I emerged from Christopher Street Subway Station to go on a stroll through Greenwich Village. The best way to get to know any city is to walk its streets. Everywhere you’ll find little relics—or scars—from the past. Almost as soon as I left the station, I walked across this tiny triangle of land, probably three feet along each side:
Though the surface is broken and cracked, you can still read the words:
Property of the
which has never
It stands, indignant but without explanation, right in front of a cigar store.
I remembered from a visit to TriBeCa in 2013 that I’d discovered the reason the Ghostbusters Building was such a funny shape and it suddenly clicked. I’d figured out when this tile plot of land had come from, but not the story of whoever had put it there.
Let’s rewind to 1900 for a moment. Here’s a map of Greenwich Village (from Gerald McFarland’s excellent Inside Greenwich Village):
If you look in the top left, you’ll see that Seventh Avenue stops at West 11th Street. Back when the streets of New York were laid out, this was perfectly fine. By the turn of the twentieth century, this was becoming a problem. People were moving to urban areas at an incredible rate. In 1900, the combined population of the USA’s three biggest cities (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia) was 6,500,000 million. By 1910, it had increased to 8,500,000.
Additional infrastructure was needed. In 1910, Penn Station opened about 20 blocks north of here on Seventh. At the same time, plans were underway for what would become the Holland Tunnel (1920-1927). Connecting New Jersey to New York, the tunnel would come out about a mile south on Varick Street.
But if you look at the map, you’ll see there was no direct route through Greenwich Village from Varick to Seventh. City planners made two proposals. Firstly that Varick should be widened so it could cope with the extended traffic (and this is how the Ghostbusters Building gained its odd shape). Secondly, it was proposed to extend Seventh down to join up with Varick. If you look at a map, you’ll see that this proposal would slice through many historic city blocks:
Residents of Greenwich Village called it “The Cut” as it created a gigantic trench cleaving the village in two for a number of years. The New York Times reported in 1911 that $3,000,000 had been appropriated for the project. Much of that money was probably for “eminent domain,” where the city compulsorily purchased the land to be razed. Work was well under way in 1914, as the Times reported with the headline “Wreckers Busy in Old Greenwich:”
The pathway of the Seventh Avenue extension … may be clearly discerned by the evidences of destruction in several of the blocks now being cut through to connect the avenue with the end of Varick Street … About a dozen blocks are to be cut through for a width of 100 feet and below Christopher Street work has progressed rapidly.
They used the “cut and cover” method by which they dug a very deep trench so they could build a tunnel to extend the subway down from Penn Station, then they covered it and paved it for the street. Work finished in 1917.
So how does this tiny triangle of land fit into the story? One of the buildings slated for demolition was the Voorhis Apartments which had been owned by David Hess until his death in 1907. This was probably one of many tenement blocks in the area and would have been a nice little earner for Hess and I imagine the Hess family were none too pleased when the city used eminent domain to take their land from them.
That might have been the end of the story, but some time after the Seventh Avenue extension had been completed, the Hess family discovered that one small plot of land had been overlooked in the city survey. A three foot triangle of land. The Hess estate refused to hand over the land to the city and in 1922 added the sign you can still read today. For several years it was the smallest plot of privately-owned land in the city, until it was sold to the adjacent cigar store in the late 1930s.
One hundred years later, The Cut is long forgotten. But the scars it left behind—the traces of the a lost Greenwich Village—those are still there. They hide in plain sight, waiting to be found.
The Hess Triangle
Address: Village Cigars, 110 7th Ave S, New York, NY 10014