A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from February 27, 2009
“Roll up the sidewalks at night”

New York City is known as the “city that never sleeps” because of its nightlife. The opposite of that is a small town that “rolls up the sidewalks” at about 7 p.m.

The term “roll up the sidewalks” has been used since the mid-1800s and is cited frequently from the 1920s.


The Phrase Finder
Posted by Smokey Stover on July 26, 2008 at 15:23

In Reply to: Roll up the sidewalks posted by Vair on July 22, 2008 at 06:45:

: ‘Roll up the sidewalks’
: In the US, this phrase occurs when a writer describes a town’s business district shutting down for the night. Often, there’s a certain quaintness meant: it may be used more to describe a town or area where everything shuts down early. I recently heard “fold up the sidewalks” and now I wonder: what IS the phrase, and what is its basis and history? Thanks!

I don’t know if there is a “correct” version, but I’m pretty certain that “roll up the sidewalks” is the older one. It used to be a staple in the comedian’s or writer’s repertory for referring to quiet towns. Small, “sleepy” towns have been characterized probably for a century or more as places where they roll up the sidewalks at night. It has become a very common cliché.

Google Books
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
By Jonathon Green
Edition: 2, revised
Published by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
2005
Pg. 1204:
roll up the sidewalk v. [mid-19C] (US) of shops and entertainment in towns or cities, to close down at nightfall.

31 October 1922, Oregonian (Portland, OR), pg. 26: 
“In London they roll up the sidewalks at 11 o’clock at night. In Paris they leave them down all night.”

Google Books
The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators: Official Publication, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
By International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Published by The Brotherhood, 1914
Item notes: v.24 1924-1925
Pg. 524:
No excitement here; they roll up the sidewalks at 8 o’clock. No one gets hurt; we don’t have dances. Nothing but pop to drink.

Google Books
The House Without a Key
By Earl Derr Biggers
New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlop
1926
Pg. 62:
“Yeah — several miles away. A dead town, sir. They roll up the sidewalks at nine.”

11 October 1928, Marble Rock (Iowa) Journal, pg. 4, col. 2:
And because of the absence of this hectic life, the town where the lights go out and they roll up the sidewalks at nine o’clock and take them in has more time for earnest thought, more time to reach equable solution of vexing questions, and time to develop the character to put the questions across.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityStreets • (0) Comments • Friday, February 27, 2009 • Permalink