In the Society Archives the other day, we were looking at a map of New York City from 1909, and noticed something unusual. The familiar Avenues ran up and down the island, from 1st to 12th, including some of the most famous streets in the world – Madison, Park, Fifth. But running alongside the western banks of Manhattan, where today you’d find the westside highway and park, clearly marked on the map was an extra Avenue – Thirteenth – which no longer exists. Cross referencing Google Maps, it appears as though that entire part of the City has disappeared, seemingly swallowed up by the Hudson River.
Until that is until you look closely at Google Maps at Little West 12th Street. There, jutting out into the Hudson River, is a small, square parcel of land, just one block long and one block wide. On the map it is marked down as Thirteenth Avenue.
That weekend, we braved the jostling crowds of the Meatpacking District to see if we could walk along what was left of Manhattan’s lost Avenue.
There is nothing the members of the SGE like more than finding an old, historical gem hiding right there under everyone’s nose. We’re descending into one of Manhattan’s most popular weekend destinations – with locals and tourists alike – the areas around the High Line, the Chelsea Markets and the Meatpacking District. Leaving the crowds behind, and heading crossing over 12th Avenue by Gansevoort Street, there’s a small fenced off pier. It looks fairly nondescript, currently home to a small building belonging to the Department of Sanitation, and several dilapidated buildings, that, judging from the bulldozers lying idle over the weekend, look soon to be demolished. With all the ongoing repurposing of the old piers that once lined up along the Hudson River, it looks like any other construction site.
Slipping inside an opening in the fence, the crowds are swiftly forgotten. We’re standing on a small, square outcrop of Manhattan, known today as the Gansevoort Peninsula. And for one block only, running alongside the Hudson is indeed a street – the last remnant of Thirteenth Avenue.
Looking at our map from 1906, you can see that once, Thirteenth Avenue ran for much longer; it started at 11th Street and continued as far as 29th, where it merged with 12th Avenue. Until it seemingly one day just mysteriously disappeared.
The story of how 13th Avenue vanished is an interesting chapter in New York history; for it was in fact, man made. As the City sought to expand in size, 13th Avenue was made from landfill as fas back as 1837. This was a time when New York was still one a port city – one of the largest and busiest in the world. Ships and piers thronged the South Street Seaport. But as the size of shipping dramatically increased during the Industrial Revolution, the need for deepwater docks saw piers being made along the west side of the island.
These were piers deep and long enough to be able to support ships the size of the Titanic, Lusitania, and Queen Mary. But rather than build piers further into the Hudson River, the City of New York simply dug into Thirteenth Avenue, removing parts of the landfill to create pier large enough to cope with the giant transatlantic steamships.
Gradually, Thirteenth Avenue simply disappeared. Apart from this one small block. There are no workers here at the weekend, and we enjoyed the slightly surreal experience of walking on an Avenue of New York City that no longer appears on any official maps, and doesn’t have its own street sign. It is a forgotten and overlooked trace of a time when New York was a booming port city; it artificially created this Avenue, and then just as simply, destroyed it.