Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
This blog was written by Gil Tauber, Historian and Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group planning committee member.
As a place name, “Bloomingdale” first appears in public records in 1688 but was probably in use much earlier. The Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam may have adopted the name by geographical analogy, since the Dutch town of Bloemendaal (which means “vale of flowers”) is northwest of Amsterdam and a few miles west of Haarlem.
Bloomingdale is now a name for the blocks from 96th to 110th Streets between Central Park and the Hudson River, but it once denoted a much larger area of Manhattan Island.
In British colonial times, “Bloomingdale” seems to have encompassed the entire west side of Manhattan north of the Great Kill, a creek near the present 42nd St., to what we now call Washington Heights. About 1708, the British colonial government built the Bloomingdale Road. It started at today’s Madison Square and ran, roughly along the line of Broadway, to the present 115th St. and Riverside Drive. (It was later extended to 147th St.). By the time of the American Revolution, Bloomingdale was a thriving district of farms and country estates.
Shortly after 1800, three villages sprang up along the Bloomingdale Road. Harsenville was around the present 71st St., Bloomingdale Village around 99th St. and Manhattanville around 125th St.
When the city’s present street plan was adopted in 1811, it included a park called Bloomingdale Square, from 53rd to 57th Streets between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. That original Bloomingdale Square was eliminated from the plan in 1857 when the city created Central Park only two blocks north of it. In 1868, the Bloomingdale Road north of 59th Street was closed and replaced by the present Broadway. In the 1870s, the creation of Morningside Park began to give the area north of 110th Street a distinct identity as Morningside Heights.
Thus, “Bloomingdale” shrank in extent but continued to be used for the area closest to the old Bloomingdale Village. Today, between 96th Street and 110th Street, one can find a Bloomingdale School (P.S. 145), a Bloomingdale Branch Library, and even sections of the old Bloomingdale Road. Among other organizations using the name are the Bloomingdale School of Music, Bloomingdale Aging in Place and, most recently, the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
The West End
For most of the 19th Century the best known institution in Bloomingdale was the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, opened in 1821 near 117th St. After the Civil War, real estate developers thought that, because of the asylum, the name Bloomingdale would deter prospective buyers. They campaigned to rename the area west of Central Park “the West End.” In 1880 they got the city to change the name of Eleventh Avenue, north of 59th St., to West End Avenue. A number of businesses and institutions also adopted the name West End, including West End Collegiate Church and West End Presbyterian Church. The drive to replace “Bloomingdale” with West End was somewhat blunted in 1894 when the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum moved to White Plains. Its former property is now Columbia University.
In 1906, the name “Bloomingdale” gained renewed popularity when the historic Bloomingdale Reformed Church moved from 68th Street to an elegant new sanctuary on West End Avenue near 106th St., opposite what was then called Schuyler Square. The move took place during an apartment building boom that drew many new residents to the area. In honor of the church, the city renamed the park Bloomingdale Square. Unfortunately, the church encountered financial difficulties at its new site. By 1910 it had closed. In 1912, Bloomingdale Square was renamed Straus Square (now Straus Park). Although the church and the second Bloomingdale Square had lasted only a few years, their presence helped to reinforce the use of “Bloomingdale” as a neighborhood name.
Valleys don’t move much but names do. When the village of Manhattanville was laid out in 1806, what is now the western portion of 125th Street was called Manhattan Street. The sharp dip in terrain at that point came to be known as the Manhattan Valley. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was frequently in the news because of the engineering challenges it posed for important public works projects such as the Croton Aqueduct and the IRT subway along Broadway.
Manhattan Street was renamed in 1920. Over time, the name Manhattan Valley became unmoored from its original location and in the 1960s was reapplied to the blocks in the vicinity of Manhattan Avenue between 100th and 110th Streets. From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, newspaper articles mentioning this new Manhattan Valley were most often about crime and drug gangs, sometimes along Manhattan Avenue but more often along the parallel portions of Columbus and Amsterdam Aves. However, other articles dealt with the Manhattan Valley Development Corporation, a community-based group that has successfully rehabilitated over 600 units of housing in these blocks.
Today, crime in Manhattan Valley has subsided considerably. Manhattan Avenue itself, with three blockfronts of row houses dating from the 1880s, is now a historic district. Real estate brokers often list apartments as being in Manhattan Valley. It can best be described as a sub-area of Bloomingdale, just as Bloomingdale itself is a sub-area of the Upper West Side.