Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)

Chapter 4. EDENS ALLEY

To KNOW THE city rat, as I have been saying, one has to know the rat's habitat, which is of course the city. And if the city is a world unto itself, then the inhabitant of the city knows only the littlest speck, or as Thoreau has written in Walden: "We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live. Most have not delved six feet beneath the surface." Late that spring I delved into the pellicle that is Edens Alley and set about surveying the alley that was my city rat's home range. I was off into the alley itself by night, into old books and old city newspapers by day.

To begin with, Edens Alley is L-shaped, a cobblestone strip that is surrounded by brick walls—a walled-in lane that was like my Walden, though I'm not so nuts as to want to actually sleep there or anything. The lower portion of the L is narrow, only about twelve feet wide, and although it looks as if it were a dead end, it makes a ninety-degree left-hand turn to travel another two hundred feet until it comes back to a main thoroughfare. Technically speaking, the longer portion of the alley is called Ryders Alley; the shorter portion is Edens Alley. Altogether it is about as long as a suburban driveway, though there is nothing suburban about the alley. While a suburban yard is the bastardization of rural ideals, maintained with fertilizers and landscaping teams, this alley might be described as a symbol of the urban un-ideal, the not seemingly necessary evil: squalor and neglect, refuse and, of course, vermin. Also you could never grow a lawn in Edens Alley. Even during the day there is little sun.

The alley is a nowhere in the center of everything. It is equidistant to the water (New York Harbor) and the financial capital of the world (Wall Street) as well as the city's governmental headquarters (City Hall), each of which is just a few blocks away. The alley is fiveblocks to Broadway, and if you step outside of the alley and walk a little and stand in the right spot, you can see the Empire State Building about fifty-five blocks north; as I mentioned, when I began visiting it, the alley was a few blocks from the World Trade Center. If you emerge from the alley at rush hour or at lunchtime on a weekday, then you get knocked into the flow of people as they herd to and from their offices, from their jobs and homes, as they follow their daily paths. But even then, even at the height of alley-area traffic, you can crawl back in the alley itself and be removed from the crowd, as if it were a hole. You can look out on the people as they pass, feel a quietness, a fermata of urbanity. The alley is a little secret street in the core of workaday, moneymaking, lunch- and breakfast-eating America.

The scenery of Edens Alley is on the humblest of scales. A sign at the entrance to the alley on Fulton Street says NO THRU TRAFFIC, and both people and cars obey—in the hundreds of days that I have visited the rat alley, I've never seen a car or a truck drive though it, the exception being garbage and food-delivery trucks, the vehicles of civic digestion. In a year, I only saw one truck regularly parked there—an unmarked van, the wheels ofwhich rats would sometimes use for cover. As far as foot traffic goes, the alley is rarely profaned by passersby. People either do not realize that the alley is a very slight shortcut from Gold Street to Fulton Street, and vice versa, or, in weighing the benefits of possible time saved, they choose the extra distance over a trudge through this dark, garbage-littered, urine-scented path.

At the entrance on Fulton Street, there is an old eleven-story building; a vitamin and health-supplement store is on the ground floor and a Chinese restaurant is above it. On the other side is an apartment building with a souvenir store on its ground floor. When I first began studying rats there, in the summer, the souvenir store sold numerous New York City souvenirs—e.g., New York T-shirts and coffee cups and shot glasses—in addition to model birds that flapped their mechanical wings like pigeons. Walking up the southern edge of Ryders Alley along the narrow, often garbage-covered sidewalk, one passes the following: an empty brick wall, three dark windows covered with medieval-seeming grates, a back door to the Chinese restaurant, a garage that seems to be an entrance to a dry-cleaning place, and a dark hole accessed by an old steel fire escape's staircase—the stairs angle down into complete darkness. Walking along the northern edge, you pass a long brick wall, a back door to an Irish bar and restaurant, a boarded-up window, another door to I don't know what, and a walled-in lot that is used for storage of construction materials. This lot was the place where I first saw rats in the alley, at play in the lot's sand.

As far as living things go, if you look up over the lot, then you see the alley's one nonconcrete event, a tree. It is an ailanthus tree. Generally speaking, the ailanthus thrives in places where other trees do not find a way to live. Sometimes, it is called "the tree that grows in Brooklyn." Its scientific name is Ailanthus altissima—literally, "tallest of the trees of heaven"; its common name is the tree of heaven. The tree of heaven is not considered native to New York; it is originally from China.* But it was imported to New York in great numbers by Frederick Law Olmsted, the planner and landscape architect. Many people consider it ugly, but I respect it for its ability to grow in the most adverse-seeming conditions. In the alley in the spring, the leaves of the tree of heaven spread out over the rat holes in Edens Alley, and although the leaves don't actually look green, on account of the fluorescent glow of the one streetlight, you are, even at night, reminded of the color green.

And then at last, at the very back of Edens Alley, in the intimate intersection it makes with Ryders Alley, in the corner, there are the large doors, the back entrance to a gourmet supermarket. Soon I would watch as many loads of garbage were carried out when these doors, these gates to Edens Alley, did at last open wide and the garbage was dragged down the alley's slimy surface. In Edens Alley, the cobblestones seem to be older than those in Ryders Alley, though I can't see why they wouldn't have been put in at the same time. Edens Alley's cobblestones look like bad teeth.

Before I complete my description of this nondescript place where I watched rats roam, I should mention that there were things that I did not notice at first. One of those things was that the alley was on an incline, that you had to walk uphill when you walked into the alley. I didn't notice the extent of the incline for a long time, until that winter, actually. In fact, I spent months digging and digging into Edens Alley, finally seeing what I had not initially seen, what I had not noticed at first. Again I turn to Thoreau, in Walden: "My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin mine."

I did notice the giant hole very early on, however. I describe the hole as giant because I only ever went to the rat alley at night, when the rats were out. At night, I couldn't see the bottom of the hole, even when I shined a flashlight down. And besides, when I first started visiting the alley, I didn't like looking in the hole. I would lean over the railing that fences it off and peer down and get a little freaked out. After all, I had no idea what was down there.

WHY IS THE ALLEY NAMED what it is named? What are the historical origins of the names of these little hidden routes? And who cares? As it happens, the history is vague and incomplete, suffering from the alley's obscurity even among obscure alleys.

When I began my time in the alley, I searched for clues in the books that recount the origin of New York City's streets, but there was nothing. A book called Nooks and Corners of Old New York described one particular obscure alley as, in the words of the author, "so completely forgotten that in years its name has not even crept into the police records." But it did not even mention Edens Alley. In contrast, Theatre Alley is a star among unknown places, an often-mentioned secret. For more clues, I went back and looked at all of the oldest maps of the city. I saw the city's streets in their primordial moments, the lanes born of Indian trails, which had likely been adopted from the trails of animals. I saw the lonely-looking lanes turn into little dirt roads and then into cobblestone streets and then into the similarly sized strips where millions of people would walk every day and rats would scramble at night. History, it seems to me, transmits more clearly in the intimacy of the still-original streets of New York's crooked-shaped downtown, or in the snugness of any old downtown: think of the mews in London's City, of the shoulder-to-shoulder lanes of Edinburgh, of narrow streets of the Trastevere in Rome and the little bend in an ancient alley that marks the spot where Caesar himself was killed, a crook that marks the course of history. I saw Edens Alley as a crack in the city's early map, an unnamed little pass.

Ryders Alley first shows up on the old maps around 1740, though unnamed. It could be older. In records of the proceedings of the city from just shortly after it had been taken over by the Dutch, there is an order, on April 30, 1672, for a man named John Rider to pave his street, and maybe some of those stones that the rats I observed running across are the ones he used—though most accounts report that cobblestones were first used in 1860. There was a John Rider who was a prominent English attorney at the time, and it seems possible that the alley is named for him. But there is no Rider Street on any known maps until 1755, when it is shown as an L-shaped street but not identified by any name. It appears as Rider Street in 1797, then over the years is variously referred to as Riders Street, Ridder's Street, Rudder Street, and then, at last, as Ryders Alley.

The history of Edens Alley is similarly indistinct, although after digging through the library, I did learn a few things about it. I learned that a man named Eden lived on Ryders Alley after Rider (assuming Rider ever lived there). Medcef Eden was a prosperous New Yorker. In fact, his was one of the most expensive houses in the city. Ryders Alley appears to have been his home base. On Rider Street, Eden had, according to his will in 1798, "five houses and lots of ground on Rider Street; also four houses and lots in the backyard; also ten in the front yard and also four in said front yard at the time of making this my last will unfinished . . ." In a city directory of 1833, the smaller portion of Ryders Alley had become known as Edens Alley. It reverted to Ryders Alley at some time in the early 1900s, until a few years ago when a historic street marker replaced the nonhistoric street marker, the new street marker using the old name.

In 1920, an account of old New York said this of Eden's life: "[V]ery little is known." What is known is that he came to New York from Yorkshire, England, probably just after the Revolutionary War. His wife's name was Martha, and he had two sons, Medcef junior and Joseph, and four daughters, Sally, Anne, Elizabeth, and Rebecca. He was one of the last friends of Aaron Burr, the Revolutionary War colonel, banker, senator, and vice president under Jefferson, who did not have very many friends in New York City. Burr had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and then, a few years later, was tried for treason on the suspicion that he was going to set up an independent state in the Southwest. (After his trial, New Yorkers never trusted Burr again; he was thought of as a rat.) While Eden referred to himself as a brewer, his legacy was in real estate. He was one of Manhattan's first real estate moguls, in fact, and he preyed on people more vulnerable than he. As it turns out, this early inhabitant of my rat alley acquired his land in little bits at a time from people who went bankrupt, eating up other people's fortunes.

If the rat alley, Medcef Eden's former main residence, is one of the most obscure pieces of land in Manhattan, then the farm he owned ended up being the opposite. Eden's farm was located outside the old city, approximately four miles from Edens Alley, along the road that was then called Old Bloomingdale but is now known as Broadway. It consisted of about ten acres of stream-crossed, green meadows, an orchard, two small houses, and two barns, and it was bounded on the north by a path called Verdant Lane. The farm was sold a few times by the Eden family, who ended up having their own bankruptcy problems, and eventually it wound up in the hands of John Jacob Astor, who sold it himself. Around 1910, the Eden Farm was developed into Times Square. As the lost sibling of the least obscure patch of land in America, the rat alley sometimes seems to me the most forgotten place in the city—a lost tide pool on the shore of a great ocean. On the other hand, sometimes I just think of it as an alley, filled with a lot of rats.

* The term native when used in regards to plants and animals can be complicated. In an essay entitled "The Mania for Native Plants in Nazi Germany," published in a collection called Concrete Jungle, Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, the director of Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dunbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., says, "The missionary zeal with which so-called foreign plants are condemned as aggressive is significant. Such characterizations do not contribute to a rational discussion about the future development of our natural and cultural environment, but possibly promote xenophobia." Wolschke-Bulmahn points out that some plants that are considered "native" to the United States may have been carried over from Siberia by people migrating to America over a land bridge, and he writes of an early proponent of native plants, Jens Jensen, a landscape architect who lived in Wisconsin, who advocated the destruction of "foreign" plants, especially "Latin" or "Oriental" plants. Jensen had close ties to Nazi landscape architects in Germany. In a journal, Jensen wrote: "The gardens that I created myself . . . shall express a spirit of America, and therefore shall be free of foreign character as far as possible." In 1938, Rudolph Borchardt, a Jewish writer persecuted by the Nazis, wrote this of native plant advocates like Jensen: "If this kind of garden-owning barbarian became the rule, then neither a gillyflower nor a rosemary, neither a peach-tree nor a myrtle sapling nor a tea-rose would ever have crossed the Alps. Gardens connect people, time and latitudes . . . The garden of humanity is a huge democracy. It is not the only democracy which such clumsy advocates threaten to dehumanize."