February 7, 2003     
     Doormen    Commerce St.    Slow Food    Graveyard Shift    The M60    Off Stage  
Commerce Street in Greenwich Village is a quiet, slow street in a fast city.     PHOTO: Andy Glockner

A New York minute on Commerce Street is filled only with the sound of a woman's heels clicking against the pavement and the distant barking of a neighborhood dog. The horns, the sirens, the purr of engines and the whoosh of the subway below that permeate the bordering Seventh Avenue South are all but muted on this one-and-a-half-block Greenwich Village street.  A plaque affixed to the brick wall of one home during the 19th century could apply to the street today: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened."

Very little commerce is transacted on Commerce Street these days, unless you count the walking tours that bring tourists down the quaint street lined with trees and Federal-style houses.  Almost all of the business, which was never much more than a wood workshop, a brewery and a factory, left in the late 1800's along with the wealthy landowners who erected the houses and planted the cherry trees.

But history and the movement of the city did not remove all of the commerce off this backwater street.  Still prominent among the old brick houses are two restaurants, Casa and The Grange Hall, a real estate office and The Cherry Lane Theatre, the oldest continuously running Off-Broadway theater in New York City.  People who do find their way down the curved street between Barrow and Seventh Avenue, whether on purpose or by happenstance, will feel as though they have arrived in a different era-save a few cars and the quick exit back into a 21st-century New York.

The twins, as numbers 39 and 41 Commerce are called, offer a picturesque life in New York.                                PHOTO: Andy Glockner

Commerce Street, like the rest of Greenwich Village, grew during the early 1800's when a series of cholera and yellow fever epidemics hit the city center, in what is now called Lower Manhattan.  As people moved north, banks and businesses flourished in the area.

The street was paved in 1826 after a wealthy and prominent attorney, Charles Oakley, petitioned the Common Council to pave Commerce Street in front of the houses he owned.  The paving was officially extended to Barrow Street the following year, according the Greenwich Village Historical District designation report.  Although the history of the street's name is still debated among residents and scholars alike, no one disputes its origins as an affluent Manhattan address.

Like most everything in New York City, what had seemed firmly established changed.  By the turn of the century, immigrants working along the Hudson River and bohemians, writers and artists, drawn by cheap rents and large apartments, had moved into the area and changed the makeup of the Village and Commerce Street, where people like the writer Washington Irving and photographer Berenice Abbott lived.  While New York has changed and grown up around it, Commerce Street has not lost the quiet charm or sleepy and established repose that continues to make it a rare place in a city that supposedly never sleeps.

This plaque, near number 13 Commerce Street, reveals that even in 1897, the street was slow and quiet.  PHOTO: Beth Schepens

Some historians maintain that Commerce Street was once called "Cherry Lane," after the cherry tree-lined cow path that once ran through the Gomez farm, which later became part of Greenwich Village.

The Cherry Lane Theatre, armed with a stack of historical documents and newspaper articles, is in the process of asking the local community board to have the honorary name "Cherry Lane" added to street signs, to recognize what they believe to be the street's first name.

Documents from the Greenwich Village Society on Historic Preservation say the name Cherry Lane originated more from imagination than history.

Papers show that "In answer to a reporter's question that momentarily caught him off guard, William Rainey (one of the original directors) said the new theater would be called the 'Cherry Lane,' and then went on to justify the selection by outlining a totally imaginary Cherry Lane that passed through the neighborhood in colonial days."

© 2003 NYC24, a production of the New Media Workshop at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.