The Truth About New York

    Amir Said starts with basic info about the five boroughs; how Manhattan is an island with a grid, how Robert Moses plowed through the Bronx, how Staten Island is a mob residence, how Brooklyn is getting more love than ever before, etc. Some things in here I don’t believe, like the part about NYC being the place for jobs. Illegal immigrants take a lot of the jobs in restaurants and construction, and most of the tech jobs are done by unpaid interns. Obesity is not a major problem here, because everyone has to be on their feet.

He does give some humorous pages to renting an apartment in the city, with all the down-and-dirty about rent control and how the landlords try to scare away tenants. He advises the renter to discard the dream of a spacious apartment, and avoid any place with a commute of more than 45 minutes into Manhattan. Stay close to a good public library (decent people in the area) and avoid police stations (they’re placed in high-crime areas.) The subways are how people get around, but they are unreliable, filthy, overcrowded, and prone to delays.

The book goes on to cover dating, food and dining, nightlife, culture, education, and religion. Sometimes the writing goes too far, some parts are too long, each chapter could be its own book. Some parts, like the one on schools, would be better if they included interviews with parents, maybe have a part about schools where the White kids are a minority.


Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family

    In a 2010 article, Dr. Haynes recalls finding the portrait of a long-dead ancestor in his parents’ attic. He was a respected Black leader, and the portrait was part of a series for the White House, somehow lost from the others and consigned to storage. Why was the portrait forgotten, he wondered, and why did his parents leave it in the attic for so long? Throughout the book, the author studies the same issue regarding his parents; why did this respectable family fall into reclusiveness, and why did they stay in Harlem?

Haynes (born 1960) comes from an unusual social class, the Black Harlem gentry. He, his parents, and his two older brothers lived in a stately Harlem townhouse that alternated from being subdivided into apartments and returning to its one-family state. Though his parents considered themselves the cream-of-the-crop, they let their home fall into ruin. He describes the house, with beautiful woodwork and period décor, as being a dump that rivals the Collier Brothers. Garbage piled up, they never threw anything away, the roof leaked, and eventually his parents physically separate while living under the same roof. From childhood to age 18, he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed being home. Neither did his two brothers.

In some ways it’s a story about people who straddle two worlds. Haynes mother was a social worker with an office in the World Trade Center, fashionably dressed, held court at downtown restaurants, but she didn’t have these friends over to her home. It’s not clear if it’s because their house was in a state, or if they let the house become a hovel because they couldn’t have visitors. Harlem, by the time Haynes was ten years old, had become unsafe, and he says that when he was growing up no white kid could walk in those streets. His older brothers, born 1950 and 1953, also suffered from street crime. I doubt that any White person visited their Black friends in Harlem by the late 1960’s.

Haynes’ pretty much loses his brother over the years. One of them gets killed at work, and the police make little effort to find the killer. His oldest brother joins the Nation of Islam, suffers when the break up after Elijah Muhammed’s death, and gets into drugs and several mental breakdowns. The saddest thing is that he learns about his brother’s murder while sleeping over at a friend’s house, and says he’d rather stay there than head home. He clearly felt more comfortable with the White kids at the private schools he attended than in his own home and neighborhood.

This book paints a really weird portrait of the Harlem that the author knew as a boy. There is a funny part to this story, in the way that gay men were accepted there. He recounts a transvestite who ran a newsstand, and the hair salons were run by men with effeminate mannerisms. He theorizes that with so few decent men in the community, nobody cared if a guy was a sissy, so long as he pulled his weight. In the 1980’s these men started dying off thanks to a little-understood disease.

I wonder if Down the Up Staircase is a study on downward mobility? This was a family with well-educated parents, refined and elegant, whose world always seems to crumble around them. The author says that his father, a parole officer, could have done a lot more with his career, and hints that the man was a bit of an underachiever. His oldest brother slides further and further down into an abyss of drugs and the wrong crowd, further and further away from his parents’ values, never climbing back up. Then his next oldest brother graduates high school, marries his teacher (?!?) and goes to work in a bicycle store, where he gets killed. By the mid 1990’s, the elegant townhouse is in a terrible state of repair, and it’s a wonder it didn’t get condemned. Thankfully, he took his teachers’ advice, to find a rural college that would give him a full scholarship, and leave the city.

The house was sold in the 1990’s, and at this time it’s probably occupied by a White family and would sell for a million dollars. The old Harlem elite is gone, and Dr. Haynes admits that today there is no way he could afford to live in Harlem today.


Badge #1843 NYPD

Most of the book comes from the elder Peller’s autobiography, written because his sons wanted to know about his life, and just in case someone else might be interested in his story (and more would’ve been if he hadn’t held back.) Like my ancestors who grew up in pre-glamor New York, he doesn’t seem keen to talk about the past, yet he does go into detail about the good parts. The Settlement House, for instance, and all the activities it had for kids, gives him fond memories. There were weekend getaways to upstate farms – not a luxury today – but an extreme change of pace for a boy in his day. The city was smoggy and sooty in the 1930’s, and train fare was expensive (besides, people made less money anyway) so getting to run barefoot on the grass, having air you can breathe, and having no sounds at night must’ve been quite a treat.

This book has an interesting angle on the issue of education in the days before the GI Bill. Peller was perfectly competent in the classroom, and could’ve gone to college, but didn’t. It seems that boys in those days were not encouraged to go to college the way they are now. He joined the NYPD during the Great Depression, when there were few jobs available, even to a skilled mechanic like him. He also describes how a lot of college-educated men joined at the time (including future chief detective Albert Seedman) thanks to lack of alternatives, and how it was these college-educated cops who brought about changes to policing.

There are funny anecdotes, like the crazy women who’d call the police so they could get a man. Then there were the bars on the East 100’s that catered to sailors of different nationalities. He mentions one that was frequented by Scandinavian sailors; they’d get drunk, get in fights, spill out onto the sidewalk, and a loud bark from the police would send them all shuffling back in. A frequent emergency in the days before WWII involved exploding refrigerators (they used volatile chemicals at the time) which were the cause of building fires.

Officer Peller’s post-NYPD career takes an unusual turn. He retires and gets a measly pension, but then finds that there aren’t a lot of jobs for guys in their late 40’s. He gets a bottom level job in finance and works his way up, taking whatever training he can get, and eventually building up a very nice career (though he was probably the only male employee.) It resonates with me, because even today it’s difficult to start a new career in middle age. However, I’m surprised he didn’t look for a job as an armed security guard or private investigator.

One of the problems with this book is the writing. It needs a huge amount of editing, and could do with more information about the other police officers. Peller doesn’t mention anything about corruption, racism, the roles of women in the police department. I can understand why he left these things out, but I would still like to know more about the other officers. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable book about the city in a time when there was grit but no glamour.

Mapping Manhattan

    Becky Cooper travels the city with a blank image of Manhattan, asking unknown people to fill in the areas that are important to them. One author writes in the places where she lost her gloves, umbrellas, earrings, books, etc. A recurring theme in the book is how Manhattanites stick to certain areas and don’t venture beyond. This is something I can relate to, as I never ventured into Harlem until I started working as a substitute teacher back in 2002. By that time I had been living here for six years. I only went into Harlem to teach, never for a construction job or takeout delivery. I worked a Rice High School, right on the corner of 123rd and Lennox (or Malcolm X. Boulevard, if you prefer) and every time I went to the Staples store, everybody thought I worked there (big white guy, shirt and tie.) Whenever I’m in that area, I always remember those days, even though the school is now gone.

One lovestruck New Yorker colors “her” city in pink (after all, she’s a kid) and marks the tops half – titled “I’ve never been there” – in yellow. A grown woman draws in the sites of her first NYC trip (at age 7 in 1967) where her grandparents showed her the city in the era of Eloise. She saw a little man with a funny moustache and pet ocelot (later ID’d as Salvador Dali) and the MOMA sculpture garden (she thought it was someone’s backyard). Then she had lunch at a Times Square automat.

Every New Yorker has fond memories of their time here. I could draw a map of every art store where I bought materials, some of them closed, some have simply come under new management.

All Day

    Liza Jessie Peterson is a broke unsuccessful model turned poet, who in the spirit of most unsuccessful artists in New York, turns to education for a living. Her assignment – The Island School, where the youth of Riker’s Island are educated. Wait, scrap that, it’s where they are dumped during the daytime. She’s with them all day long, no switching from math to science to social studies classes, and as a former suspension site teacher, I can tell this is going to be the teaching job from hell. While some of the boys are hard-core offenders, almost all of them behave like rude children (well what  do you expect, they don’t want to be there anyway) and they will test her, mess up the room, and do silly things.

Peterson faces a problem of many “teaching artists” who go from afterschool programs into full time education. While the afterschool programs are easier because the kids want to be there, full-time teaching is always difficult because of the kids who DON’T want to be there. If you think that’s a problem in a regular high school, imagine what it’s like in Riker’s Island, arguably the worst jail in the USA. It’s not like you can call the kid’s mother (there’s nothing she can do) or send him to the principal (there isn’t one) or expel him (there nowhere to go, this is the end of the line.)

Here’s a horrible irony about teaching at The Island School, which I figured out on my own. You know how the worst kids will probably come to school late and miss your class? Well not at this school, because they’re physically forced to go at gunpoint! Do you remember the kids in public school who never disturb your class because they spend all their time in the bathroom? Well not at this school, because bathroom breaks are restricted! You’re stuck all day long with the kind of kids who you’d rather play hookey all day.

Peterson does get some info about how the boys got there, but I doubt they’re all truthful. Some of them are definitely guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, while others were in the wrong place at the wrong time (like riding in the back of a car when the driver was carrying a gun and had just shot someone.) Some are in there because their parents can’t afford a non-refundable $2000 bail bondsman’s fee, others are foster kids whose legal guardians probably don’t care.

An advantage that the boys have in going to school is that they can hang out with their friends instead of getting stuck all day with the nasty correction officers. They don’t fight much in the classroom, mostly just tossing ball of paper at each other. Maybe the school is the only place where they can still be kids.

Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD

    Brice Chadwick’s is less about the NYPD and more about what a mess New York City was in the 1800’s. The author prefaces the book by telling us that crime levels in pre-Civil War NYC were six times what they are today, even more at the time than London and Paris (not sure I agree with that one.) Regardless, the city was known for bad behavior, and the chance of getting robbed and murdered was high. There wasn’t much in the way of law & order, and the police were never much help.

Chadwick’s first chapter discusses the constant rioting in downtown New York (well there wasn’t much of an “uptown” yet) and the Black churches, schools, and homes were a favorite target. The first great riot of the city was not the famous Draft Riot of the Civil War, but the Summer Riot of 1834 (seems like the trouble in this city is always worse in the summer) where the abolitionist meetings were attacked. The few police available did try to stop the riots, but with no results. There wasn’t much that ten cops (with limited armament) could do against 300 violent men, especially when those men had no qualms about killing the police. Maybe those cops just weren’t willing to risk their lives for the miniscule pay they got.

Riots in New York City happened every time the poor got mad, whether it was the use of unclaimed bodies in medical schools (the Doctor’s Riot) or the high price of flour, or the killing of stray dogs, or the impounding of stray pigs. In one forgotten 1833 incident, stonemasons stormed a workshop and smashed the place, because the contractor was using cheap marble from Sing-Sing. Apparently, NYU couldn’t afford the craftsmen’s price, so they opted to use cheaper stonework made by convict labor (NYU always seems to piss everyone off when they build a new wing.) As for the police, they were driven away by the stonemasons (leave it to your imagination who was physically stronger) and the militia had to be called in. That alone almost caused another riot; ever since the American Revolution 50 years earlier, nobody wanted to see armed troops in the city.

I will hand it to Bruce Chadwick for mining some unbelievable resources for this book. In the chapter on the Hellen Jewett murder, he brings to light some old first-person accounts of the city in the 1830’s, most of which I’d never heard of. Some were written by professional writers who toured the city, others are scholarly academic studies on crime. According to the sources, prostitution was rampant (not surprising, as the respectable classes did not engage in casual sex) and some women found it more respectable than being a domestic servant.

Chadwick credits Fernando Wood with improving things. He was trusted and respected by the police captains, and he appointed the ones who could gain the trust of the rank-and-file. As long as there was no dissent within the ranks, the police would at least be unified. Unfortunately, there was no way for patrolmen to communicate with HQ (radios not invented yet) and few would risk their lives by going into certain areas (no way to call for backup.) When the old Metropolitan Police were scrapped and reorganized, the city had the Police Riot, where the old cops and new cops battled each other in the street.

The anti-crime reformers clashed with the police as well as the crowds, because the reformers all came from the same class and school as the abolitionists. Lydia Child, for instance, was a Conservative educated Bostoner, and John McDowall was a divinity student from Princeton. They both criticized the police for the prostitution problem, since the madams were paying off the police captains for every brothel they opened (a fact that the Lexow Committee would concur 60 years later.) Lydia Child found the perfect cause when Amelia Norma murdered a client. The reason – he reneged on a promise to marry her – was used by Child to prove her point; men could do whatever they wanted to the women and face no consequence.

The author does find one positive thing about the early NYPD, and that is the use of the photograph. When cameras first became available, the NYPD seized the opportunity, creating the world’s first “rogue’s gallery” with detailed descriptions. Other departments followed suit, as did the FBI and the CIA. Reorganizing the police didn’t help that much, and things would still be unsafe in the city. Conflict between the abolitionists and pro-slavery New Yorkers continued, leading to the Draft Riots of the Civil War then the labor union riots, then conflict between the Irish and Italians, and so on.

Tearing down the Five Points slum and the old Gotham Court may have helped. It’s harder to attack a cop in a dark alley if there are no alleys anymore.

A Bintel Brief

This is a wonderful book on the advice column of the Yiddish paper The Forward (now English language) where New York’s Jews could piss and moan about everything. The author uses simple drawings to illustrate the problems people wrote about, along with the events of the times. Keep in mind that Bintel Brief was from a time when the Jews of New York lived in poverty and couldn’t afford therapy; writing to the advice columnist was the only way to talk about your problems. The Forward had its own building on the Lower East Side, but the neighborhood that is now hip and expensive used to be a dirty slum. It was a terrible neighborhood, crowded, polluted, and filthy. Families were very large, so the mothers were worn out from repeated pregnancies, and of course they had to work to feed all those kids. There was no public welfare at the time; you worked, or you went hungry. Therapy was unaffordable to most families, so this was the only alternative to talking to your clergyperson. The writers of this column were usually better educated than most Rabbis, so the advice would be a little more practical.
A lot of the problems written about in Bintel Brief had to do with marriage. There wasn’t any casual dating in those days, and a lot of Jewish New Yorkers had arranged marriages. Some of the letters were from women whose husbands were not as wealthy as they claimed; some were from women whose children were in love with non-Jews. You can learn a lot about how people lived in those days, before the safety net of food stamps and social security.
There have been other books on the Bintel Brief column, which ended in the 1970’s, but I think the last book was published in 1990. This fresh and vibrant comic about the column will keep the memory alive for years, in an era when few Jews still speak Yiddish. As for The Forward, it’s also a bit of an irony that the building is now high class apartments; by the 1930’s, the Jews had fled the Lower East Side in droves, and by the 1950’s it was not safe at night. My mother used to visit the building in the early 60’s, when they had a renowned kosher cafeteria in the basement, and she has fond memories of the place. But you couldn’t be there at night, even in the 50’s, because of all the junkies that came out of the woodwork. The paper itself is now in English, but not as much fun to read. It no longer celebrates Jewish life the way it used to, now relying on stories about Israel’s bombings, or who’s donating the most money to UJA. Perhaps when people have real problems in their lives, they’re more concerned with reading about good things? The Jewish community weren’t always financially successful in this country; there was a time when a lot of us lived in the “low income” area.