Nolita Neighborhood History: Home to Tenements, Def Jam, and a Kid Named Marty Scorsese 

SSPNY Looks Back at the Historic Nolita Neighborhood: Home to Tenements, Def Jam and Martin Scorsese!

SSPNY first looks back at the once, less than safe, streets of Nolita down by Elizabeth Street, just a block away from the Bowery, which used to be one of the notorious skid rows housing only tenements for more than a century, and now home to some of the most beautiful old restored tenements anywhere in NYC.

There's no shortage of juicy history here in Manhattan, especially downtown, where almost every block has seen its share of heydeys, hard times, revitalizations, repeat. This is not news, by the way. In fact, New York City's defining characteristic has ALWAYS been constant change (and commerce, though the two tend to travel through time together), even as far back as the days when the Dutch were running things. That said, some neighborhoods, and some blocks, are a tad bit more interesting than most. For example: the stretch of Nolita's Elizabeth Street from Bleecker down to Prince, which happens to be the home of the newest addition to the Stone Street Properties family, The Leo, which runs from 260 to 268.

SSPNY even checks out what some called "Crack Alley" until the 1980s, referring to the part of Elizabeth Street between Bleecker and Houston that is said to have inspired Public Enemy's song, Night of the Living Baseheads, under Def Jam's label.

It's hard to imagine Elizabeth Street, which today boasts more trendy, spendy boutiques per square inch than just about anywhere in town, as being anything but wonderfully safe and stroll-worthy, but that's a surprisingly recent development in this part of town. Being a block away from the Bowery, once one of the world's most notorious skid rows, didn't help prettify things, and all of these beautiful old restored tenements in Nolita, which give this coveted neighborhood so much of its character, spent much of their century-plus history as, well... just tenements. Also of note: as recently as the 1980s Elizabeth between Bleecker and Houston was not-so-affectionately known as "Crack Alley", and was said to have been the inspiration for Public Enemy's seminal song, Night of the Living Baseheads. Public Enemy's label at the time, Def Jam, was headquartered on the block back then, so the rumor makes sense.

SSPNY next visits the most colorful era in the 40s and '50s, when Elizabeth Street was still home of Little Italy in a lively and slightly dangerous neighborhood where Martin Scorsese settled in 1950, where both of this parents grew up and where much of his early works were inspired, including his 1973 masterpiece Mean Streets.

But perhaps the block's most colorful era came in the 1940s and '50s, when Elizabeth Street was still solidly Little Italy all up and down its length, alive with stoop-sitters, street kids and wise guys. It was this lively, slightly-dangerous (if you weren't a local) setting into which moved one Martin Scorsese in 1950. Both of Scorsese's parents grew up on the block--his mom in 232 Elizabeth, which was filled with families from the Sicilian town of Cirmina; his dad across the street in 241, which is where everyone from the nearby town of Pulizi had settled in--and, after a stint in Corona, Queens, they moved back with wide-eyed, eight-year-old Marty. For 15 years Scorsese lived at 253 Elizabeth, the family of four squeezed into three-and-a-half rooms, sometimes sleeping on the fire escape in the pre-AC summer. The scene that played out before him as he roamed the neighborhood and watched the drama of Little Italy life unfold before him from his third-story bedroom window informed much of Scorsese's early works, including his 1973 masterpiece Mean Streets, some of which he filmed right on the block.

SSPNY lastly visits one of the most interesting blocks in NYC's downtown Manhattan as they check out the historic stretch of Nolita's Elizabeth Street from Bleecker down to Prince famous for commerce and constant change even when the Dutch ran things. The stretch of Elizabeth Street from Bleecker down to Prince, is now the newest addition to the Stone Street Properties family, The Leo, which runs from 260 to 268.

written on 04/10/2013

Posted in: Nolita


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