al smith

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Every weekday morning I give my younger daughter a ride to school on the back of my bike. She’s about the same age her older sister was when she swore off this routine, but for now, the bike ride is still part of what we do.

We ride down the edge of Little Italy, cross Canal, pass Columbus Park (near the infamous “Mulberry Bend” of the nineteenth century) on one side and the Tombs on the other. This is the neighborhood of the old Five Points.

Once we’ve cut over through Chatham Square, we cut down a short little street called Oliver. Turns out this is the street Al Smith was born on; the housing projects at the end of the block bear his name. (Richard Price named them after Clara Lemlich for his thinly veiled setting in Lush Life.)

kv.jpgThe school itself is nestled between the Smith Homes and Knickerbocker Village, a low-rent complex that takes up two city blocks on the north side of Catherine Street. All of this preamble is to get me around to the point of the post: Knickerbocker Village is also the name of a blog run by folks who grew up in KV, which was built using federal funds during the Depression. I like their blog very much; it’s a serious New York history blog with a distinct, neighborhoody feel.

Recent scholarship on that part of lower Manhattan has emphasized its long history of interracial relations, even — dare we say it? — its cosmopolitanism and comingling of cultures. W. T. Lhamon, one of the most imaginative scholars (and inveterate defenders) of blackface minstrelsy sees the form, which he thinks originated at the end of Catherine Street down by the old Catherine Slip on the river, as inherently subversive, antiauthoritarian, and a product of cultural clashes on the old LES, an outpost of the Black Atlantic. It’s part Irish, part African, and completely American.

Which brings us to the title of the post. Knickerbocker Village (the blog) recently featured this little ditty, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Obama’s Irish ancestry. I think it carries a little of the subversive edge of the old LES, home to Al Smith, and before him to TD Rice, Master Juba, and a host of other cosmopolitan entertainers.

There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama
You don’t believe me, I hear you say
But Barack’s as Irish as our own JFK
His granddaddy’s granddaddy came from Moneygall
A village in Offaly, well known to you all.
His mam’s daddy’s granddaddy was one Falmuth Kearney
He’s as Irish as any from the Lakes of Killarney
His mam’s from a long line of great Irish Mamma’s
There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama

   
Bonus: Barely Political had a fun time a while back with a similar premise.

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