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Scar Tissue

That visual cacophony is the east side of Allen Street as seen from the west side of the street, on the block north of Delancey Street. If you put aside the graffiti and the graffiti-like graphics, and the cars, you can see that the buildings fronting on Allen Street are all short – two stories with one three-story exception – and small in plan. They are actually very shallow measuring east from the street, backed up on the taller tenements behind them that front on Orchard Street. What’s going on?

Allen Street had the disadvantage, when the numbered street grid was laid out north of Houston Street, to have its north end close to the south end of First Avenue. This was more or less an accident, but it means that traffic to and from First uses Allen. The Second Avenue Elevated ran on Second only as far south as 23rd Street; below 23rd it ran on First, then Allen, and then Division Street to Chatham Square, where it had a knot with the Third Avenue elevated. Here’s the lay of the land in 1893, with the block of interest highlighted. Note the elevated railroad station at Rivington and Allen.

By 1916, some of the older houses have been replaced by Old Law tenements, Delancey Street has been greatly widened to serve as the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Methodist church has become a synagogue:

And then modernization took hold in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The blocks between Chrystie and Forsythe Streets were demolished for a new park, and the buildings on the east side of Allen Street were demolished to double the street’s width, making it better able to handle the First Avenue traffic. Here’s the 1930 map, showing the demolition:

The condemnations for the street widening took the lots west of the Allen/Orchard block centerline. That left the rear yards of the buildings that face Orchard Street exposed on the Allen Street side, and eventually little buildings were built there. Here’s 1955, and it would be much the same today:

If you compare the last two maps, the rear yards for the Orchard Street tenements have entirely disappeared, filled in by tiny new buildings, the ones seen in my photo above.