Author: Katharine Greider
Title: The archaeology of home : an epic set on a thousand square feet of the Lower East Side
Publication Info: New York : PublicAffairs, c2011.
Summary/Review: With much anticipation, I received this book as an advanced reading copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. Greider and her family lived on two floors of a refurbished tenement house on East 7th Street in Manhattan until a home inspector discovered that the building was unstable and on the verge of collapse. She researched the house’s history to deal with contractors and lawyers and from that grew this fascinating microhistory. Starting with pre-colonial native tribes through Dutch and English settlement, the construction of the tenement in 1845 and all it’s residents through the troubled era of the 70′s & 80′s, Greider details the lives and times of the people who have lived on this spot and their neighbors. It’s a detailed look at the use of one plot of land that touches on history, archaeology, ethnography and sociology. Amidst the history is Greider’s own story of renovation, lawsuits, and displacement which I did not like so much, in fact it uncomfortably reminded me of Under the Tuscan Sun (one of my least favorite books). This should be a book that I love in that it covers many things I’m obsessed with – history, New York, immigration, social life, urbanism – but alas I just like this book. I had to put this book down several times while reading it because I just couldn’t get into it Greider’s writing style. Nevertheless I salute her brilliant premise and extensive research in creating this book.
“The typical Manhattan abode simply lacks the square footage necessary to organize interior space according to expectations. What you get instead is a commingling of functions that are normally segregated and an intimacy some find inappropriate or uncomfortable. Children share a bedroom, or even sleep in their parent’s room. Often there’s only one bathroom. In a few of the oldest tenements, the bathtub is still in the kitchen. People often eat in their living rooms. Entertaining in these circumstances is almost unavoidably casual. If a couple who lives in a tiny walk-up invite you to dinner, you will witness the ferocious labor required to prepare a hot meal in a galley kitchen, to drag out a folding table while kicking toys out of the way, and then to tidy up the blitzkrieg that results. It is all very unlovely and close; acquire the taste and nothing could be nicer.” – p. 80
Recommended books: New York Calling by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger and Five Points by Tyler Anbinder.
This Sunday, I made my annual pilgrimage to Flushing, NY to see the Atlanta Braves take on the New York Mets at Citi Field. My Braves fan friend Mike was unable to attend so I enjoyed the pleasure of watching the game with another Mets fan, Chris. Tickets for the game came courtesy of another Mets fan and ticket plan holder Sharon.
So these were good seats, right in centerfield, just five rows back from the wall. It meant that Chris and I were in direct sunlight until about the 8th inning so it’s a good thing I brought sunscreen. It wasn’t terribly hot but my arms sweat a lot which seemed to also attract miniscule flying insects. Barring the sun and the bugs, it was a terrific game.
Johan Santana started for the Mets masterfully dominating the Braves for seven innings. Angel Pagan had a great game at the plate and Ike Davis smashed a home run to the batters’ eye in deep centerfield not far from our seat. The Happy Recap for the game ended with the Mets shutting out the Braves 3-0.
The scoreboard kept us up to date on the FIFA World Cup championship game which for some reason was listed as a NL game. Post game I took the LIRR to Penn Station and found a pizza joint where the Hispanic staff and a Buddhist monk were watching the game on Univision. I ate a calzone and saw all of extra time including Spain’s winning goal.
While most kids look forward to Christmas, when I was a child, St. Patrick’s Day (along with Thanksgiving) was one of my favorite days of the year. It was a big day in my family usually involving going to the parade in New York and seeing family and friends we hadn’t seen in a while. Then there was the music, the stories of St. Patrick, the history of Ireland and the Irish in America. Growing up in a town where the dominant population was Italian-American, it also helped that there was one day a year where everyone wanted to be Irish. The element of pride was strong.
Things started to change when I moved to Virginia. If people celebrated St. Patrick’s day at all it was at a most superficial and sterotypical levely. Mostly it was just an excuse to get drunk. I thought St. Patrick’s Day would be better when I moved to Boston, but even in this most Irish of American cities I find the magic of my childhood lacking. I still look forward to St. Patrick’s Day but usually end up a little disappointed. Here are some things that contribute to my ambivalence:
- Wearing of the green – not bad in itself although some people really stretch the definition of green to include lime, chartreuse, olive drab and teal. Worse, they wear all those colors at once. I’m more perturbed by the self-imposed enforcers who critcize anyone in green. In years past I’ve worn sweaters made in Ireland thinking it more authentic, but there’s no pleasing the Green Team. Which brings me to:
- Pinching – Who came up with this crock? I lived 18-years in an Irish-American family interacting with Irish-American communities before I ever heard of the idea that you pinch people who don’t wear green when I started college. People act as if it’s some ancient Irish tradition, but I’m certain it’s a fairly recently innovation created to appeal to everyone’s inner sadist and I hope it goes away soon.
- Beads – It seems that wearing cheap plastic green beads is the thing to do these days on St. Patrick’s Day, even though it’s an obvious rip-off of New Orlean’s Mardi Gras. Granted, both holidays are about a month a part, have Catholic roots, and have a lot of revelry, but IIRC even in Mardi Gras the beads are a cheapening of a richer holiday tradition. Lets can this one too.
- 364 days a year, one can visit a pub in the greater Boston and hear a great performance of Irish music – traditional or contemporary – and meet interesting people while quaffing a tasty Irish beer. One day a year you can wedge yourself into an Irish pub with a bunch of drunken frat boys, listen to cheezy Oirish music and drink green-dyed Corona and pay a 20$ (or more) cover charge for the privilege. Guess which day this is?
- Danny Boy – once upon a time this was probably a lovely song, but these days this performance is not too far off the mark:
- Parades on St. Patrick’s day are a good way to celebrate the arts, culture, faith, and history of the Irish people but (in America at least) they are tainted by homophobia, militarism, and racism.
- The stupid t-shirts
Could be I’m just a grump. I’m cheered though that my wife brought home Dubliner cheese and Irish soda bread for supper which we enjoyed with (German) beer and (Italian) pasta. Then we danced to some Irish music with our little boy. I’ll need to find some new traditions to make St. Patrick’s Day as memorable for him as it was for me.
Great Fortune : The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003) by Daniel Okrent is a lively and engaging popular history of the origins of the most famous urban development in the world. It’s chock-full of facts that I never knew.
For example, the land Rockefeller Center is built upon was originally the “Upper Estate” of Columbia University, something of an albatross on the university’s neck especially after it moved further uptown. The university collected rent from the Rockefellers into the 1980′s. The plan for Rockefeller Center was originally to construct a new opera house for the Metropolitan Opera, a plan that fell through as the greater plan for a commercial development stormed through into the Great Depression. There were scandals of the Communist Diego Rivera painting a mural in the RCA building, and the Facist Benito Mussolini giving his blessing to a building for Italian commerce. The most famous element of Rockefeller Center – the skating rink – was something of an afterthought to bail out a failed plan for a shopping plaza. The opening of Radio City Music Hall was an overlong, over-the-top bomb that resulted in the venue being used as a movie theater for the next four decades.
Okrent also weaves in the biographies of the various characters involved in creating Rockefeller Center. Most obvious of course are the Rockefeller family including the introspective John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who spent his life trying to atone for Senior’s greedy excess, and Nelson Rockefeller a steamroller of a personality who took charge of the Center in the later years of development. Architects, designers, artists, corporate executives & businessmen all get their fair share as well. Okrent writes of these people sympathetically without being adulatory, and shows their warts (not to mention having a few laughs at their expense) without it being a hatchet piece.
This is a very enjoyable historical work which I believe does a good job of capturing an era through the myriad people who worked on and at Rockefeller Center.
Great fortune : the epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent. New York : Viking, 2003.
…but I can save this for next year.
So if you want to join me in recreating a Thanksgiving tradition of my childhood, follow these simple steps:
- Get a DVD of the original version of King Kong.
- Periodically stop it and watch a part of this Youtube clip instead:
Oh this is just too perfect.
On a flight to Portland, OR a little over 10 years ago I read Payback a novel by Irish-American writer Thomas Kelly. It told the story set in the mid-1980′s about Sandhogs, construction workers who build tunnels, with a mix union-management strife, corrupt politicians, Irish gangsters, and family squabbles turned violent. It was a breezy read full of violence and machismo, but intelligent as well.
Now I’ve listened to Empire Rising (2005) read by Michael Deehy, which is a similar story but set in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, amid Prohibition, with the construction of the Empire State Building at it’s centerpiece.
- Michael Briody – a recent emigrant from Ireland. Fought with the British in WWI, against the British in the Anglo-Irish War, and against the Free State in the Irish Civil War. Briody lives in the Bronx, works on a team of iron workers on the Empire State Building, and is an amature boxer. Also he continues to do jobs for the IRA and for Tommy Twohey. Oh yeah, and he also wins the heart of Grace in this novel’s central romance.
- Grace Masterson – an Irish woman with a troubled past who settles on a house boat in Brooklyn. She visits construction sites to sketch and paint the workers. As Lewis Hine’s assistant she’s able to enter the ESB site. She’s also the paramour for Johnny Farrell who has her “deliver money” to banks around town. Scarred by life, she’s surprised that Briody wins her heart despite everything.
- Johnny Farrell – the head honcho of Tammany Hall behind the Walker administration. A finger in every pot, whether legal or illegal. Not too pleased to learn that Grace is having liasions with Briody.
- Tom Twohey – a boyhood friend of Farrell’s who is the chief gangster in their Bronx neighborhood. Also runs guns for the IRA. Finds himself making an uneasy allliance with the Italian mob.
Kelly’s fictional characters mix with real-life historical figures such as Mayor Jimmy Walker, Governor Franklin Roosevelt, photographer Lewis Hine, failed presidential candidate Al Smith (also head of the Empire State Building project) and Judge Joseph Crater (working in an answer to Crater’s mysterious disappearance).
For the most part this is an entertaining book weaving together New York City history, the Irish-American experience, and the romance of the era. Towards the end it gets over the top as seemingly everyone wants to kill Briody, and for good reasons too as he’s got himself mixed up in everything.
Author Kelly, Thomas, 1961-
Title Empire rising [sound recording] / Thomas Kelly.
Publication Info. Hampton, N.H. : BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 13 sound discs (974 min.) : digitally mastered.