Since all of Paris closes shop in August, I’ll be posting “by appointment” discoveries made during my summertime travels back home in the USA this month. Hope you enjoy this special summer edition with content from New York, Los Angeles and Maine.
My dad is a newly retired New York City public school teacher. Since he stopped working a few years back he’s been going a bit stir crazy, and understandably so. Imagine loosing your public after 40 years speaking to a crowd?
So, while emailing with him a couple of months ago about my forthcoming summer visit to NYC I had a revelation. “Hey dad,” I wrote, “have your ever thought of giving private walking tours of Lower Manhattan? You love a rapt audience and know the subject better than anyone. Imagine bringing your maps to life!”
Ten years ago, around the same time that I moved to France, my father started developing new media tools for the classroom. A research fanatic like me, he’d incorporate esoteric audio files, interactive maps, videos and whatever else interesting he dug up to create original multi-media presentations. He became the school’s resident new media man, and earned a reputation as a self-made savant (a Google representative even wrote to him to praise him for the innovative use of their mapping software).
While overseas, I’d read about my dad’s latest discoveries via his blog. In between rants about the failings of the NYC public school system or obscure clips of his favorite singers performing, he’d post some incredibly powerful stuff about our family’s history. At the time he was working at a school on the Lower East Side smack in the middle of the neighborhood where his parents grew up. Around the corner from his school was the apartment where my grandfather lived, several blocks away the Synagogue where he met my grandmother, nearby the cleaners where my aunt and uncle worked, yadda, yadda, yadda….
Inspired by his surroundings, he started reconstructed the past piece by piece using historic documents, photographs, and a treasure trove of census bureau records he’d found in the trash. The result was a (highly personal) new-media tapestry of early 20th century Lower Manhattan immigrant life. All that reminiscing led to birth of his second blog, an homage to Knickerbocker Village, the apartment complex where he grew up and the first “experiment in government-financed, low-cost housing” in the USA. My dad lived there for 12 years and credits it for framing some of the happiest moments of his life. Based on the emotional outpouring his blog has provoked from former KVers like him, he’s tapped into something.
So what, you might wonder, is so stinking special about Knickerbocker Village?
That question was the cornerstone of the private tour (he’s the testing the concept) my dad took me and a handful of my friends on through the neighborhood cradling Knickerbocker Village, a district once referred to as the “fourth ward.”
“I like to talk use the term ‘wards,’” he says to our group at our meeting spot behind the Municipal Building in Manhattan. “It’s the old fashioned way of talking about New York. It goes back to the origins of the city and conjures up that old history.”
To prove his point, he begins with a story that stumps us all. Back in 1854, nearly a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama, a black woman named Elizabeth Jennings challenged the laws of segregation by boarding a white-only streetcar juts a few blocks from where we’re standing. Her case went to trial and the lawyer who represented her was future President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur.
Because there’s no physical trace of the case (the street no longer exists), my dad pulls out an old illustration of the streetcar she boarded, a picture of Jennings and a clipping from a newspaper at the time of the trial. This is just a little taste from the smorgasbord of multi-media props my dad has prepared for the tour.
Our next stop requires a stroll past the skateboarders under the Brooklyn Bridge to a forgotten address in history: No. 1, Cherry Street, Georges Washington’s executive mansion during the time (who knew??) that NYC was the seat of government. The site is now a swirling mass of traffic ramps leading onto the bridge.
“Are there any exampled of architecture from the same era?” I ask. “Water Street, the next block down has a very old bar that goes back to 1830s as well as third oldest house in the city,” explains my dad. “Almost all of NY was wiped out by fires, so there are very few houses that go back to the 1800s.”
Past the ancient low storey homes on the cobblestoned streets of Cherry Hill and just a stone’s throw from Seahorse, an adorable seafood restaurant that we promise to come back and try, we find ourselves, I kid you not, on a secret beach under the Brooklyn Bridge (it’s not a place where you’d dare sunbathe, but exciting nonetheless).
“There are big plans for this area stretching from the Battery as far up as the Williamsburg Bridge,” my dad says while preparing an audio interlude about Alfred E. Smith using a DIY speaker system. “They’re going to make this into a park similar to the new High Line on the West Side and there’s a farmers market planned down the road.”
Before Robert Moses engineered a new urban layout, the neighborhood employed and housed thousands of workers from the various mills, factories and ports in the area. There were also dozens of daily markets on the “slips,” or inlets where boats would dry dock and sell goods. One of the most famous markets was the Catherine Street Eel market on what is now Pike Street, where we’re all gathered now.
“Some of the slaves who came with their owners to the market did double duty; not only were they there to sell the goods but to entertain to attract business,” says my dad, holding up a NY Times clipping from the era.
While fascinating, none of this trivia could rival the final stop on our journey. As we walk through the gates and into the beautiful, tranquil courtyard of Knickerbocker Village, the image of a dad rekindling his family roots with his daughter at his side, is the highlight of the day for us all.
Famous People from the Fourth Ward:
Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York from 1923-1928.
Eddie Cantor, radio and early television entertainer from the 20s- 40s known as the “Apostle of Pep.”
Jimmy Durante, radio and early television comedian from the 20s-70s, who jokingly referred to himself as “Schnozzola.”
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, couple found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed in 1953. They lived in Knickerbocker Village with their two sons before their arrest.
Lefty Ruggiero, member of the mob played by Al Pacino in the film Donnie Brasco
Contact: Send my dad an email through his blog for additional tour information
UPDATE: My dad now gives his Fourth Ward tour through the Lower East Side History Project. Click here to sign up!