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Downtown: My Manhattan

Chapter One

The Capital of Nostalgia

This is a book about my home city. I was born in the immense and
beautiful segment of it called Brooklyn, but I've lived and worked
for much of my life in its center, the long skinny island called
Manhattan. I live here still. With any luck at all, I will die
here. I have the native son's irrational love of the place and
often think of William Faulkner's remark about his native
Mississippi, and how he loved it "in spite of, not because." New
York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly
tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty.
For any native the home place is infused with a mixture of memory,
myth, lore, and history, bound together in an erratic, subjective
way. That's as true of the natives of New York as of the natives of
Oxford, Mississippi. That mysterious mixture is why so much of this
portrait is personal. Past and present are merged in its pages, as
they are in my consciousness. But something else is in the mix too.
Something magical. And certain moments of magic are always present

In my earliest memory, I am five years old, coming home from the
Sanders Theater in Brooklyn. I am with my mother and we have just
seen The Wizard of Oz. The year is 1940. In the safe
darkness of the movie house I've seen emerald castles and a lion
that talked and a road made of glistening yellow bricks. But in
memory all of that is a blur. In memory, my mother takes my hand
and the two of us are skipping all the way home singing "because
because because because because!"

On this wonderful evening, my mother still has brown hair. She is
laughing and exuberant, clearly made happy by going to a movie with
her eldest son. I remember nothing else, except the word
because. Later, I will learn that the woman I call Mom is
actually Anne Devlin Hamill, an immigrant from the hard, dark city
of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. She arrived in New York, with
perfect Irish timing, on the day the stock market crashed in 1929.
She was then nineteen. The calamity of the Great Depression did not
dismay her. She went immediately to work for a rich Manhattan
family as a domestic servant, glad of the work, joyous about being
again in the city of New York. In all the years that followed in
the life of Anne Devlin, that city would always be a wonderland.
Why? Because.

Above all, because her journey in 1929 was Anne Devlin's second
migration to the place that would be her home until her death at
eighty-seven. On these streets, she had once been five too. I would
learn that in New York, many stories begin somewhere else, for
people who become center fielders and for those who start as
domestics. Her father was named Peter Devlin, who went to sea as a
youth, became an engineer, traveled as far away as Yokohama and
Rangoon, worked for years as an expert in refrigeration for the
Great White Fleet in the banana trade with Central America. He was
a Belfast Catholic, and at sea he was free of the accumulated
bigotries that went with the endless religious quarrels that began
in the Irish seventeenth century. When he married in his thirties
and soon fathered two children, Peter Devlin decided that it was
time to live again on land. He had seen many places in the world,
but he and his wife chose New York. The young family of four
settled in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the parish of Mary
Star of the Sea, hard by the harbor. There he would work on the
ships of the Cunard Line but live on land with his family. The
Devlin children (the other was my uncle Maurice) would be raised in
a city where nobody cared about their religion. They would grow up
in the greatest metropolis in America, where everything was
possible, if only you worked. Above all, they would grow up free of
the iron certainties of the European past, the first requirement
for creating an American future.

Then, in 1916, while the slaughters of the Great War raged in
distant Europe, disaster struck in Brooklyn. My grandfather Devlin
fell from the deck of a ship and was crushed between hull and dock.
My mother was then five, and remembered later the tumult and the
tears in the flat in Red Hook but few of the details. She did
remember New York fading into fog and the long voyage home across
the vast Atlantic. Her mother must have known that German
submarines were prowling the approaches to Ireland and England, but
she chose to risk any danger to get back among her own people. One
of the few consolations in any life is a sense of the familiar,
with all of its imperfections.

The widow and her small children made it safely across the
Atlantic, but that year Ireland was seething with violence and
sectarian hatred. At Easter, there had been a nationalist rising in
Dublin against the British rulers of Ireland, with deaths and
executions. For many people, Irish nationalism was exclusively
Catholic (it wasn't), and in the North, all Catholics were accused
by some citizens of stabbing England in the back while the men of
Ulster were dying in vast numbers at the Somme. The theory wasn't
accurate (many Catholics fought under the British flag), but the
fury was real, and so was the fear. But the anger had its own
justification. After all, the sons of Ulster were filling the
graves of France. It was no surprise that the bitterness, and its
local violence, would continue in Northern Ireland long after the
Great War finally ended, long after civil war had run its course.
Too many Irish corpses would fill the graves of Ireland.

Somehow, in the midst of so much turbulence and fear, young Anne
Devlin managed to do what few women, and almost no Catholic women,
ever did in those years: she finished high school. That same year,
her widowed mother died of a stroke at age forty-seven. And Anne
Devlin, now an orphan, decided that it was time to return to the
city she had last seen slipping away into fog. Her brother,
Maurice, would stay in Belfast for another thirty years. But my
mother would sell the family piano, buy a steamship ticket, and go
back to the place where she had last seen her father, long ago,
when she was five.

My own father, Billy Hamill, was also a child of Belfast. He was
twenty when he arrived at Ellis Island, to join two older brothers
who had already fled the bitterness of the Irish north. He had only
completed the eighth grade when he was apprenticed as a stonemason,
but he carried other credentials to America. He was a wonderful
singer of songs: Irish rebel songs, the songs of English music
halls, jaunty tunes of human foolishness, and songs of sad longing.
I grew up hearing those songs and can remember many of the lyrics
to this day. He was also a wonderful soccer player. Years later,
his friends told me about his magical legs, those legs that carried
him across playing fields, that seemed to have an intelligence of
their own. The Irish novelist Michael McLaverty, who chose to stay
in the Irish north, told me in 1963, "God, he could play that

In 1927, his fourth year in America, Billy Hamill was playing for
an Irish team in the immigrant soccer leagues that were then common
all over New York. There was a Jewish team called House of David,
and German teams, English teams, Spanish teams. One wintry Sunday,
in the year that Babe Ruth hit those sixty home runs, Billy Hamill
played in a game against the Germans. He was viciously kicked in
the left leg (almost surely by accident) and fell to the frozen
earth with a double compound fracture, splintered bone jutting
through flesh. He was taken to Kings County Hospital, the largest
in Brooklyn. Because it was a Sunday, there were not enough
doctors. There was certainly no penicillin. By the following
morning, gangrene had set in. His left leg was amputated above the

The years immediately after that calamity must have been filled
with misery, but I never heard him say so. Among the many immigrant
codes, spoken and unspoken, there was one that was absolutely
clear: The only unforgivable sin was self-pity. He must have felt
it. He must have throbbed with rage, too, against his terrible
luck. After all, he would never again play the game he loved more
than all others. But he would play no other games either. He was
deprived, too, of the American opportunities for honest manual
labor, those jobs in shipyards and the construction trades that
employed so many other immigrants, not all of them Irish. Those
jobs made everything possible in America, starting with a

And yet he went on with his American life. He would sing his songs
for his friends in dozens of Prohibition speakeasies. He designed a
bathing suit that covered the stump of his vanished leg and went
swimming in the summer sea at Coney Island. And he worked. His
penmanship was excellent, and so he worked as a clerk in the home
office of a grocery chain. And, with his friends, he even went to

In 1933, after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the end of
Prohibition, he went to such a dance in Webster Hall, just below
Union Square. There he met Anne Devlin. They started going around,
as the Irish said, and eventually they were married. Anne Devlin
did not drink. But she must have loved his endless repertoire of
songs, his stoicism, his optimism. He surely was attracted by her
brown-haired good looks, her sense of humor, and, above all, her
intelligence. No child, of course, ever truly knows what brings
parents together. Or why a marriage lasts in spite of bouts of
poverty, inevitable quarrels, occasional attacks of despair on one
side or the other. But they were together until the day my father
died at eighty.

I was their first child, eventually the oldest of seven American
children, and as a boy, I gradually understood that my father was
not like other fathers in our blue-collar neighborhood. Billy
Hamill could not take us to play ball in Prospect Park. He could
not take us on long walks across that park to the sacred precinct
of Ebbets Field. The subway was always a challenge, with its long
flights of stairs leading to the street, and the need to be agile,
and so he almost never went to Manhattan. He could not even march
in the Saint Patrick's Day parade. His America was limited to a
dozen square blocks in our small neighborhood.

My mother's New York world had no such limits. She was a quick,
determined walker of the city, starting with the streets of our own
metropolitan hamlet. In her company, my younger brother Tom and I
learned that the only way to get to know a place was by walking its
streets. We went with her as she shopped. We soon knew where the
church was and the police station and the schools. But she was
always expanding our frontiers. She would show us the main public
library, where books were free, right there on the other side of
the great arch of Grand Army Plaza. She showed us the Brooklyn
Museum and the Botanic Garden. Sometimes she showed us visions that
stayed with us for all of our lives.

One Saturday in the summer of 1941, while my year-old sister
Kathleen stayed home with my father (she was born on May 1, his
birthday, and he adored her), my mother took me and Tom on one of
our longest walks. We ended up at the entrance to the pedestrian
ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. We had never before seen this great
span. From the Brooklyn side, the bridge rises in a graded arc. The
central walkway and the roads for automobiles are flanked by its
soaring suspension cables. As my mother pointed out the distant
ships in harbor and river, from that great height the size of boats
in bathtubs, we reached the top of the rising arc. Then, for the
first time, I saw them: spires aimed at the sky. Dozens of them.
Hundreds of them. All gilded by morning sun.

"What is it?" I said in a stupefied way (as my mother told
me years later).

"Sure, you remember, Peter," she said. "You've seen it
before." And then she smiled. "It's Oz."

And so it was.

This book is about what I learned in Oz. It is about the places
where I lived and about myself, among others. To my astonishment,
I've known the Manhattan streets and many of its people for almost
seven decades. The day before yesterday I was five, crossing that
amazing bridge. We moved in 1943 to a new flat with a breathtaking
view from our kitchen windows of the harbor and the skyline, and I
could gaze in all seasons at the towers. I seem to have been eleven
for a very long time, in days and weeks of an endless languid
summer. Then time started to rush, through adolescence and high
school and a job as a sheet metal worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard
and finally into the US Navy itself. Then, after discharge and a
sojourn in Mexico on the GI Bill, I was at last a kind of grown-up,
living in the buildings of Oz itself. Living, that is, in

As it turned out, my life in Manhattan had its own geographical
limits, and they are central to this book. That is why these notes
are limited to those parts of Manhattan in which I have truly
lived. My own city, the one that feels like home, is the one I've
always called Downtown. To me it extends—in defiance of the
conventions of guidebooks—from the Battery to Times Square.
There is a dense, rich New York beyond the limits of my Downtown,
and I've spent some time in its many parishes. But it was never
mine in the same way that Downtown became one of my personal
possessions. So these notes are personal too. Over the years, I
have paid rent at fourteen separate addresses in Downtown, and I
live now in a loft in Tribeca that was built in 1872. It stands
just below Canal Street, that most exhilarating of New York
bazaars. I know Mr. Singh, who sells me newspapers. I know the man
who runs the corner variety store. I know the people with whom I
share my building. Each day, I exchange hellos with a dozen people
who work on my street. When the drivers of cars with New Jersey
plates honk too insanely on their horns, I shout at them: "Knock it
off! We live here!"

There are other levels of the familiar in the dailiness of my life
here. My Downtown is also the place where the city was created. It
is where, across the long, turbulent nineteenth century, today's
New York character was formed. I look at other people and the
places where they live, and the things they do or say, and I learn
something about myself too. As a geographer, I'm as idiosyncratic
as the early explorers of the New World. My interior maps are
jagged and personal, often resembling in spirit the famous New
cover by Saul Steinberg showing Ninth Avenue larger than
the state of California. My Downtown includes the Carnegie Deli and
Carnegie Hall, which on most maps are firmly nailed into Midtown.
For me, Rockefeller Center between Forty-eighth and Fifty-first
streets, Fifth and Sixth avenues, is triumphantly Midtown, but P.J.
Clarke's saloon, at Fifty-fifth Street and Third Avenue, is a
treasured fragment of Downtown. The differences have to do with the
patina of time, of course, the colors that time gives to brick,
slate, copper, stone, and wood. I am always delighted to find
something new, or strange, or unusual within the familiar. But I'm
happiest in those places where generations have passed before

The bunched towers that I first saw as Oz are better viewed from
Brooklyn or New Jersey. Up close, they climb out of view. Some
Downtown skyscrapers have their own kind of beauty, of course, but
I feel more a part of the older city, the one that was lower, that
could be seen in one glimpse, that is more horizontal than
vertical, that allows us to absorb the light of the city sky, the
city of walkers and the city of horses. That is, I cherish the
Downtown city. I have been looking at that New York for decades
now. The place seems as fresh as it did when I was twenty-one. On
its streets, I am always a young man.

It is a standing joke, of course, that New Yorkers are the most
parochial of Americans, and that commonplace contains a small
amount of truth. For parts of my life, I've wandered far from my
home parishes, to live in Mexico City and Rome, Barcelona and
Dublin and San Juan, and have also paid rent in New Orleans, Key
West, Los Angeles, and Santa Fe. But I've come to realize that I
lived in all those places as a New Yorker. I gazed at their glories
and tried to learn their histories, to define those elements that
made them unique, but always I measured them against my own city.
In unexpected ways, they each taught me something about New York,
its strengths and terrible flaws, its irritations and its triumphs,
the way learning another language teaches you about your own. But
in spite of their many seductions, I always knew I would go

In some ways, my experience of the city has been unique, even for a
native. After the summer of 1960 I was a newspaperman, paid to move
through many neighborhoods with pen and notebook in hand. No other
experience can be so humbling. You think you know the city where
you were born; each fresh day as a reporter teaches you that you
know almost nothing. I could go to the scene of a murder and record
the number of gunshot wounds, the caliber of the bullets, and the
name of the person whose corpse was sprawled before me. I'd talk to
the police, the relatives, and the neighbors, including the nearest
bartender. I could listen while the victim's relatives wailed their
laments. Trying to rescue the human reality from the murder
statistics, I was often instructed by the street-smart
photographers, who were paid, above all, to see.

"Look at this guy's socks," a photographer named Louis Liotta said
to me one morning at a murder scene. "One brown sock and one blue
sock. What's that tell you?" I didn't know what it told me.
Liotta explained: "This guy got dressed in the dark." He
paused. "Or someone dressed his body in the dark—and at
home, or there wouldn't be two different socks."

When I talked to a detective about the socks, he said: "Look, the
socks tell you he probably got dressed at home. Or his body was
dressed at home."

But as I got better at seeing and describing what was directly in
front of me on a Manhattan street, a troubling dissatisfaction
began to grow within me. I acquired enough craft to get the facts
and then write a story for the next edition that would give the
readers a sense of what I had seen and heard in a place where the
readers had not been present. But I was nagged by doubt, knowing
that I'd only skimmed the surface of the story and some larger
truth was always eluding me. Who were all these other people in the
neighborhood where one of them had now been killed? How did they
live? Where did they go to school and what were their jobs and how
did they find their way to these buildings? What was this
neighborhood itself? How did it get here? And what about certain
abiding New York mysteries: Why was the Bronx called the Bronx? How
did Harlem get its name? Who was Major Deegan? From the specifics
of a newspaper story, I was learning how little I knew about my own

Sometimes I would explore these mysteries in the library of the
newspaper, using slow time to take out envelopes of crumbling
clippings. Or I'd ask older reporters and editors. Sometimes I'd be
told, "Major Deegan was a Tammany hack who served in World War One
and lived until the 1930s." Then I'd confirm this with the
clippings. The Bronx was named for a guy named Jacob Bronck, a rich
Dutchman who owned most of it as a private farm. Harlem was named
Harlem for the same reason Brooklyn was called Brooklyn: The Dutch
got there first and named one place Haarlem and the other
Breuckelen after places in the country they'd left behind.

In short, I was educating myself as a reporter, but also as a New
Yorker. Much of my reading never found its way directly into
newspaper stories, of course. For one thing, I was young and having
too good a time in the company of people I loved. For another, the
original stories had faded from the newspapers and my discoveries
were irrelevant. On newspapers, we believed we were all writing
history in a hurry, and after the first few days, even the most
appalling stories gave way to the shock of the new. Still, it was
clear to me that the only way to try to know this city (or any
other) was on foot. I didn't learn to drive until I was thirty-six.
Who needed cars when you had two good legs and the subways moved
under the traffic?

Even today, I wander through the city as if I were a young man.
Something always surprises me. Something else fills me with wonder.
I pass a building I've passed a thousand times before and see it
suddenly in a new way. In good weather, I like to stand and watch
the passing show, a flaneur lounging in a doorway. I see a burly
black man help a blind woman across a street. I talk to him later
and discover he is from Togo, "all the way in Africa," and he works
for one of the fabric wholesalers on Walker Street. He tells me why
he came to New York. "For my kids," he says. "I want them to be
free and, you know, healthy. In Togo, lots of things are green and
beautiful, but the neares' doctor, he was seventeen kilometers
away, man." I see a cop flirting with a pretty girl, a tourist from
Italy. "Hey, you want me to walk you?" he says. She smiles a
dazzling smile and moves on. He sees me watching, smiles in a
conspiratorial way, and says, "Makes you wanna live forever."

The New Yorker learns to settle for glimpses. There are simply too
many people to ever know them all, to unravel all of their secrets.
Nobody in such a vast and various place can absorb everything. You
know the people you love and the people with whom you work. The
rest is glimpses. And on certain days, yes, you want to live

And yet, in many separate ways, the people of the city express
certain common emotions. The forms and details are different for
every generation and every group, but certain emotions have
continued to repeat themselves for centuries. One is surely greed,
the unruly desire to get more money by any means possible, an
emotion shared by citizens from stockbrokers to muggers. Another is
sudden anger, the result of so many people living in so relatively
small a place. Another is an anarchic resistance to authority. But
far and away the most powerful of all New York emotions is the one
called nostalgia.

The city is, in a strange way, the capital of nostalgia. The
emotion has two major roots. One is the abiding sense of loss that
comes from the simple fact of continuous change. Of the city's five
boroughs, Manhattan in particular absolutely refuses to remain as
it was. It is dynamic, not static. What seems permanent when you
are twenty is too often a ghost when you are thirty. As in all
places, parents die, friends move on, businesses wear out, and
restaurants close forever. But here, change is more common than in
most American cities. The engine of greatest change is the cramped
land itself. Scarcity can create a holy belief in the possibility
of great riches. That's why the religion of real estate
periodically enforces its commandments, and neighborhoods are
cleared and buildings hauled down and new ones erected, and all
that remains is memory.

This book is littered with casualties of time and greed and that
vague reality called progress. Just one example here: I was in high
school in Manhattan when I came to know the Third Avenue El.
Sometimes I took it as a ride, not just a means of getting from one
place to another. I loved its rattling noise, the imagery
associated with the 1933 movie King Kong, the stark shadows
cast by its beams and girders, and the rows of tenements and Irish
saloons that I could see swishing by from its windows. I had no
memory of the Second Avenue El, or the Sixth Avenue El, or the
Ninth Avenue El. They were all gone. But in some ways, the Third
Avenue El seemed as permanent as the Statue of Liberty, and for me
it provided a ride through more than simple space. It hurtled me
through time as well. They started tearing it down in 1955. By the
time I returned from Mexico in 1957, the Third Avenue El was gone

There would be many other disappearances, including too many
newspapers. Buildings went up, and if you lived long enough, you
might see them come down, to be replaced by newer, more audacious,
more arrogant structures. I came to accept this after the el had
vanished and some of the worst office buildings in the city's
history began rising on Third Avenue. There was no point, I
thought, in permanently bemoaning change. This was New York. Loss
was part of the deal. In the same year that the Third Avenue El
disappeared, so did the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.
The demise of the Third Avenue El was a kind of marker, the end of
something that had outlived its time. But for many people, the
flight of the baseball teams was an example of unacceptable losses.
Some never got over it. After a long while, I finally consoled
myself about the Dodgers by saying, Well, at least I had them once
and I will always have them in memory. That nostalgia lives in me
today. It erupts whenever I see a fragment of black-and-white
newsreel showing Jackie Robinson heading for home. But to talk
about the Dodgers' departure without cease would be to live as a
bore. New York teaches you to get over almost everything.

Our losses would culminate, of course, with the violent destruction
of the World Trade Center. For many New Yorkers, now including the
young (who grew up with the twin towers), even such a ferocious
human toll can provoke nostalgia. Months after the murderous
morning of September 11, 2001, I kept hearing New Yorkers speaking
in tones of regret about the loss of the buildings themselves, even
people who didn't care for them as architecture. For me, the twin
towers were in Downtown but never of Downtown. That
is, they were detached from my sense of the home place. And yet
most New Yorkers missed their position in the skyline, the sense of
dominance they suggested, and longed for the comparative innocence
of the brief years in which they existed.

"I hate to admit this," one close friend said, "but when I look at
the old photographs of the Trade Center, I'm sometimes choked with

Nostalgia. The word itself, as critic and educator Nathan Silver
has pointed out in his fine book Lost New York, is an
imperfect one to describe the emotion itself.

"The word in English is hopelessly wishy-washy," he wrote in the
revised 2000 edition of his 1967 book. "It seems to denote
something between a handwring and a tearjerk, referring as it does
to a wistful, regretful feeling. Nowadays most urban dwellers
accept that a city's past vitalizes a coherent sense of the
present, but calling that 'nostalgia' evokes the approximate
reaction that one would get from mentioning heirlooms or

The New York version of nostalgia is not simply about lost
buildings or their presence in the youth of the individuals who
lived with them. It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the
permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same.
Tuesday turns into Wednesday and something valuable is behind you
forever. An "is" has become a "was." Whatever you have lost, you
will not get it back: not that much-loved brother, not that ball
club, not that splendid bar, not that place where you once went
dancing with the person you later married. Irreversible change
happens so often in New York that the experience affects character
itself. New York toughens its people against sentimentality by
allowing the truer emotion of nostalgia. Sentimentality is always
about a lie. Nostalgia is about real things gone. Nobody truly
mourns a lie.

That is why, in a million small ways, New Yorkers behaved so well
on September 12, 2001. Millions of us wept over the horrors of the
day before. Many mourned their own dead and the dead of the larger
parish. More millions grieved for the world that existed on
September 10, knowing it was forever behind us. For a while, at
least, all felt various degrees of fury. But nobody ran. We knew
that at least we had lived once in that world before the fanatics
changed it forever. With all its flaws, horrors, disappointments,
cruelties, we would remember that lost world all our days and most
of our nights. And now we would get up in the morning and go to
work. Our only consolation would be nostalgia.

That tough nostalgia helps explain New York. It is built into our
codes, like DNA, and beyond the explanation of constant change,
there is another common thread in our deepest emotion. I believe
that New York nostalgia also comes from that extraordinary process
that created the modern city: immigration.

Every New York history stresses the role of immigration, because
the tale simply can't be told without it. Starting in the early
nineteenth century, the city absorbed millions of European
immigrants, many arriving in waves: the Irish in flight from the
desperate famine of the 1840s; Germans and other Europeans after
the political furies of 1848; the immense flood between 1880 and
1920 of Italians, Eastern European Jews, and others in flight from
debasing poverty or murderous persecution. We know much about them,
and yet we know so little. Many were illiterate and wrote no
memoirs or letters; memoir was a genre practiced by their children.
We do know that most were young and poor, for the old and the rich
don't often emigrate to strange countries. We know that a common
mixture of overlapping hopes served as their personal engines: the
desire to raise their children in a place where they'd be healthy
and educated, a longing for honest work in a place where they would
not be tested about religion or origins, the hope for personal
freedom in a country where nobody need ever bend a knee to a

But many paid an emotional price for their decisions, and that
shared sense of disruption would lead to the second stream of New
York nostalgia. For the rest of their lives, those first-generation
nineteenth-century immigrants would carry with them what their
American children could not fully comprehend: the things they left
behind. Those things were at once objects, people, and emotions,
and they were part of what almost all immigrants came to call the
Old Country. The place where they were children. The place where
they ran with friends on summer mornings. The place where all spoke
a common language. The place of tradition and certainties,
including those cruel certainties that eventually became
intolerable. For a long time in the age of sail, most knew they
were leaving the Old Country forever. In Ireland, when still
another son or daughter prepared to depart for America, families
often held what became known as "the American wake." Their wailing
was a lament, as if for the dead.

Similar rituals marked the departures of many Germans, Jews,
Italians, and Poles as they traveled across land to the ports of
Europe and then on to the scary Atlantic and the distant harbor of
New York. Parents were certain they would never see their children
again, and children surely felt that way about their parents. That
rupture with the immediate past would mark all of them and did not
go away as the young immigrants grew old. If anything, the
nostalgias were often heightened by the coming of age. Bitterness
often faded, but not the sense of loss. Some would wake up in the
hot summer nights of New York and for a few moments think they were
in Sicily or Mayo or Minsk. Some would think their mothers were at
the fireplace in the next room, preparing food. The old food. The
food of the Old Country.

Many of their nostalgias would be expressed in music. There were
hundreds of nineteenth-century songs, in all languages, about
vanished landscapes full of well-loved streams, or golden meadows,
or the slopes of remembered hills, peopled usually by girls or boys
who were left behind. The songs were often calculated treacle
written in a cynical way for the immigrant market, but they
triggered genuine emotions. With their labor, the immigrants who
were singing these songs had purchased their tiny shares of New
York. Most saw their children grow tall and healthy and educated.
To be sure, some immigrants did little singing or remembering; they
collapsed into alcohol, drugs, or criminality. Some were broken by
New York and its hardness and returned in shame to the Old Country.
Or, if the shame of failure was too much to admit, they moved west,
to the empty land Out There, vanishing into America.

And yet . . . and yet, for those who prospered and those who did
not, the music was always there. Those immigrant songs were sung in
tenement kitchens and in dance halls, and at weddings and funerals.
They ensured that from the beginning of the immigrant tides, loss
and remembrance were braided into the New York character. Every
immigrant knew what Africans had learned in the age of slavery:
that there was a world that was once there in the most intimate way
and was now gone. Part of the past. Beyond retrieval. On the
deepest level, it didn't matter whether you had that past taken
from you, as had happened to the Africans, or whether you had
decided personally to leave it behind. At a certain hour of the
night, the vanished past could be vividly alive.

That double consciousness—the existence of the irretrievable
past buried in shallow graves within the present—was passed
on to the children of the immigrants and, with diminishing power,
to many of the grandchildren. All were conscious of time and its
accompanying nostalgias. Events in the larger world often imposed
that sense of time. I know a few old New Yorkers who still divide
time into three epochs: Before the War, During the War, and After
the War. They mean the Second World War. Each of the three periods
shaped by the war has its own nostalgias, its own music, its own
special sense of hope, anguish, or loss. New Yorkers on the home
front experienced that war in a way that was different in the
details from the way it was experienced in California or
Mississippi or Florida. Other New Yorkers still mark a great shift
in the personal consciousness of time by the departure in 1957 of
the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. Many conversations
still can begin, "Before the Dodgers left . . ." Others mark time
by the murder of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the event that was the
true beginning of what became known as the sixties.

But the old immigrants themselves lived through that one great
defining rupture: between the Old Country and the new. That
wrenching break did not happen only to others; it was not forced
upon them by history; the immigrants lived it themselves and thus
made their own history. And their passage would cut a permanent
psychological template into the amazing city they helped to build.
In the age of the jetliner, there are no more American wakes. The
departed emigrant children can now visit the Old Country, carrying
their own American children with them, to celebrate holidays and
weddings or to mourn for their dead parents. If they can afford the
airline tickets, they can show their children the places where they
were young. They can show off their photographs of New York
streets, New York schools, New York apartments, New York
graduations, New York ball games, and New York picnics. This, they
can say in the Old Country, is their America. But the sense of the
drastic break, of things left behind, remains with them, and
therefore with us. Their nostalgias are familiar. They are the
nostalgias that every one of their predecessors felt in the darkest
hours of their Downtown tenement lives.

Here among us now in New York are the Dominicans and the Russians,
Indians and Pakistanis, Mexicans and Chinese and Koreans, and
others from what a visitor to New York in colonial days once called
"all the nations under Heaven." Even from Togo. Some have moved
into Downtown neighborhoods that once provided imperfect nurture to
the Jews, Irish, Italians, and Germans before them. Some are
settled in Brooklyn or living in newer places in Queens and the
rehabilitated Bronx, and travel by subway to jobs in Downtown.
Their presence always cheers me; they are proof that in the city of
constant change we also have our continuities.

If they are lucky, the new immigrants will get to know New York the
way so many others did, long ago. They will discover that the
easiest way to know this place is to start at the beginning. That
is, to go on foot to Downtown. They will walk its streets. They
will recognize its ruins and monuments. They will inhale the dust
of the past. They will celebrate living in a place that is filled
with people who are not, on the surface, like them. They will
stroll with their children across the Brooklyn Bridge and see the
spires of Oz gilded by morning sun.

Such experiences need not be limited to the newcomers in the city.
Sadly, too many third- and fourth-generation children of the old
European migration don't know much about the city that helped make
their lives possible. This is as true of Denver as it is of New
York. The tale is not taught in any powerful way in most public
schools. The culture of television has deepened passivity,
discouraging the active search for understanding. But true
students, driven by simple curiosity, can still find the places
where their grandparents or great-grandparents once struggled for
them without even knowing their names. In New York, the student (of
whatever age) can enter the surviving streets, gaze at the
tenements, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and embrace
the story. In New York, most of that old narrative took place

So does the newer narrative. All around Downtown, the new
immigrants can be seen today, literally from morning to night. They
are working on the reconstruction of old buildings. They are
delivering Chinese or Thai or Italian food through snowstorms. They
are preparing sandwiches in Korean delicatessens. They are cooking
in restaurants. They are taking their young American children to
their American schools. And late on Saturday nights in summer, when
so many windows are open to the cooling air, the stroller can hear
familiar music in unfamiliar languages, those aching ballads of
loss and regret.

Excerpted from DOWNTOWN: My Manhattan © Copyright 2004 by
Deidre Enterprises, Inc. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay
Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights

Downtown: My Manhattan
by by Pete Hamill

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316010685
  • ISBN-13: 9780316010689