Lower Manhattan, the oldest part of the borough, is full of ghosts, and those ghosts are visible on the map. When the city rolled out the plan for Manhattan's orderly street grid in 1811, a forward-looking commentator was quick to trash-talk the existing tangle of thoroughfares below what we now call Houston Street: "The arrangement of the original or lower part of the city ... is essentially defective. Beauty, order, and convenience seem to have been little valued by our ancestors." But that original and organic network still holds sway, for the most part.

There are exceptions, however, and some are more obvious on the ground than on a map. A casual stroll around Greenwich Village reveals streetscapes that look like they've had an axe taken to them, with walls facing Seventh and Sixth Avenues and Houston Street that clearly were not intended to be those buildings' public faces.

The story behind those scars in the cityscape involved momentous but largely forgotten upheavals for lower Manhattan in the early 20th century. Their aftereffects still shape how New York gets around today—for good and for ill.

Seventh Avenue South

If you've ever wondered why Seventh Avenue becomes "Seventh Avenue South" as it crosses 11th Street (and the address numbers shift as well), the answer is fairly straightforward: The "South" section is a (relatively) new creation, blasted through the ancient Greenwich Village street grid during the second decade of the 1900s. The story behind it was laid out in a 1911 New York Times article that breathlessly recorded the historic buildings that would be leveled in the planned project—the historic Bedford Street Methodist Church would be "entirely obliterated," while St. John's Church would lose its colonnaded façade (it was ultimately torn down as well)—but also extolled its benefits to the "needs of the rapidly growing commercial interests" of Greenwich Village.

Although the extension of Seventh Avenue southward would create a new 100-foot-wide boulevard in a neighborhood previously dominated by streets built for pedestrians and horses, the Times made it clear that this project was very much a mass transit story. The New York subway, then still in its infancy, then ran in a Z down the length of Manhattan, heading south under Broadway on the Upper West Side, then cutting east on 42nd Street before turning south on Park Avenue and Lafayette Street into lower Manhattan. But Penn Station, newly opened in 1910, sat at 34th Street, six blocks to the south of the West Side line. As the Times put it:

It is this lack of quick transit facilities that has retarded, in the opinion of large property owners and business men in the Pennsylvania loft section, the prompt development of the blocks surrounding the station with high-class buildings.

The Dual Contracts, issued by the city to the private companies that ran the subways in 1912, would fix this problem by turning the Z into an H, extending lines the length of the island on both the East and West Sides. On the West, the construction of Seventh Avenue South would provide the opportunity to connect the Battery to the Bronx.

The Times announced in 1914 that the "wreckers were busy," destroying, among other things, the Bedford Street Methodist Church and Thomas Paine's house; it was also noted that the "subway diggers and steam shovels are busily at work ... excavating for the rapid transit tube which, when complete, will open a new era of business development in the old Greenwich Village section." Today, the 1/2/3 trains still connect this part of town to Penn Station, even though the 1910 palace has long since been replaced by the little-loved warren under Madison Square Garden.

Sixth Avenue before and after its extension southward from Carmine Street to Canal Street.

Sixth Avenue

A decade later, an even bigger project was planned to stab into Greenwich Village one avenue to the east. Sixth Avenue (no South, this time) would push down from its then southern end at Carmine Street an additional three-fifths of a mile to Canal. This project, like the extension of Seventh Avenue before it, had a transit component: The destruction of so many buildings would make it easy to build a new subway line—not, somewhat confusingly, the modern Sixth Avenue Line, but rather the Eighth Avenue Line, which carries the A train down from the Bronx and jogs over to Sixth Avenue south of 14th Street.

Just a decade after New York was so focused on connecting Penn Station to the subway, the 1926 Times article touting this project instead dwelled on another transportation mode entirely: the increasingly popular automobile. Because at the same time that hundreds of buildings were being leveled to accommodate Sixth Avenue's expansion, another new thoroughfare was arriving from the west in the form of the Holland Tunnel: "The primary purpose of this new outlet to an old street is to provide an outlet for the traffic that will flow in and out of the vehicular tunnel."

The new Sixth Avenue was meant to provide relief for Varick Street, the only north-south thoroughfare in the area that could accommodate the inrush of traffic from New Jersey; Varick itself connected to the newly extended Seventh Avenue, and had been expanded to match its counterpart a decade previously. But even these two widened roadways would be overwhelmed. The Times quoted a nameless but "far-sighted" traffic engineer who said "within two years New York may expect traffic congestion such as the town has never seen," as the 25,000 cars that crossed the Hudson every day, at the time by ferry, were expected to swell to 40,000. (In 2016, that figure was more like 90,000.)

The Times noted another factor in this project that helped define the Lower Manhattan streetscape: While the city had only acquired the bare minimum of land necessary to expand Varick Street, this had turned out to be complicated. So to build out Sixth Avenue whole lots were gobbled up, even if only part of the parcels were actually required. The result was a jigsaw of odd street and property remnants still evident in a walk down Sixth Avenue today; some of those lots are only now being filled in by quirkily shaped buildings.

Another effect of this megaproject? Massive displacement of residents. Ten thousand people were expelled from their homes in 1926, many of them Italian immigrants removed on short notice with nowhere else to go. "To ask families to uproot themselves and move to Brooklyn or the Bronx is like asking them to undertake another emigration," the Times noted sympathetically, although it added that ultimately the matter of displacement was "strictly a private worry" that "does not concern any of the dozen or so city departments which have a finger in the extension project."

Houston Street

In 1930, the rubble from the Sixth Avenue project hadn't yet been cleared when Lower Manhattan's street grid was subjected to its next assault. Another subway segment, the Houston-Essex Line (today part of the F line) was planned to newly connect Lower Manhattan to the Culver Line extending through Brooklyn to Coney Island. As the name implied, the new line would run below Houston Street, and the Times gave Manhattan Borough President Samuel Levy an opportunity to extol his vision for the project: As with Sixth Avenue, the expansion of the subway would provide an opportunity to move more cars across the city.

Houston Street street widening project (at Ludlow), September 1931

As part of the subway project, Houston would be doubled in width east of Sixth Avenue. The idea was to connect the traffic now flowing in from New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel to the bridges over the East River to Brooklyn.

The Houston widening went ahead in the early 1930s, to the north on some blocks and to the south on others. [JF1] And like its predecessors, this project created aspects of today's city that we take for granted: The original Houston Street hadn't been much of a barrier or landmark, but expanded to six lanes, it separated the neighborhoods on either side of it and thus helped give SoHo a distinct identity.

And there's one final footnote to the Houston project. The early '30s were just a few years before the era of the divided highway, but that map in the Times article linked above looks not unlike the route of the fabled Lower Manhattan Expressway, Robert Moses' dream road that was planned to link the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. In the early 1960s, the city got as far as buying up properties to connect Houston to the new expressway via a new thoroughfare called Verrazano Street—but community opposition, spearheaded in part by Jane Jacobs, scuttled the whole project, and neither the "Lomex" nor Verrazano Street were ever built. The widened Houston would turn out to be the last big scar carved through the Lower Manhattan streetscape.