Pete Hamill Downtown, on Downtown

January 21, 2008 at 9:18 pm Leave a comment

Can any New Yorker tell a story quite like Pete Hamill? On Thursday evening, Mr. Hamill, the writer and veteran newspaperman who has edited both The Daily News and The New York Post, kept an audience of more than 500 people enthralled in the Broad Street Ballroom, an architectural gem that is rarely open to the public.

The wide-ranging talk, the first in this year’s annual series of lectures sponsored by the Downtown Alliance, loosely focused on Lower Manhattan and the origins of New York, and Mr. Hamill read brief excerpts from his 2004 book, “Downtown” (Little, Brown). But he also touched on immigration, sports and the city’s rich neighborhoods. City Room has attended many lectures and panel discussions, but has heard few speakers with the assured and nostalgia-evoking eloquence of Mr. Hamill. Excerpts from his remarks, organized by theme and transcribed by The Times, follow:

The Waterfront

Thank you for coming out on a night that reminds me of Dublin in March, although the food in the neighborhood would be better. … Looking at this mural, which I had never seen before, reminds me of some of the things I feel when I’m in this part of the downtown area, a period when the harbor ruled, when we fed off the energy of the harbor, of the shipping lanes, of the people who came in and out, some of them bone poor, some of them immensely rich, coming to the piers of our city and building this city into the place we have now. To look at the pictures, to see on that side, a kind of Egyptian-Mediterranean skiffs up against the wall here, and then you see these liners, the ghosts of the past. The waterfront now along the Hudson, the North River waterfront, is for the first time in my lifetime a new waterfront.

It has lost almost all of the jobs it once accumulated, but for the first time you can walk from about 70th Street to the Battery and never lose sight of the river. It wasn’t like that for a long time. My mother was a great walker of the city, trained by the Depression and by the experience of being an Irish immigrant. She used to take my brother Tom and I over to the river, because we were in love with looking at the ruins of the Normandy, which was a whip that burned at the pier in 1942. Every time we went to see it, there was less of it, because they were taking it apart and using scrap metal to make things that blew up. But the experience of the river with her — whose father had been a man who went to sea, an engineer on the Cunard lines and a member of the Great White Fleet that bought the bananas from Honduras and the other banana republics of Central America — were something that stayed with me all my life, and obviously with her.

Magical Downtown

That sense of the magic of the city which you can’t impose – you can only derive it from what you see of it – was with her and with me as a result all those years. Even as a newspaperman, when I went to places and got to know the city because of the dead bodies in certain alleys that had to be written about, there was still this sense that the city was magical. Even in our worst times — in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the years of crack cocaine, the years of 1,200,000 people on welfare, an entire city sitting on the stoop — even in those days, if you were able to look at the city, the magic was there. And I’ve tried in my own small way to remind people of that. We’re lucky because tonight we’re in the area of those spires that I saw that day in 1941. They are reminders and reasons for why those of us who cherish the city also cherish this part of New York.

It’s a place of infinite magic, whether you’re up close or watching it from the New Jersey side. I always said the best thing about New Jersey was the view from the other side of the river. I’m only kidding. Walt Whitman spent the last 18 years of his life there, so it couldn’t be all that bad.

Origins of New York’s Tolerance

It’s our good fortune that this is also the area where the city began. We had the good fortune — those of us who ended up being part of the city either by coming on to it or being born in it — that it was started by a company, the Dutch West India Company, not by a religious sect, not by a king, but by a company. And the men who ran the company were practical people. They knew that they could not attract many people to this forlorn little settlement at the tip of Manhattan Island, so they took everybody. Everybody who wanted to come could come. It was part of the deal. The reason you couldn’t get the Dutch to come is that the Netherlands was a prosperous country — through trade, by the way, not by conquest. People from prosperous countries don’t emigrate. So people came from other parts of the world. Some of them were probably, as they say in New York, on the lam. They found shelter here. By all accounts that survive, basically the activities of the Dutch here, when they were not working, were drinking, wenching and smoking. It was paradise. New England must have looked like punishment.

But the Dutch cut the template that was essential to the city we became, and the city that we are. They had one tactic to make everything work: tolerance. They said, “O.K., the only way we can make this place work is by opening it to many people.” And the only way to make things work with so many people – there were 18 languages spoken her 30 years after the Dutch put the wall on Wall Street – the only way to make it work is to have a live and let live attitude. That didn’t mean that Catholic churches suddenly appeared. The first synagogue opened in the 1830s, right within walking distance from here, but it was private; there were no public displays. But nobody was crucified for being part of a religion no one else wanted. They set up a system that allowed you to be in a city full of people who were not like you.

It was not utopia. The curse of slavery was here with the Dutch too. The first slaves came mostly were all men — they brought women later. But the first slaves came in the 1600s; they were treated fairly well. People could work their way to freedom. There were free slaves in Manhattan Island, but when the British finally came and took the place at gunpoint, they insisted that slavery had to be part and parcel of living in this place. The slave market was at the foot of Wall Street and the East River. They sold people there. Where they would sell donkeys or bananas, they sold other humans. And humans could own them. But even then, there was a way that people began to work things out.

In 1741, there was a slave revolt in Manhattan that involved black slaves and Irish indentured servants. They hung four of the Irish — I think two of them were women – and hung about 15 slaves. And then, because they were property, didn’t hang them all, they sent them off to the West Indies for what they called “seasoning.” And slavery persisted after the American Revolution. American Revolution changed many things in downtown Manhattan. It allowed the first Catholic Church to open, St. Peter’s, which again is within walking distance from here. But slavery lasted into the 1820s before it was finally erased, 44 years after the end of the American Revolution, and we had struggles through the 19th century over religion, over culture. And then, as is very familiar to us now, the Irish who came over with the famine were changing our culture, which is true. They changed it in ways that are so important that it wouldn’t be the same city if they hadn’t come here.

Dickens on New York

Dickens’s “American Notes”: I urge it on anybody to see the greatest writer when he was young, reacting to New York City. It’s not all about New York City, but there’s a couple of wonderful chapters. He goes to the Five Points, the worst slum under the American flag, primarily Irish, but not exclusively. There were some blacks, Jews, poor Jews, but he goes and he sees a young dancer named Master Juba, who was a freed slave from Rhode Island, about 18 or 19 years old. Dickens writes in his book, and in the excerpts of it that appeared. that he was the greatest dancer ever. Nobody had ever seen anybody dance like this young man. New York being New York, there were guys who said, “You know, this is some review from Dickens. We could make some money on this.” And they teamed up Master Juba with an Irish kid named John Diamond, and put on shows that were very much like what happened 100 years later, when jazz musicians played contests against each other in Harlem and other places. Juba would dance and the Irish kid would come out – if you saw “Riverdance,” you’d know the kind of dance he was using – that sort of straight-up thing using the percussion of the boots – and he would dance in answer to Juba. And Juba would say, “Oh yeah? You think that’s good? Watch this.” Together, they invented tap dancing, and from them flowed Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, all the different choreographers who used that kind of percussive music that was invented in this town, because people who were not like each other came up against each other and learned from each other. And they changed a certain kind of popular music. Because you couldn’t just dance, you had to have the music. … From all of that turmoil and action an activity on the Bowery and the theaters of Lower Broadway, we ended up with George Gershwin and Jerome Kern and a whole generation of ingenious writers and popular music. … If Master Juba had stayed in Africa and the Irish had stayed in Ireland, none of this would have happened where they came from. Tap dancing wouldn’t have developed in West Africa. Tap dancing wouldn’t have developed in the west of Ireland. They would have stayed parochial and marrow.

Food and Culture

I couldn’t have grown up the way I did without Italian friends all over the neighborhood. I know there was one revolutionary moment when Mrs. Caputo came across the hall, walked into my mother’s kitchen and taught her how to make the sauce. When that happened, we didn’t want to eat anything else. We would’ve had pasta for breakfast, for lunch, for supper, because the Irish had this unfortunate problem. The food was awful. …

Six months ago I was reading a history of Paris. Paris was settled by Celts. The Celts were called the Parisii. Which sounds like one of my friends from Sicily, but they were called the Parisii. They came to Paris; it was a perfect natural fortress. I was telling Clyde Haberman of The Times this — my old friend, we worked together at The Post years ago. Why is the food so good? Because the Parisii had the good fortune to be the only Celts captured by the Romans, not by the Brits. … Now it’s all different, thanks to the E.U. There are great restaurants all over Ireland and England, London particularly. But last year I was going over to Ireland for some reason and I called my friend Joe Kennedy of The Irish Independent, and said, “Joe, I’m going over in a couple of weeks. Are there any new restaurants I should know about?” He said, “There’s a place on the Stephen’s Green. It’s got the best beef in Ireland. It’s got the best wine cellar in Ireland. And all the waiters are British, and they wait on us.” So even in the age of the Celtic tiger, there are certain genetic memories that won’t go away.

Immigrants, Politics and Social Unity

In the religious riots at Eighth Avenue 23rd Street in 1870 and 1871, 20 people got killed. The people of the city, led by the bosses, the political bosses, went to these people and said, “There will be no more parades like this, that make people insane enough to kill over religion.” And there weren’t. That was the end of it. The St. Patrick’s Day parade is a political parade. It is not about the grievances of Ireland. It had a different function and way of presenting itself. … I think one of the reasons we have a terribly clumsy time with this immigration wave is there are no political organizations. There’s no Tammany Hall; there’s no Pendergast machine in Kansas City; there’s no Democratic organizations in Chicago or Boston to speak of. Because that was the way they always solved it. Immigrants came, they showed up at the district leader’s office. They said, “You want to be a citizen? See Louise in the corner, fill out the forms, report to Pier 21 Monday.” It was a very interesting quid pro quo. It was a politics that had no high abstract goals. It was very practical, nonideological. It helped unify this city.

There were other things that unified it as we know. The subway was one of the great things that unified the city. All kinds of people were in the same car reading over their shoulders at the newspaper. They didn’t want to pay for it. Big-time sports was a major factor, starting right after World War I, giving all kinds of people a sense of identity and rooting for the same things. The Irish, Jews, Italians, Poles, Germans, all rooting for the same thing, and then after 1947, when Robinson came, the African-Americans too. It was the Brooklyn tribe, not the individual tribes, that walked to Ebbets Field.

Clearly there were people who came, in my neighborhood for example, people came from other countries, settled, never went anywhere. It was enough for them. It was enough. They had a job, they had a house. They didn’t own a house but they had a place to live in. Jimmy Breslin once talked about a guy from Queens. He said he heard this line describing somebody from Queens. He said, “How can he be a crook? He lives in a house.”

The G.I. Bill offered mortgages to people after the war. A lot of people then began to go to the suburbs. It was not white flight in 1947. There were not enough African-Americans or Latinos of any kind in New York to send people into flight. It was some sense after the war that they wanted something they did not have before. In the case of the Irish, a lot of people in my experience whose parents came from the countryside of Ireland were the people who wanted places in the suburbs. People like my parents, who came from Belfast, or people from Dublin or Cork, shared the feeling I had, which was that the natural place for humans was the city.

New York’s Future

I’m optimistic about New York. … We were down so far, as recently as 1990, and the whole city seemed to get up at the same time. It’s never a one-man show. It’s never just Giuliani, whoever happens to be the police commissioner at the time — Bill Bratton, whatever. It’s people saying we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to make the thing work.

I remember going out one night to meet my wife and I realized there were people actually siting outside a café at tables eating which they had given up doing five years before because it was too risky. And they were laughing and making jokes. And you had the sense it was over. And it was. So I hope the lessons we learn about not giving in to our worst nature, but celebrating our better natures, will be the lessons we take out of this.

Toughness and Nostalgia

The other thing is to always remember those factors that go all the way back to the Dutch. Generosity doesn’t have to fly out the window. We can be generous to kids who are trying to learn something. We can be generous to people who really do have terrible times. … Sept. 12 was one of our great days, because on Sept. 12 after what had happened to us the day before, people got up and went to work. They didn’t sit there weeping and talking about moving Nebraska. They went to work, by whatever means possible.

The quality I admire most in people is toughness and by that I don’t mean movie toughness or bullhorn toughness. The people who are truly tough never talk tough. The people whose toughness was forged by the Depression never talked tough when it was over. They were working, they were happy, their kids went to school, they actually got steam heat after 20 years of coal stoves. They weren’t phony tough guys, they were truly tough people. And the ability to endure trouble when it comes, not look for someone to blame. They were tough in accepting the kinds of people who lives in a city like this, a city so complicated, sometimes so disappointing to people. They were truly tough, and I hope that we don’t lose that quality, that we remain tough, in the best sense of the world.

There’s one other characteristic that almost all the New Yorkers I know have, and it’s something that we should not lose in my opinion. It’s an emotion, and the emotion is named nostalgia. This is a city that aches for things that have vanished. If you ever waited under the clock at Penn Station for a girl in a camel-haired coat to come and meet you when you were 19 and stupid — and she actually showed — it was no small thing when they tore down Penn Station. If you ever sat in Ebbets Field and roared when Robinson stole a home run it was no small thing when they left and tore down Ebbets Field before your tears were dry. …

It’s traceable to all kinds of other things. One is simply the velocity of change. Things change so quickly. Any one of us thinks, arrogantly, “Well, I understand New York.” And you wake up the next day and realize you don’t know anything. It’s changed again. You go away for the sumer and when you come back your favorite coffee shop is a hole in the ground and Donald Trump is putting something up. … If you go though Chinatown today, you can hear a mournful music being played on 12-tone instruments. If you listen carefully you know what you’re hearing. It’s a lament. It’s full of melancholy. There’s a guy who comes to Canal Street station on the N and the R trains, he plays it every morning: the blues. It’s about the place left behind. All Irish music — all Italian music that was played on the radio before there was air conditioning and in all the neighborhoods you could walk down the street and hear that music rising — all that music is made for people who left a country when they were 10 and remember it all their lives. It was a place where they were 7 and 8 and 9 and then they left at 10. And as bad as that country was, as hard as it was to get work, to get food, to escape the Cossacks in some little shtetl in Eastern Europe, it was still a place they belonged. …

I think they brought to this city a longing, a longing that is not the same as sentimentality. Sentimentality is a longing for something you’ve never experienced. I would have loved to have been in Edith Wharton’s house in 1980. Impossible. I can only do that through her books. But those other things that actually existed that were ours, that are gone. I think we have to remember places such as this. They are ours.

By Sewell Chan

City Room

New York Times

Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Manhattan. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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