named for a Real Estate Mogul
Astor Place is a two block stretch that goes from Broadway to Lafayette Street to Eighth Street. But people tend to think of it as the general area surrounding those two blocks, a transitional zone where pedestrians leave behind the orderly business of Manhattan and enter into the free-spirited, fashionable grunginess of the East Village.
Amanda, one of the main characters in my novel, has a vintage clothing store that’s located in the East Village. Once upon a time, when I first moved to Manhattan, I lived in the East Village. That was an intense introduction to the city and, sort of like childbirth, something I feel proud to have done, and am glad to be done with.
The name of Amanda’s store is also the name of the novel: “Astor Place Vintage.” However, I’d like to acknowledge here that Amanda’s shop is actually a few blocks south of Astor Place. But, as she says in the novel, the association with John Jacob Astor, Manhattan’s first multi-millionaire, couldn’t hurt.
John Jacob Astor arrived in New York from Germany via London in 1783, the same month British troops left America after the War of Independence. He’d intended to make his living selling musical instruments. When he caught wind of opportunities in the fur trade, his interest shifted. Astor's business of importing and exporting furs brought him a modest fortune, which he parlayed into an obscenely big fortune by stockpiling New York real estate.
Perhaps I should also mention that Astor never actually lived on Astor Place. He did own the land underneath it, though.
In 1804, Astor bought the land between Broadway and Bowery that would eventually be named after him. North of the settled part of the city, the land was an undeveloped field. He leased it to a Frenchman who established the Vauxhall Gardens, a fenced-in park with walks, trees, flowers, an outdoor theater, and stalls where refreshments were served. By 1826, the lease on the park was up and the city had expanded north -- almost far enough to reach Astor's land.
Astor built himself a wide thoroughfare that cut into the Vauxhall Gardens and ran from Great Jones Street to Art Street. (Art Street was then the name of that two block stretch that's now named Astor Place.) He named it Lafayette Place, in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution. He also financed a row of mansions, most notably the LaGrange Terrace, now known as Colonnade Row because of its marble Corinthian columns along the front of its nine townhouses.
At the time, people thought that creating such a fine street on the edge of town showed a serious lack of good sense.
They were wrong.
The cobblestone cul-de-sac became the ultra-fashionable, upper-class residential district of its day, home to residents such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Delanos, and Washington Irving. Astor’s son William lived there too, but the father preferred his thirteen acre country estate up on what is now 88th Street, where the lawn in front of his house extended to the water’s edge of the East River.
A biography of Astor by Elizabeth Louisa Gebhard was published in 1915. Read this excerpt and try not to weep:
“Beyond St. Mark’s church [on East 10th Street] was open country. The Stuyvesant meadows led on to farms and market gardens, varied by thickets and swamps, while the rider occasionally passed fine old country seats in the midst of broad acres… No road was too remote or unfrequented to be traversed by John Jacob Astor and his good horse… The Eden Farm extended on the old Bloomingdale road, now Broadway, from forty-second to forty-sixth Streets, stretching in a diagonal line north-westward to the Hudson River… The heir of this valuable estate seems to have frittered it away, and Mr. Astor, improving his opportunity, purchased it…"
In other words, he bought the land that became the heart of Times Square.
Downtown, Uptown, Midtown, East Side, West Side... Astor bought property all over Manhattan, most of it large plots of undeveloped, rural acreage.
Astor’s colleagues thought he was recklessly squandering money. But his bets paid off after the building of the Erie Canal, which led to New York City becoming a key trading hub, and, some would say, the center of the universe. John Jacob Astor’s reputation would be revised from reckless to ruthless.
One of his strategies was to hold on to his real estate and lease it out. People could build their homes or businesses on a site, but when the lease was up the property had to be left behind. In this way, his land was developed for him. He also like to take advantage of people in financial straits. Meanwhile, as the city’s population grew exponentially, the land itself shot up in value. All Astor had to do was let fate take its course and collect the rent.
And keep buying more land.
The Astor Place subway station, which opened in 1904, continues to funnel people in and out of the neighborhood. Cooper Union has been standing since 1859. But Astor Place has undergone a haphazard metamorphosis that just doesn't congeal. Like many others, I can’t get used to the towering glass condop that was plonked down on a parking lot that used to be lined with vendors selling second-hand stuff on the sidewalk.
I bet even John Astor would be surprised to see how dense Manhattan is now, and shocked to see how high it reaches to the sky.
The Cooper Union leases that land to the developers of that glass tower, and it also owned the building across the street that was recently demolished; it was ugly, so no great loss there. Except now another in-congruent office building is going up, only worsening the aesthetic collision course taking place on this huge intersection.
This being Manhattan, more changes are to come. Evidently there are plans to eliminate the two blocks known as Astor Place to form a plaza. Some people question if this plaza will actually work as public space or as more of a perk for those populating the new towers. Also, there's sentiment to preserve the street for posterity's sake, noting that it follows the same path as an old Indian Trading Route.
It's almost impossible to detect that this area was ever a wealthy enclave. Over on Lafayette, four of those Colonnade Row townhouses still exist, having been landmarked by the city in 1965. Wanamaker’s Department Store tore down the others long ago to build warehouses and stables. Now a Kmart occupies the building that used to be Wanamaker’s.
Astor Place hasn't been an attractive destination in its own right for many years -- perhaps since the Astor Place Riots occured in 1849. Maybe a plaza will make it more inviting. Maybe a plaza will only be another miscast element in the hodgepodge.
John Astor made a fortune because he perceived that people would flock to New York. It remains to be seen if the space named after him can have a drawing power of its own.