|Nina Howes introducing Lower East Side: Oral Histories|
Lower East Side: Oral Histories (History Press, 2012).
The event--which was sponsored by Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the East Fourth Street Cultural District--featured a handful of the twenty-five interviewees whose stories and personal photos were documented for the project.
|Frankie Alexander, left|
"That alley served an entirely different purpose for many years," he stated, "But I'll save that story for another time... For when I have a lawyer present."
The author didn't elaborate on the inside joke, however savvy pre-gentrification Lower East Siders in the crowd chuckled, recalling the days when Extra Place--now lined with retailers and park benches--was a nameless, dark, litter-spewn, dead-end alley which led to the backstage area of the legendary punk rock club.
Ms. Howes explained to the audience how seeing a crane in the neighborhood one day several years ago compelled her to grab a tape recorder and begin interviewing friends about their lives. Over time and ever more determined in the face of rapid gentrification, Ms. Howes expanded her research to senior centers, nursing homes, retailers and long-time residents.
With dozens of taped interviews under her belt, Ms. Howes then painstaikenly transcribed each story verbatim--taking great care to capture each voice precisely. "Why? Because language reflects character and I wanted to preserve the character of all the different people" she said. "It's like I had to channel the energy of that person and say, 'What did they really want to say here?'"
"This was hell for me. Because some of these stories were magnificent... fifteen to twenty pages. And I had to cut them."
After thanking several people who inspired the project, Ms. Howes introduced the first guest of the evening, James Galuppo. Though Mr. Galuppo did not speak, Nina Howes told the audience how the 95-year old native Lower East Sider opened a tool & die company in 1945--and still shows up to work everyday.
The first interviewee from the book to make a presentation was Frankie Alexander, who talked about growing up in the 1950s at a time when do-wop singers frequented unlocked tenement hallways in order to take advantage of the acoustics. To the delight of the crowd, one of Mr. Alexander's friends from the audience joined him for an a cappella rendition of "Teenager in Love" by Dion and the Belmonts.
Joyce Kanowitz, a native of the United Kingdom, spoke about her experiences immigrating in 1955 to the Lower East Side from a Jewish ghetto in London. Reading from a diary written as a young girl, Ms. Kanowitz shared her excitement about coming to New York and sang a verse from a song she penned, "Oh I'm going, far away, to the land of hay, where the giants play, and the little boats must pay..."
|Nilda Rivera, left|
Joe Preston presented a heartfelt monologue about the close communal bonds he experienced growing up on East Eleventh Street. "We were the Italians, we were the Jews, we were the Hispanic, we were the Polish, we were the Ukrainians, we were the Germans, we were the African Americans and we were the Asians. We were the melting pot. And the role model whose values and attitudes would shape future generations of the nation."
Jan Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident who still lives in a building his grandfather purchased decades ago, talked about how his grandmother sold preserves from a stand in front of the family's building, until she moved on and it became an Italian ice stand, then a series of fruit stands. Drawing a big laugh from the audience, Mr. Lee said that the last proprietors of the stand were "very Lower East Side" -- a Chinese couple named Abe and Ida.
At the end of the evening guests mingled, sharing stories of a bygone era, as presenters signed copies of the book, Lower East Side Oral Histories, which you can find in most local retailers or online here.