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What is NYC’s real “Main Street”?

September 10, 2014

In New York, I grew up used to a crisscross pattern of numbered streets and numbered or lettered Avenues, and the biggest thoroughfares usually named after places or people.

The other sizeable city I went to, Springfield, MA; the primary “avenue” is “Main St.” (and the primary perpendicular one radiating out of the center of the city was “State St.”)
The next sizeable city I would encounter, every five years, would be Richmond. Its backbone was “Broad St.”, but there was a slightly smaller “Main St.” right next to it (which we used to get to the Poe Cottage in Shockoe Bottom). Norfolk had one as well. I once saw an old picture of it, when it looked more like the others, with the standard 75-100 year old smaller storefronts, but the entire area had been replaced with the standard modern skyline. (The perpendicular Granby St. was similar; Norfolk seemed to originally have an odd L shaped central business district, and Granby for the most part kept its old character). Farmville and other small towns’ primary business district roads were usually Main St. too.

Reading maps, and following roads like Broadway (US9) and Boston Road (US1), which supposedly went “all the way” to Albany (or even Canada) and Boston, respectively, I found that when passing through towns, they often changed their name to “Main St.” and then changed back once past.

Even LA, which seemed such a far cry from the old small towns and cities of the East, had a Main St. (Though you don’t hear about in on TV as much as Hollywood and Sunset Blvd’s and even other streets like Crenshaw, Wilshire, etc.)

It seems like Main St. is something almost universal in populated places. In fact, it has become the trope of average everyday America, often used in contrast with the powerful “Wall St.” or “Madison Av.” or even “Pennsylvania Avenue” and “K Street”.

So it seems like another one of those things that sets New York apart from evewhere else. The “city” proper; Manhattan island, has no Main Street. Growing up in Brooklyn, I never encountered one either, and the Bronx, as a continuation of the Manhattan Streets, didn’t seem to have one either.
As it was, NYC was already different from most other cities in not having a simple business center, with the rest of the city radiating out from it. Manhattan island was the initial “New York City”, that in 1898 incorporated a whole other city (Brooklyn) with its own downtown and radiating main thoroughfares and street grids, and three other counties and their towns. Even on Manhattan, the CBD became split between “downtown” (containing the government and financial centre), and “midtown”, containing the entertainment/media/pop culture (including fashion, etc), shopping and main tourism districts. The general “offices” in big office buildings of corporations, law firms, etc. were divided between both areas.
The areas between them were likely skipped because they did not have the bedrock to support the larger more densely packed construction. (Hence, why they ended up having so many 150-200 year old little houses, like the ones long vanished in Five Points, which got wiped out by downtown’s expansion).

So the city really has three centers of businesses with accompanying skylines: downtown, midtown, and [downtown] Brooklyn. (And now, Long Island City, across the river in Queens, is becoming like an expansion of midtown).

I found a technical “Main Street, New York, NY” had been forged on the little satellite island, called Roosevelt Island, which was placed on the “Manhattan” side of the river between that borough and Queens. Living there a year, I actually had “Main St. NY, NY” as my address!
But I knew this was not a real city “Main Street”. It’s not apart of the city grid; it’s only connected to Queens, roadwise, and the island used to be for hospitals and such, and only had the residences added in the ’70s. It’s like it was done as a “cute” novelty or something; but it’s really this little island’s own Main St., not the city’s.

(In passing, 125th St. was dubbed “Main Street, Harlem, USA”, at least in an old Kurtis Blow rap about the street).
In actuality, other major cities Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and Washington DC don’t seem to have a Main st. either. (In Chicago, Michigan Ave. seems to hold that place, and in Atlanta, it’s Peachtree St. and Pennsylvania Ave. is called “America’s Main Street”).

In Philadeplphia, it’s in Manayunk, which looks like a separate town later annexed. Likewise, in Boston, it’s in Charlestown, which was a separate town annexed in 1874 (and didn’t fully take on Boston’s city functions until the 1990’s).

I eventually find that Brooklyn does actually have a Main St.; a small two block poorly paved over cobblestone street that was technically “downtown” like Main St. should be, but in a canyon of loft buildings and next to that really old warehouse with the steel shutters in this isolated waterfront industrial part of it I never went to: down underneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges (“DUMBO”). This was once a more active area, when the waterfront and ferries were more prominent in city life, but then (especially after the big bridges were built, passing completely over the areas) the center of activity moved more inland, with Fulton St. taking on more the role of an old Main Street. (And Flatbush Ave., the main thoroughfare of my area, being sort of like a newer counterpart to it, running perpendicular to the newer parts of the borough).
They’ve been moving to make the DUMBO area more of an attraction, with plans for the waterfront, and many of the factories converted to lofts, and some new buildings as well.

The most prominent “Main Street” in the five boroughs, is in Flushing Queens. This is the most like the traditional Main Streets, as being the main thoroughfare, and is long (running to the county administration area in Kew Gardens) and busy. In fact, the corner of Main and Roosevelt Av. looks like a small piece of midtown Manhattan. The street is commonly known, in the Transit field (and hobby) because it is the terminal of the 7 line.
The borough of Queens remained set up more like a suburban county with individual “towns” or townships (the postal addresses even go by these), so Main Street belonged to the town of Flushing.

Staten Island’s “Main Street” belongs to Tottenville, way on the extreme other end of the island from St. George, which is the seat of the county. (It too, as NYC’s most suburban bourough, in some respects retains it’s individual “town” setup, though it’s not as prominent as Queens, because it’s not as big, and it’s primarily those two towns and Port Richmond, while the whole center of the island is suburban).

Bronx also has a little Main Street in a very remote corner of Throggs Neck, on the Long Island Sound. This too is out in a more suburban area.

My interest in this was raised, when studying the Five Points of Manhattan, and seeing how streets had been renamed. The main drag in New York; the backbone of the city would be the most famous street, Broadway. That is sort of the practical counterpart to “Main Street” for NYC.
I learned that the Bowery pretty much served as the “Main Street” for the lower East Side (such as the Five Points). Below Chatham Square, it pretty much became Park Row, or what was known as Chatham Street back then. (Later, attempted to be extended further down into running into Pearl St, but this section was renamed St. James Pl.)
It seemed even more like a traditional Main Street, having really old buildings. (It was also once apart of Boston Post Road, and thus truly sort of like the East Side’s counterpart to Broadway).

So I wondered if either of these may have ever been called “Main Street”. Like if Broadway was, since there’s also an East Broadway and a West Broadway, then maybe they would have been “East Main Street” and “West Main Street”. NYC would have really sounded like other cities then!

But I could find no evidence of that. Not even in the original old Dutch names.
So if not those two, I wondered which street would have been considered Main St. (or why, if none ever was).

It was when running across the “Old Streets” site, which came up when trying to find out when the streets were de-mapped, fusing the two halves of block 161 to block 165 (Columbus Park extended to Worth), and block 160 (reducing the Five Points to today’s “Two Points”), that I ran across an apparent actual former “Main Street” listed for Manhattan!:
Main Street. Mentioned in Minutes of the Common Council for August 3, 1812. Apparently part of the present Mercer Street.

You can actually see the text here:

“A Petition of John and James Beekman stating that they were
owners of Lots N 51 52. 53. 54 fronting on broad Way, and of Lots
N 81. 82. 83 & 84 in the rear of the same fronting on Main St and also of sundry Lots between Spring St and Broom St that upon a late survey they find those Lots are deficient owing as they are informed to a mistake of the former Street Commissioner in marking the corners of Spring Street and Broom Street”

Mercer St. runs next to Broadway (to the west) from 8th to Canal. Hence, it shares all of its east side blocks with Broadway. It’s a somewhat narrow, one way (southbound) mostly cobblestone street, and is not a main commercial strip, but does consist mostly of storefronts (mostly trendy “Soho” type shops in really old, mid 19th century loft buildings), or at least other businesses. (At its NW corner with Canal is Canal Lighting, where I always check for the latest LED bulbs and other lights. Above Houston, it’s the eastern boundary of the NYU campus. My first true kiss, with my future wife, was near the corner with Waverly).

Can’t tell which block it was on, as no block number was listed, and the lot numbers for each block are now all mostly under 40. (So they changed, as I saw that the lot numbers had changed on block 160 in Five Points). But assuming these guys’ properties were all in the same area; possibly the same block, it must have been near Spring and Broome.

A “Mann St.” was similarly listed from 1821. (Probably a misspelling. If their source is the Internet Archive like in the link, those were probably OCR scanned, and Main and Mann are obviously close, visually).

This site reports “Mercer Street, directly to the east of the park [a little playground between Bleecker and 3rd], was laid out prior to 1797 and called First Street and Clermont Street. By 1799 it was renamed for physician and soldier Hugh Mercer (c. 1720-1777).”

Still, we don’t know if the whole street was named one way or the other or not. (The section they’re referring to is on the other side of Houston St). Being that it was once “First St.”, obviously it is reflecting a time when the Manhattan was still set up like individual towns with their separate grids (the main grid was laid out in 1811).
Still, if a part of Mercer was in fact Main St., considering that Broadway, as stated, is NYC’s practical “Main Street”; I wonder if there was some sort of connection. The fact that at least a part of it was once “First Street” possibly indicating it once being important or a very early center of the area.

These maps (1803) (1817) seem to show the whole thing named Mercer. Though in the first one, when it gets down to Broome and Grand, you’re entering the marsh of the stream or canal leading to the Collect Pond (of Five Points fame). So who knows what this was about. (Could it even have been an early road between Broadway and Mercer, that was de-mapped at the time and still referred to by the owners? Most of those lots probably weren’t even built up yet. Probably just one of the earlier alternate names still used by the landowners).
It’s also possible that the Old Streets site was mistaken in surmising it was the next street west of Broadway. What about the next street to the east? That’s Crosby St. It too was named by an 1807 plan, though is unnamed in 1803! It’s the same kind of loft-lined side street as Mercer. Though in another 1803 plan it is named, though Mercer isn’t built. The next street over to the west is what would be Greene St. but is labeled as an extension of Church St.!
Even closer; 1811 plan shows both Mercer and Crosby, and apparently no extra streets or even alleys in the area. So I really don’t know what this “Main St.” really was.

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