The neighborhood has a long history, serving as a cultural center and ethnic enclave for Manhattan's German, Polish, Hispanic, and Jewish populations. However, there is much dispute over the borders of the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, and East Village. Historically, Manhattan's Lower East Side was 14th Street at the northern end, bound on the east by East River and on the west by First Avenue; today, that same area is Alphabet City. The area's German presence in the early 20th century, in decline, virtually ended after the General Slocum disaster in 1904.
The original layout of Manhattan streets specified by the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 designated 16 north-south streets specified as 100 feet (30 m) in width, including 12 numbered avenues and four designated by letter located east of First Avenue called Avenue A, Avenue B, etc.
In Midtown and north, Avenue A was eventually renamed as Beekman Place, Sutton Place, York Avenue and Pleasant Avenue; Avenue B was renamed East End Avenue. (There were no avenues farther east in this part of the city.) Farther south, the avenues retained their letter designations.
The name 'Alphabet City' is thought to be of rather recent vintage, as the neighborhood was considered to be simply a part of the Lower East Side for much of its history. Urban historian Peter G. Rowe posits that the name entered use in the 1980s, when gentrification spread east from the Village. The term's first appearance in The New York Times is in a 1984 editorial penned by then mayor Ed Koch, appealing to the federal government to aid in fighting crime on the neighborhood's beleaguered streets:
The neighborhood, known as Alphabet City because of its lettered avenues that run easterly from First Avenue to the river, has for years been occupied by a stubbornly persistent plague of street dealers in narcotics whose flagrantly open drug dealing has destroyed the community life of the neighborhood.
A later 1984 Times article describes it using a number of names: "Younger artists ... are moving downtown to an area variously referred to as Alphabetland, Alphabetville, or Alphabet City (Avenues A, B, C and so forth on the Lower East Side of Manhattan)".
Until the early 19th century, much of what is now Alphabet City was an extensive salt marsh, a type of wetland that was part of the East River ecosystem. The wetland was drained, and a patch of the river bed reclaimed by real estate developers in the early 19th century.
Like many other neighborhoods on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Alphabet City became home to a succession of immigrant groups over the years. By the 1840s and 1850s, much of present-day Alphabet City had become known as "Kleindeutschland" or "Little Germany"; in the mid-19th century, New York had the third-largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin and Vienna, with most of those German speakers residing in and around Alphabet City. Moreover, Kleindeutschland is the second substantial non-Anglophone urban ethnic enclave in United States history, after Philadelphia's Germantown.
By the 1880s, most Germans were moving out of Kleindeutschland and relocating Uptown, to the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. Eastern Europeans replaced Germans as the dominant ethnic group in Alphabet City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, the area was considered part of the Lower East Side, and it became home to Eastern European Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. It consisted of tenement housing with no running water, and the primary bathing location for residents in the northern half of the area was the Asser Levy bath house located on 23rd Street and Avenue C, north of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town. During this time, it was also the red light district of Manhattan and one of the worst slums in the city.
By the turn of the 20th century, Alphabet City was among the most densely populated parts of New York City. This density was partially a result of the area's proximity to the city's garment factories, which were the major source of employment for newly arrived immigrants. After the construction of the subway system, workers were able to relocate to other parts of the city that had been too remote, such as the Bronx, and Alphabet City's population decreased dramatically.
By the middle of the 20th century, Alphabet City was again in transition, as thousands of Puerto Ricans began to settle in the neighborhood. By the 1960s and 1970s, what was once Kleindeutschland and the red light district had evolved into "Loisaida" (Spanglish for "Lower East Side"). Alphabet City became an important site for the development and strengthening of Puerto Rican cultural identity in New York (see the Nuyorican Movement). A number of important Nuyorican intellectuals, poets and artists called Loisaida home during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero.
During the 1980s, Alphabet City was home to a mix of Puerto Rican and African American families living alongside struggling artists and musicians (who were mostly young and white). Attracted by the Nuyorican movement, low rents, and creative atmosphere, Alphabet City attracted a growing Bohemian population. At one time it was home to many of the first graffiti writers, b-boys, rappers, and DJs. The area also had high levels of illegal drug activity and violent crime. The Broadway musicalRent portrays some of the positive and negative aspects of this time and place.
In August 1988, a riot erupted in Tompkins Square Park when police arrived to evict a large encampment of homeless people from the park. The police had been sent there to enforce a curfew enacted in response to over a decade of complaints from residents about the round-the-clock lawlessness and noise emanating from the park. The police showed little restraint, with several demonstrators injured, and much ensuing public disapproval.
Alphabet City was one of many neighborhoods in New York to experience gentrification in the 1990s and early 21st century. Multiple factors resulted in lower crime rates and higher rents in Manhattan in general, and Alphabet City in particular. Avenues A through D became distinctly less bohemian in the 21st century than they had been in earlier decades. Apartments have been renovated and formerly abandoned storefronts are now bustling with new restaurants, nightclubs and retail establishments. The area had only two murders between July 2015 and July 2016.
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space opened on Avenue C in the building known as C-Squat in 2012. A living archive of urban activism, the museum explores the history of grassroots movements in the East Village and offers guided walking tours of community gardens, squats, and sites of social change.
The streets and avenues of Alphabet City are lined largely by 19th and early-20th century tenements and mid-20th century public housing complexes, although there are plenty of rowhouses, institutional and commercial buildings, and houses of worship as well. The area contains one historic district: the East 10th Street Historic District, designated in 2012 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). According to the designation report, “The rare attribution of several of the early residences to noted architect Joseph Trench, and the possible role they played in introducing the Italianate style of architecture to row house design ... enhances the significance of these buildings. Even through the modernizations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the buildings within the East 10th Street Historic District have maintained a cohesive architectural character on an important park setting in the historically and culturally rich East Village neighborhood.”
In recent years, under increasing pressure from local groups such as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) for expanded landmark protections in the neighborhood, the LPC has also designated a number of individual landmarks. They include:
St. Nicholas of Myra Church – designated in 2008, this lively and picturesque brick and terra cotta church complex was constructed in 1882-83 as the Memorial Chapel of St. Mark's Parish. The church and its attached school building were designed by James Renwick, Jr. (1818-1895), one of the most prominent architects in nineteenth century New York.
Eleventh Street Public Bath – designated in 2008, this highly intact work of prominent architect Arnold W. Brunner is also culturally significant for its part in the histories of the progressive reform movement in America and the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side. Built between 1904 and 1905 and designed in the neo-Italian Renaissance style, the bath (as well as the other thirteen City-operated public baths opened between 1901 and 1914) was the result of hard-fought efforts made by progressive reformers decades earlier.
Public National Bank of New York – designated in 2008, this is a highly unusual American structure displaying the direct influence of the early-20th century modernism of eminent Viennese architect-designer Josef Hoffmann. Built in 1923, the bank was designed by Eugene Schoen (1880-1957), an architect born in New York City of Hungarian Jewish descent, who graduated from Columbia University in 1902, and soon after traveled to Europe, meeting Otto Wagner and Hoffmann in Vienna.
Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Ansche Ungarn – designated in 2008, this small, classical revival style synagogue building is a fine and rare surviving example of the numerous small synagogues that were constructed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Meaning "Great House of Study of the People of Hungary," the congregation had outgrown several previous sites before constructing this building, designed by the New York architectural firm of Gross & Kleinberger in 1908.
Public School 64 – designated in 2006, this French Renaissance Revival structure was designed by master school architect C.B.J. Snyder and built in 1904-06. This was a period of tremendous expansion and construction of new schools due to the consolidation of New York City and its recently centralized school administration, school reforms, and a burgeoning immigrant population. After ceasing use as a school, the building became the Charas/El Bohio community center in the 1970s, only to be sold by the city to a private developer in 1998. The building has decayed since then, unimproved by owner Gregg Singer yet withheld from a frustrated community.
Congregation Mezritch Synagogue – While not an individual landmark, this building was protected in 2010 as part of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. Due to its status as the area’s last operating neoclassical “tenement synagogue” — named for the fact that it fits miraculously into a narrow mid-block 22-foot wide lot — GVSHP in 2008 asked the LPC to designate it as an individual landmark. Although that did not happen, due to the broader designation, this historic building remains to represent the dozens like it that used to line the local streets.
Other buildings of note include "Political Row", a block of stately rowhouses on East 7th Street between Avenues C and D, where political leaders of every kind lived in the 19th century; the landmarked Wheatsworth Bakery building on East 10th Street near Avenue D; and next to it, 143-145 Avenue D, a surviving vestige of the Dry Dock District, which once filled the East River waterfront with bustling industry.
Alphabet City has a large number of surviving early 19th century houses connected to the maritime history of the neighborhood, which also are the first houses ever to be built on what had been farmland. GVSHP and others have been trying to protect them, but the LPC has been resistant. Despite local advocacy, an 1835 rowhouse at 316 East 3rd Street was demolished in 2012 for the construction of a 33-unit rental called “The Robyn,” which opened in 2014. In 2010, GVSHP and the East Village Community Coalition asked the LPC to consider for landmark designation 326 and 328 East 4th Street, two Greek Revival rowhouses dating from 1837–41, which over the years housed merchants affiliated with the shipyards, a synagogue, and most recently an art collective called the Uranian Phalanstery. The LPC declined, and those buildings were heightened, altered, and remade into luxury rentals in 2012. The LPC also declined a request to evaluate 285 and 287 East 3rd Street, two highly intact Greek Revival “sister” rowhouses dating from 1837, built on land originally owned by the prominent Fish family. Those buildings still stand, however.
In 2008, nearly the entire Alphabet City area was "downzoned" as part of an effort led by local community groups including GVSHP, the local community board, and local elected officials. In most parts of Alphabet City, the rezoning requires that new development occur in harmony with the low-rise character of the area.
A homeless man walks past a trendy sidewalk bar on Avenue C, showing the area's impoverished past and gentrified present.
Since the 1940s the demography of the neighborhood has changed markedly several times: the addition of the large labor-backed Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village after World War II at the northern end added a lower-middle to middle-class element to the area, which contributed to the eventual gentrification of the area in the 21st century; the construction of large government housing projects south and east of those and the growing Latino population transformed a large swath of the neighborhood into a Latin one until the late 1990s, when low rents outweighed high crime rates and large numbers of artists and students moved to the area. Manhattan's growing Chinatown then expanded into the southern portions of the Lower East Side, but Hispanics are still concentrated in Alphabet City. With crime rates down, the area surrounding Alphabet City, the East Village, and the Lower East Side, is quickly becoming gentrified; the borders of the Lower East Side differ from its historical ones in that Houston Street is now considered the northern edge, and the area north of that between Houston Street and 14th Street is considered Alphabet City. But, because the Alphabet City term is largely a relic of a high-crime era, English-speaking residents refer to Alphabet City as part of the East Village, while Spanish-speaking residents continue to refer to Alphabet City as Loisaida.
There also exists a mixed drink called a Loisaida that gained popularity in 2008. It consists of lime, Olde English malt liquor, and apple cider. The name comes from combining sounds from each of the ingredients, as in L(ime), OE (common abbreviation for Olde English) and "Cida" (cider).
Police and crime
Alphabet City is patrolled by the 9th Precinct of the NYPD, located at 321 East 5th Street. The 9th Precinct ranked 58th safest out of 69 patrol areas for per-capita crime in 2010.
The 9th Precinct has a lower crime rate than in the 1990s, with crimes across all categories having decreased by 78.3% between 1990 and 2018. The precinct saw 0 murders, 40 rapes, 85 robberies, 149 felony assaults, 161 burglaries, 835 grand larcenies, and 32 grand larcenies auto in 2018.
A fictional version of NYC's Alphabet City is explored in the Fallen Angels supplement to Kult.
Allen Ginsberg wrote many poems relating to the streets of his neighborhood in Alphabet City.
Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep took place in Alphabet City, with the novel's main character, David and his family, living there.
Jerome Charyn's novel War Cries Over Avenue C takes place in Alphabet City.
In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain says "Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Cannabis, methaqualone, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, secobarbital, tuinal, amphetamine, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we'd send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get."
In Marvel Comics, Alphabet City is home to District X, also known as Mutant Town, a ghetto primarily populated by mutants. The ghetto was identified as being inside Alphabet City in New X-Men #127. It was described in District X as having the 'highest unemployment rate in the USA, the highest rate of illiteracy and the highest severe overcrowding outside of Los Angeles'. (These figures would suggest a large population.) It was destroyed in X-Factor #34.
The photo and text book "Alphabet City" by Geoffrey Biddle chronicles life in Alphabet City over the years 1977 to 1989.
The fictional 15th Precinct in the police drama NYPD Blue appears to cover Alphabet City, at least in part.
In an appearance on The Tonight Show, writer P. J. O'Rourke said that when he lived in the neighborhood in the late 1960s, it was dangerous enough that he and his friends referred to Avenue A, Avenue B, and Avenue C as "Firebase Alpha", "Firebase Bravo", and "Firebase Charlie", respectively.
In episode 6 of the 2009 police drama The Unusuals, "The Circle Line", an identity thief buys his ID from a dealer in Alphabet City.
The episode "The Pugilist Break" of Forever is about a murder that takes place in Alphabet City; the episode highlights the history of the neighborhood and its current development and gentrification.
In the episode "The Safety Dance" in "Season 2" of "The Carrie Diaries", Walt helps his boyfriend move into an apartment in Alphabet City.
The Netflix series Russian Doll features several scenes in Tompkins Square Park and other locations in Alphabet City.
Character actor Josh Pais, who grew up in Alphabet City, conceived and directed a very personal documentary film, 7th Street, released in 2003. Shot over a period of ten years, it is both a "love letter" to the characters he saw everyday and a chronicle of the changes that took place in the neighborhood.
The Godfather Part II was filmed in part on 6th Street, between Avenues B and C. Proving what injection of money can do, they transformed a run-down block, with several empty buildings into a bustling immigrant neighborhood from 1917. Local residents were kept out of the filming area unless they happened to live on that block or joined on as extras.
Alphabet City was mentioned in the monologue by Montgomery Brogan in the movie 25th Hour.
The Broadway musicalRent takes place in Alphabet City. The characters live on East 11th Street and Avenue B. They hang out at such East Village locales as Life Cafe.
In Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America (and the film adaptation of same), the character Louis makes a comment about "Alphabet Land," saying it's where the Jews lived when they first came to America, and "now, a hundred years later, the place to which their more seriously fucked-up grandchildren repair."
The Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q is set in a satirical Alphabet City. When the protagonist Princeton is introduced, he says, “I started at Avenue A but everything was out of my price range. But this neighborhood looks a lot cheaper! Hey look, a for rent sign!”
Music: Specific avenues
Swans released a song titled "93 Ave B blues" after the address of Michael Gira's apartment.
In Bongwater's "Folk Song" there is the repeated chorus "Hello death, goodbye Avenue A". Ann Magnuson, lead singer of Bongwater, lives on Avenue A.
The 1978 classical salsa hit "Pedro Navaja", by Panamanian singer Rubén Blades, says at the end that the "lifeless bodies" of Pedro Barrios (Pedro Navaja) and Josefina Wilson were found on "lower Manhattan" "between Avenues A and B"...
In Lou Reed's "Halloween Parade", from his highly acclaimed concept album New York (album), he mentions "the boys from Avenue B and the girls from Avenue D."
U2 refer to the neighborhood as "Alphaville" in their song "New York".
In their song "Click Click Click Click" on the 2007 album The Broken String, Bishop Allen sing, "Sure I've got pictures of my own, of all the people and the places that I've known. Here's when I'm carryin' your suitcase, outside of Alphabet City".
Steve Earle's expressionistic "Down Here Below" (track 2 of Washington Square Serenade) cites: "And hey, whatever happened to Alphabet City? Ain’t no place left in this town that a poor boy can go"
The dance hit "Sugar is Sweeter (Danny Saber Mix)" by CJ Bolland refers to the neighborhood with the lyrics, "Down in Alphabet City..."
Mano Negra refers to Alphabet City in the song "El Jako", on the album King of Bongo (1991): "Avenue A: Here comes the day/Avenue B: Here goes the junky/Avenue C: There's no rescue/Death avenue is waiting for you" and "Avenue A: Here comes the day/Avenue B: Here goes the junky/Avenue C: It's an emergency/O.D.O.D. in Alphabet City".
^Corman, Richard. "Photographer Richard Corman: I Shot Madonna", Out (magazine), March 10, 2015. Accessed August 31, 2016. "So I got this girl’s number and called. It was Madonna. At the time she was living in Alphabet City, and she suggested I go to her apartment and chat about what I wanted to do."
^Gould, Jennifer. "All that jazz: Charlie Parker’s townhouse listed for $9.25M", New York Post, October 21, 2015. Accessed August 31, 2016. "The historic Charlie Parker residence in Alphabet City is now on the market for $9.25 million. The Gothic Revival-style, 23-foot-wide, landmarked brownstone at 151 Ave. B boasts original details — it was built around 1849 — including double-wood doors, a decorative relief beneath the cornice and a pointed archway with 'clustered colonettes,' according to the listing."
^Rivera, Geraldo. "Geraldo Rivera: Call 911! Remembering The Mean Streets Of New York City", Fox News Latino, November 8, 2013. Accessed August 31, 2016. "Why do I tell this old story, almost quaint when you realize that aside from my mop the only weapons in the battle were the bottles used to crack open my head? Well, I could have told of my two decades in Alphabet City, like the four times my various apartments were burglarized or the numerous muggings, car vandalisms, robberies, murders or other scenes from Once Upon a Time in New York that I've seen close-up, but you get the idea."