You might have seen the article from last week in the New York Times that applauded the gentrification happening on Canal Street, rife with strenuously objectionable quotes about how it’s suddenly “coming to life.” I’m relatively certain everyone who read it in my little circle felt the same way, but leave it to Jeremiah Moss to craft the perfect response to it. You can find that here.
In my own experience, my fascination with Canal Street dates back to my grade school years, when my late friend Danny and I used to make the trek there for army/navy ephemera at The Trader (long gone… see below as captured below by a Dutch tourist in the late 70’s) and contraband martial arts gear (as documented here). I always felt Canal Street – kinda like 14th Street to its north – was a neighborhood unto itself, separate from the West Village, SoHo, TriBeCa, Chinatown, Lower East Side etc. that it runs through. From end to end, it’s always retained its own flavor, … its own vibe. As I mentioned on another post, Canal Street seemed like one third industrial depot, one third casbah and one third Mos Eisley spaceport, a veritable hive of scum and villainy.
I was also reminded, this morning, by my comrade Yuki Ohta from the SoHo Memory Project of the old Canal Street Jean Co. For its time, Canal Jeans was just an amazing resource for one’s burgeoning fashion sense. Circa 1985, I remember going there and prizing this great, repurposed security-guard shirt – complete with a shield-shaped patch on the left arm just below the shoulder and epaulets. The compelling aspect of the garment was that it was looked vaguely militaristic and was all jet black. It sounds absolutely ridiculous in 2018, but you just could not find black clothing so readily back then. You weren’t about to walk into The Gap and find that sorta thing. Paired with a black Stranglers t-shirt procured from the flea market across Canal on the corner of Greene Street, I remember wearing said ensemble to Danceteria later that evening. Again, this sounds abjectly silly and trivial – and it was --- but for my 18-year-old self, it was a big deal, at the time.
These days, I’d imagine one would be significantly hard pressed to find any army/navy gear or contraband martial arts weaponry on Canal. In 2018, the Canal Street Jean Co. (on Canal Street or otherwise … there was a second one on Broadway) no longer exists. The space it occupied on Canal Street is currently vacant, I believe. The space the Trader occupied, meanwhile, is now a newspaper/espresso joint. There are still shady joints hawking goods of dubious origin lining the long byway, but much of the whiff of the casbah-like quality of old is gone. Even Cortlandt Alley, which I’ve devoted time to here before, is getting something of a makeover. Sure, it’s still caked in grime and graffiti and often smells like an open sewer, but its tall facades are now pockmarked with scaffolding, hinting at a major cosmetic alteration coming to the once-forbidding, narrow passage to the former Mudd Club.
Is Canal Street getting the Meat Packing District treatment? Time will tell.
ADDENDUM: A regular reader reminded me of another longstanding establishment just a few steps to the south of Canal on Church Street wherein you can still, by god, buy army/navy gear. I'm talking, of course, about the great Church Street Surplus (as captured below this very morning)..