The Fabled "No-Man's Land" of Pelham Manor: A Tiny Strip of New York City
No-man's land is a long strip of land made up of about thirty-five properties that sit in the Bronx. Because they are separated from other Bronx residential areas by Pelham Bay Park, however, they derive many of the amenities of the suburban lifestyle offered by the lovely Village of Pelham Manor. For example, the children of homeowners located on the strip attend schools in Pelham Manor. Yet, the lucky homeowners who live on this strip pay modest New York City property taxes (at least when compared with property taxes in Pelham).
1899 Map by John Fairchild Showing Beech Tree Lane
Section of Pelham. White Strip Extending from
Lower Left to Upper Right with Words "New York City"
Shows Portion of No-Man's Land That, Today,
Includes Elm Tree Lane.
Those who live within this strip meet the rigid residency requirements for various political and judicial positions in New York City. It is this latter fact that has led many in Pelham to refer to the tract not as "no-man's land" but, rather, as "politician's row".
How this geographical oddity came about remains today a rather perplexing mystery yet to be solved despite the efforts of many. There are many accounts regarding how the strip came to be and the general facts of its creation are not in dispute. It is not really the "how" it came to be that is so perplexing, but the "why". Today's Blog posting will try to shed some light on the topic.
There is no shortage of explanations for the existence of no-man's land. Some say that a surveyor's error was responsible. Others claim that New York City originally intended the city boundary to end at the northern boundary of Pelham Bay Park but changed its mind and decided to annex slightly more land to the north to ensure that small islands located in Long Island Sound would be within the City's boundaries. Another account says that a road named "Park Drive" was intended to be built along the northern boundary of Pelham Bay Park. Plans for the roadway supposedly were abandoned due to opposition by Pelham residents thereby freeing the area adjacent to the planned roadway for residential development.
Analysis of each of these traditions suggests that none is true. First we can analyze the historical background.
During the 1880s, New York City was working feverishly to create a series of parks for the benefit of the City's growing population. By 1885, plans were well underway to include, among these parks, a park to be named "Pelham Bay Park". One report summarized early efforts to create such parks:
"Mr. John T. Nagle, Chairman of the subcommittee appointed to consider the location, number of acres, cost of construction, &c, of the proposed new parks to the annexed district, has submitted his report to the Committee on Legislation of the Real Estate Exchange and Auction Room, Limited. The proposed parks selected by the Commissioners are named as follows: Van Cortlandt, Bronx, Pelham Bay, Crotons, St. Mary's, Claremont, Moshulo Parkway, Bronx and Pelham Parkway, and Croton Parkway. They embrace 3,808.39 acres, and, including railways and roadways, a total of 3,944.25 acres. . . . The argument used in favor of the purchase of Pelham Bay Park was that New-York wants and should immediately have a grand park with a water front on Long Island Sound."
Very Expensive Luxuries, N.Y. Times, Mar. 8, 1885, p. 2, col. 6.
In the next few years, New York City acquired huge tracts of land within the Town of Pelham which, at that time, including much of today's Pelham Bay Park and City Island. Of the 1,728 acres acquired for development of Pelham Bay Park, "[s]ome 1,481 acres of this was in Westchester County, east of the Hutchinson River, farms on the Mainland, and also Hunter's Island, The Twins, etc., then in the Town of Pelham". Barr, Lockwood Anderson, A Brief, But Most Complete & True Account of the Settlement of the Ancient Town of Pelham Westchester County, State of New York Known One Time Well & Favourably as the Lordshipp & Manour of Pelham Also The Story of the Three Modern Villages Called The Pelhams, pp. 63-64 (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, Inc. 1946).
The Town of Pelham suffered for a time after the City's acquisition of the acreage. Before annexation into the City, the lands remained within the Town of Pelham. The Town remained responsible for maintaining roads and bridges and for providing police and fire protection in the area. Because the property belonged to New York City for future park development, however, the lands could not be included on the Town's tax assessment rolls and no taxes were paid. Id., p. 64.
Lockwood Barr notes in his popular history of the Town of Pelham published in 1946 that the Legislature moved to correct this situation by passing a statute in 1895 which became effective on June 6, 1896 establishing a new boundary between Westchester County and what has since become Bronx County. It read in part:
"All that territory comprised within the limits of the towns of Westchester, Eastchester and Pelham, which has not been annexed to the city and county of New York at the time of the passage of this act, which lies southerly of a straight line drawn from the point where the northerly line of the city of New York meets the center line of the Bronx river, to the middle of the channel between Hunter's and Glen islands, in Long Island Sound, and all that territory lying within the incorporated limits of the village of Wakefield, which lies northerly of said line, with the inhabitants and estates therein, is hereby set off from the county of Westehester and annexed to, merged in and made part of the city and county of New York, and of the twenty-fourth ward of the said city and county, and shall hereafter constitute a part of the city and county of New York and of the twenty-fourth ward of said city and county, eto. etc. . ."
According to Lockwood Barr, "[s]omething quite unexpected happened. . . . When the actual new line was established it did not coincide with the northern boundary line of the farm tracts on the mainland, held by New York City for future park development." Id., p. 65. Barr notes that:
"The new line was approximately parallel to, but some 250 feet more or less north of the northern line of these tracts of farmlands. From the Sound to the River is about 6,600 feet, so that this tract contains 24 acres, more or less. That land, which had been in that part of the Town--now Pelham Manor--was placed in the City of New York. That 24. acres remains today in the hands of private owners and is not part of the Pelham Bay Park." Id.
We may never know precisely why the boundary line between Westchester County and what we know today as Bronx County was drawn about 250 feet north of the end of the lands acquired by New York City for inclusion in Pelham Bay Park. The most likely explanation is not a surveyor's "error" but, instead, a surveyor's good faith effort to establish a line from "the point where the northerly line of the city of New York meets the center line of the Bronx river, to the middle of the channel between Hunter's and Glen islands, in Long Island Sound". The line described by the legislature in the statute establishing the boundary likely did not exactly match the northern boundary of the lands acquired in the years preceding the enactment of the statute.
But, What About Park Drive?
Of the three traditional explanations for why no-man's land was created, the only one that, at first blush, seems to have plausible basis is the reference to Park Drive as a possible drive along the northern boundary of the Park that was never built. Proponents of this theory point to the fact that a number of old maps show portions of a "Park Drive" within the Park running along parts of No Man's Land in the Beech Tree Lane section of Pelham Manor. There seems, however, to be an entirely different explanation for such references.
As early as 1889, the flourishing Branch Line of the New Haven prompted a pair of local citizens to imagine a new residential subdivision immediately east of the branch line conveniently near Pelham Manor Depot for easy commuting to New York City. The two men, Robert C. Black and Silas H. Witherbee, owned land in the area that we know today as the Beech Tree Lane section of Pelham Manor.
On February 5, 1889, the men filed a subdivision map with the Westchester County Register’s office entitled “Land of R. C. Black & S. H. Witherbee, Pelham Manor, N.Y. Showing Proposed Roadways and General Plan by Subdivision. Scale: 100 ft. to one inch.”
The map showed a general plan to develop the area that is remarkably similar to the development that was completed nearly forty years later. There was one important difference however. There originally was a plan to make what is known today as Park Lane a circle like Manor Circle with a portion of the roadway running parallel to the boundary with Pelham Bay Park. An image of the 1889 development map appears below and has an arrow pointing to that portion of the roadway, marked "Park Ave." intended to run parallel to the Pelham Bay Park boundary. The image shows essentiallly the same area as the image above and has red lines to denote the location of today's 20 Beech Tree Lane to provide context.
Over time, a rough pathway / roadway developed in this area and extended directly to the Shore Road where the entry point can still be seen today with a cable across it to preclude vehicles from entering. A tiny portion of it was paved to create the beginning of the bike path in Pelham Bay Park where it begins at the end of today's Park Lane. More likely than not, these factors combined to cause early references to a Park Drive, although at this point that is merely a hypothesis.
An Interesting "Footnote"
As an interesting footnote to the whole matter, in 1931 a group with financial interests in various of the "no-man's land" properties -- many of which were developed with residential housing in the 1950s and 1960s -- petitioned the Village of Pelham Manor Board of Trustees to take steps to seek special legislation to make the properties part of Pelham Manor rather than New York City. According to Lockwood Barr, "it appeared that '. . . due to the bonded indebtedness of New York City, which would be a lien of all this land, the Legislature could not release the land from its share of bonded debts . . . ' if transferred back into the Village of Pelham Manor. Therefore the matter was dropped." Barr, pp. 65-66.