Friday, January 7, 2011

Hidden, Winding Gay Street in Greenwich Village

photo by Alice Lum
In Greenwich Village a curving little street, one block long, winds it way from Christopher Street to Waverly Place; lined with tiny Federal houses on one side and later, Greek Revival buildings on the other.
1894 print showing the Jefferson Market Courthouse in background -- NYPL Collection
Wouter van Twiller built a brewery here in the 17th Century, one that was long gone by the time the tiny, narrow street was laid out in the early years of the 19th Century. On April 23, 1827, the first documented mention of Gay Street appeared in the Common Council minutes which told of a complaint made by a health inspector against A. S. Pell’s privy.

As the refined Greek Revival homes on Washington Square nearby began rising in the 1830s, Gay Street was widened, in 1833, demolishing the 1820s period houses on the west side. Working-class Greek Revival homes replaced them with stables behind that served the wealthy homeowners of Washington Square.

Mrs. Patton of 276 West 29th Street was brought to No. 12 Gay on August of 1855.  After disembarking from an 8th Avenue trolley car with a baby in her arms, she had been knocked down and run over by a heavy express wagon. Mrs. Patton threw her baby out of harm’s way, but her body was run over by two of the wheels. Policeman Carpenter escorted the woman to her sister’s home on Gay Street. The Times reported that “During the excitement the driver of the wagon made his escape.”

The little house at No. 12 Gay Street with Flemish bond brickwork and surviving Federal entrance details and ironwork where Mrs. Patton was brought in 1855, where Mayor Walker's girlfriend lived and where Howdy Doody was created - photo
On August 28, 1869 a fire broke out on the stable of Henry Lairs behind No. 10 Gay Street reportedly doing $1000 worth of damage. The little houses sat essentially unnoticed on the arcane street, Joseph E. Walsh living at No. 18 when he signed the Woman’s Suffrage petition in 1894 and Anastasia Mullen living at No. 14 Gay Street in 1906.
Nos. 14, where Ruth McKenna wrote "My Sister Eileen," and 16 Gay Street in 1937 -- photo by Bernice Abbott

Throughout the 19th Century and into the early parts of the 20th, the picturesque street was home, mainly, to black residents and on May 10, 1903 The New York Times reported that “A couple of colored artists, Messrs. E. Hawkins and S. O. Collins of 11 Gay Street announce an exhibition of their work at that address from May 11 to 15. They call themselves modestly enough art students, not artists.”

Yet despite its hidden location and plebian roots, Gay Street became the setting for many New York happenings. In the mid-1920s playboy mayor Jimmy Walker leased an apartment for his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Betty Compton in No. 12, where Mrs. Patton had been taken in 1855. Later puppeteer Frank Parris lived here, where created his Howdy Doody character.

Next door, in the 1827 house at No. 14, author Ruth McKenney shared the basement apartment with her sister Eileen in 1935. Details of their life on Gay Street were integral to her novel “My Sister Eileen.” A few days before the subsequent Broadway play of the same name opened in 1940, Eileen and her new husband were killed in an automobile accident. The grieving Ruth never saw her play.

In the same apartment on Christmas Day, 2003, community activist David Ryan was killed by a fire.

While Ruth and Eileen McKenney were living two doors away, author Mary McCarthy took up residence in No. 18 in 1936.

Later, across the street, at No. 13, controversial self-described “radical lawyer” William Kunstler lived. Kunstler became famous for his defense of the “Chicago Seven” and later for such divisive clients as the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground Organization, Jack Ruby and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.

Nos. 19 through 7 Gay Street in 1940
No. 13 also gave Gay Street its first movie appearance as the principal location in the 1934 A Night to Remember. Al Pacino was arrested at No. 17 in the 1993 Carlito’s Way and in 1996 Sheryl Crow’s video for “A Change Would Do You Good” was shot on Gay Street.

The secretive little bent street is one of New York's quaintest and least known spots.


  1. I've lived in Greenwich Village for over 20 years and never seen this street! I just had to watch the Sheryl Crow video to see the street...reminds me quite a bit of London.

  2. Correction - A Night to Remember was from 1942. You might have confused it with It Happened One Night which was 1934.

    (Feel free not to publish this comment. Just wanted to pass it on.)

    1. Thanks for catching that. Now I need to go back and see which movie used the street. Stand by for updates!

    2. It's definitely "A Night to Remember" (1942), starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne, which takes place at 13 Gay Street. Of course, it was unfortunately shot on a Hollywood backlot and not on location.

  3. Cyndi Laupers Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video

  4. Please provide source for the assertion that Betty Compton lived on Gay Street. Seems highly out of character. Walker's earlier girlfriend Vonnie Shelton lived in the penthouse of 136 Waverly, much more likely.

    1. Most readers who demand sources (at least the only other one who did) provide a name rather than posting as Anonymous. A Google search of "Jimmy Walker" and "Gay Street" should help you.