from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Pete Hamill -- Downtown - a worthwhile read 

Pete Hamill is a New York legend whom I was fortunate enough to know slightly from hanging at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street and from living briefly in Park Slope at the same time as he did. He was a terrific writer for both the New York Daily News and the New York Post, for both of which he served as editor in chief. He also wrote for Newsday, the New York Times and the New Yorker. He is now in his 70s a writer in residence at NYU., earned because he also wrote several successful novels.

In 2004 he published another book entitled Downtown: My Manhattan. I lived in New York as an adult for only a few years, 1967 through 1971, although I visit often, and I did grow up in the suburbs. For anyone with memories of Manhattan or a love for New York, this book is a must read. Thus I choose to dedicate my diary today to describing it a wee bit, and offering a very few (far too few) samples of the magnificence of Hamill’s writing. Please continue along this journey with me.

Hamill largely defines downtown as the older part of the city, below the point where the grid system was firmly imposed on the landscape. And yet his description is more inclusive, because he includes in it landmarks that are outside that area, especially the areas along Broadway, which of course pre-existed the grid system, and was thus allowed to cut at a diagonal along the length of Manhattan. His downtown will include places of importance, in his life and in that of the city, far above the earlier settlements at the lower end, place like Luchow’s on 14th Street ( where my family used to eat New Year’s Dinner every year when I was a child), Birdland, the old Penn Station replaced by the current Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and the nearby Carnegie Deli.

The book is an intermixing of Hamill’s life, that of his family even before he was born, the city’s history and geography. He combines his observations and experience with quotes from writers of previous times, things learned from extensive reading about the history of the place, including descriptions of building and people. We learn of the inescapable imprint Stanford White had on the landscape of the city. We learn of the roles of the various groups -- the Knickerbockers, descended from original Dutch settlers, intermarried with the English who followed. We see the role played by blacks, both slave and free, in the earlier life of the city. We experience the sense of loss of the Twin Towers, even for people who did not like them but for whom they were an important part of the visual landscape. We learn of the irish, the Jews in their different and sometimes conflicting groups over time. We learn of the many current immigrant groups, in a city now almost as full of those not born in this country as it has been at any time in its past. We trace the city as it expands northward. If we did not know we learn there was a wall wherein know is Wall Street, a Canal in the location now known as Canal Street, and that Bowery is derived from the Dutch word Bouwery which means farm.

We se some famous landmarks in multiple incarnations, such as Trinity Church. We discover that the term “skyscraper” was first applied to the tall masts of the sailing ships in the harbor of one of the world’s greatest natural ports, including what was originally called the North River until it was renamed for a Englishman sailing for the Dutch, Henry Hudson.

For me there was bittersweet in reading descriptions of places in the city I knew that are no more, but which were so much a part of it -- Luchow’s, already described. Ratner’s Kosher Dairy Restaurant on Delancey, where the waiters deliberately insulted you, and to which i was able to take Leaves on the Current before it closed. The Thalia, was uptown in the 90’s, open of the great repertory film theaters where I learned much of what I know about the history of cinema.

But enough of me. To keep this of manageable length, I will tease you, tantalize you, with a few excerpts from Pete. And urge you to do what I expect you will want to do after reading them -- go and get the book and devour it.

A taste of the very beginning:
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.

A brief example of explanation of the history of place. in this case The Battery:
Walking around the Battery, I know I’m almost always on landfill. All twenty-three acres of Battery Park were placed there by human beings, starting with the seventeenth-century Dutch. Beneath the trimmed grass surface lie the granite bones of today’s park: boulders, clusters of rock, small reefs. Over the year the landfill even closed the gap with the old restored fortress now called Castle Clinton. This was built in 1811 on a small man-made island ma hundred years off shores, with the British were building towards war, and Castle Clinton was part of a system intended to defend the harbor. But the War of 1812 never came to New York. Before, during, and after that war, the Battery remained a zone of tranquility.

By the way, in earlier days,the island was known as Castle Garden, and before there was Ellis Island, this was the port of entry to the city. My great-great grandparents on my my maternal grandfather’s side came through there in 1862, with a two-year old son who came to be known as harry Livingston, the father of my my mother’s father. For me what Hamill describes is part of my familial history, as it will also be for many others who read his words.

Hamill spends a good deal of time describing the place, role and history of Trinity Church, In a chapter entitled “Trinity Country”, after describing the bigotry of Dutch governor of Nieuw Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant, he describe the origin of the tolerance that is so characteristic of New York (and so often resented in other parts of this nation):
That legacy of tolerance was not created by starry-eyed Dutch idealists. The Netherlands in the seventeenth century was the most religiously tolerant country in Europe because the Dutch were pragmatists. Paradise could wait; what mattered was making money today, this week, or this year. That in turn meant that everybody must have a share in the nation's enterprise. When Stuyvesant wanted to expel Jewish refugees from new Amsterdam, the true bosses back home, the directors of the Dutch West India Company, told him, in effect, Forget it; we have Jews on our board. Tolerance was more than an ideal. It was good business.

Hamill entitles his chapter on Broadway “The Music of What Happens.” Let me end my selections, only up to page 102 of the total of 281 pages of text, with the first paragraph of that chapter:
For me, this commonplace is true: Broadway exists as a concrete place and as an idea. As a place, physical, touchable, it stretches the length of Manhattan from the Battery to the Harlem River, just short of thirteen miles, and then moves four more miles into the Bronx as as far into Westchester as Sleepy Hollow, a final destination that would have delighted Washington Irving. I’ve walked most of the avenue in Manhattan block by block across more than a half century, and certain parts of it live vividly within me no matter where I am. Broadway in my mind is an immense tree, with its roots deep in the soil at the foot of Manhattan, which is why I insist so stubbornly to my friends that the uptown places I cherish on Broadway are actually part of Downtown.

I hope I have enticed you. If you now live or ever have lived in Manhattan, the book will bring back memories. Even if you have never visited, but have imagined through film and books what the city is like, the book will invite you in.

I urge you. Read the book.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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