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The Life and Death of New York's Shortest Avenue

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Unlucky, unknown, and itty-bitty, 13th Avenue is Manhattan's shortest numbered avenue, but when it was created by the city in 1837, it wasn't intended to be a stunted addition to the street grid. Built—and then destroyed—by order of the city, the avenue exists today as just a single block on the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District, between Little West 12th Street and Bloomfield Street, just west of 11th Avenue, but far away from 12th Avenue. In its heyday in the mid-1800s, 13th Avenue encompassed nearly 15 blocks, extending from West 11th Street to 25th Street, and according to Gotham Unbound author Theodore Steinberg, the city originally planned for avenue to stretch all the way to 135th Street, built with dirt excavating from upper Manhattan's hills. But 13th Avenue never made it out of Chelsea.

The thoroughfare's intriguing rise and fall has been recounted by a few outlets, but today's tourists won't find much if they go searching for Manhattan's lost avenue. It's a single block across the West Side Highway, unmarked, but officially known as Gansevoort Peninsula. A battered Department of Sanitation building, a parking lot for garbage trucks, and a bereaved little wood-plank pier are all that remain of this strip of waterfront.

Thirteenth Avenue's 1837 birth followed a law enacted by New York State to "establish a permanent exterior street in the city of New-York along the easterly shore of the North, or Hudson's River," according to author and New York City expert James Nevius. The legislation granted developers the ability to purchase underwater lots along the Hudson and use trash and landfill to expand mainland Manhattan into the water through the construction of piers and docks. The government controls the bulkhead line (the designated off-land shoreline restricting how far dry land can be extended), and with this legal blessing, private investors went wild buying and selling lots to broaden Manhattan.

Development occurred in a haphazard way, but by 1874, the city decided to pave the avenue with Belgian block. The booming businesses that popped up on the new street were mostly lumber yards, saloons, and dumps. In true New York Times fashion, the paper sent a few reporters to the explore this new neighborhood in the 1880s, and found the area to be a sooty alleyway, unpaved, and impoverished. An 1886 Times story quoted in this blog post found that poor Italian immigrants and lumberman were among the few who frequented the area, following a "winding foot path showing the course pedestrians take to dodge the deeper mud holes."

An 1883 Times article describes quite a trip walking up 13th Avenue from West 11th Street to West 26th Street, where a tall board fence randomly demarcated the avenue's end. The southern end of the avenue was "a dreary waste," but moving north, wanderers were rewarded with "glimpses of the surrounding country" that suggested "a mountain ravine." Near 23rd Street things got a little more lively as 13th Avenue passed the the Pavonia Ferry house.

At night, the Times described the place as a seedy, unsafe place that even the police avoided. A known hangout for 19th-century hoodlums, bars in the area were notorious for brawls, cockfights, and fires, which damaged several large businesses, like the New York Drying Company, the Electric Candle Company, Empire Print Works, as well as a grain elevator. Further south, the West Washington Market opened in 1889 as a wholesale facility for farmers.

But 13th Avenue's eccentric life was cut short, quite literally, around the turn of the century when New York needed to upgrade its piers to accommodate larger steam liners like the Lusitania and the Titanic. Thirteenth Avenues's docks were not nearly big enough, so the city condemned the land they created and began removing landfill south of 22nd Street to build Chelsea Piers. North of 22nd Street, however, 13th Avenue remained for a few more decades; the New York Public Library's collection holds dozens of maps and photographs of 13th Avenue from the 1910s to 1930s (and it's mentioned in city records), but this chunk eventually became part of 12th Avenue.

The one section that the city could not condemn below 22nd Street was West Washington Market, so it remained as the Gansevoort Peninsula. Eventually, the market closed and today, the one-block-long piece of land holds facilities for the sanitation department.

While currently lowly, the future of 13th Avenue is bright. The Hudson River Park Trust has proposed turning the single remaining block, as well as Pier 52 and 53, into a "rocky shoreline." The entirety of 13th Avenue is currently operated by the NYC Sanitation Department with no public access (Pier 53 houses the NYC Fire Department's Marine Company One, a functioning fireboat house and pier), but the Trust would have the Sanitation facilities relocated and replaced with a "play lawn" and recreational boating areas. If it's ever accomplished, this tiny piece of Manhattan would have truly seen it all.
· Thirteenth Avenue [Inside the Apple]
· The Forgotten 13th Avenue That New York City Built and Then Destroyed [Gizmodo]
· Thirteenth Avenue [Blogspot]
· Whatever happened to Manhattan's 13th Avenue? [Ephemeral NY]