One of my favorite moments in Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film comes near the end of the episode on the fight over Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut a huge swath through the old Cast Iron District (now known as SoHo) in order to build an elevated, supposedly high-speed freeway that would have connected the bridges on the East side to the tunnels on the West.
The plan was opposed vigorously during a six-hour knock-down-drag-out fight at City Hall in early December 1962, during which Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio famously called Robert Moses a “cantankerous, stubborn old man” and said the time had come for him to release his grip on the city’s development. (The plan was on-again-off-again for almost another decade.) Burns follows the announcement of the proposal’s defeat with some news footage in which an older downtown resident, looking a bit of the gentleman bum with hat in hand, New York accent thick as lower Manhattan fog, says something like: “This’ll be the best Christmas present the people on Broome Street ever had!”
I think of that old fellow quite often when I walk through my neighborhood — most of which used to be part of a more sprawling Little Italy. The building I live in on Broome Street, along with the rest of the buildings on the north side of the street for several blocks, would have been razed to complete Moses’s moronic shrine to the automobile. I wonder if that old man lived to the end of the decade, when the completion of Southbridge Towers down by the seaport — built on 16 acres of demolished waterfront warehouses and tenements — led to a mass exodus from Little Italy. Or did he hang out up here? Are his kids still in the neighborhood, or did they move to larger spaces way out in Brooklyn?
A few old timers still inhabit our neighborhood. You see them around some of the restaurants and bars, which, truth be told, we pretty much avoid. You see some older ladies in the grocery store or on occasion hanging out a fourth-floor window watching the supermodels walking dogs and shoppers consult guidebooks on the streets below. I see one older resident on occasion when I bike my daughter to school. She scowls at us and clutches her little dog close if I pop the bike on the sidewalk to avoid traffic, exactly the sort of thing old ladies in neighborhoods should do in response to obnoxious newcomers.
As annoying as festival season can be in Little Italy, what with all the sloughed off oil and puke in the gutters come morning, I love the street decorations and the Christmas music rising from loudspeakers on the corner or, better yet, from an occasional strolling brass ensemble. This is one moment in the season, too, when you can tell where the old timers actually live: they tend to decorate their fire escapes early in December, lights and fake pine garlands wrapping cast iron bars and ringing windows, giant cardboard candy canes wired firmly in place.
The intrepid writermama, who’s much better than I am about carrying a camera to catch candid shots of Lower East Side life — evidence of magic that still remains in crevices and corners — took this shot of a tenement on Mott Street, below Houston, my favorite set of holiday decorations this season. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s the building she’s caught here! If not, there’s one a lot like it.) I’d like to think these lights have gone up like this as long as anyone can remember.
What do the old timers do in your neighborhood this season?
Photo of Empire State Building from Little Italy via Wired New York.