Though little more than an intersection and its associated blocks, the Old City is a late 19th century commercial district, known in recent decades for restaurants, off-beat shops, and live-music nightclubs. Its name is, to begin with, a bit of a misnomer. The Old City is not the original or oldest part of town. To the contrary, its streets weren’t fully laid out until 1888; previously, an architectural-lumber factory had sprawled across the site. Jackson, a railroad-frontage street, sprang up suddenly, bisecting that old factory acreage, supporting sometimes grandiose wholesale warehouse construction–as Central, a very different street, grew small buildings, saloons, secondhand shops, drugstores, boarding houses, pool halls and bordellos, stretching to the river wharf. The area boomed with grocery, garment, and packing industries, some of it declining by the mid-20th century. By the 1970s, the phrase “Old City” was a popular way to refer to a long-neglected corner of the city that seemed a Victorian neighborhood preserved in amber, never threatened by new development and overlooks by urban renewal–which had erased almost everything to its east and south.
What had survived was not one neighborhood but the intersection of several old neighborhoods–pocket grocery, garment, and meatpacking districts; the saloon district known as the Bowery, a residential district known as Cripple Creek, and a bit of Irish Town. All they had in common was their proximity to the railroad. The corner of Jackson and Central became ground zero for numbering all the addresses in the entire county. Hence, and sometimes confusingly, most of the addresses in the Old City, going in all four directions, begin with 1. Speculators were working on these challenging old buildings by the mid 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1983, when a restaurant-nightclub known as Annie’s–run by Annie DeLisle, ex-wife of novelist Cormac McCarthy–that the place started to show obvious signs of new life.
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