Thursday, April 11, 2013

Recap: "Lower East Side Oral Histories" at La Mama Galleria

Nina Howes introducing Lower East Side: Oral Histories

On Tuesday, April 9, 2013, several long time neighbors gathered for a special event celebrating a new book by Nina Howes and Lower East Side History Project's Eric Ferrara, entitled, 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
Addressing a standing-room only audience at La Mama Galleria (located at 6 East First Street at Extra Place), Eric Ferrara kicked off the evening by joking about the development of Extra Place since the days he was "a kid playing in bands at CBGB."

"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.

Rebecca Lepkoff
Describing himself as the "lowest man on the totem pole" in the project, Mr. Ferrara turned the floor over to coauthor Nina Howes, who he stated was the "driving force" behind Lower East Side: Oral Histories.

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?'"

Joyce Kanowitz
The most difficult part of the process, according to Ms. Howes, was whittling down the massive collection of interviews to only twenty-five stories in order to fit publishing guidelines. And then those chosen stories were to be trimmed to only a few pages each.

"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.

John Milisenda
In the book, Lower East Side: Oral Histories, Mr. Galuppo talks about his experiences growing up scrounging for wood in order to heat his family's Oak Street apartment and sharing a single bed with his siblings to stay warm. "We had three or four of us in one bed hanging on to each other. It was fun."

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.

Joe Preston
Next up came Rebecca Lepkoff, who was born on Henry Street in 1916. The spry nonagenarian told stories about how storefronts on Essex Street, once adorned with Yiddish and Hebrew signs, have been transformed into trendy bars and boutiques. Ms. Lepkoff also showed a few images from her personal photography collection, which dates back to the 1930s.

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
John Milisenda recalled the days of growing up on East First Street, just a block and a half from La Mama Galleria, and how taking up photography kept him off the streets. In a candid look at the Lower East Side of the 1960s and 70s, Mr. Milisenda told the story of his boyhood friend Peter, who was not so lucky and passed away of a heroin overdose in 1971.

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
Nilda Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, spoke about learning English through rock & roll music and recalled meeting a Holocaust survivor for the first time as a young girl on the Lower East Side. Ms. Rivera remembered inquiring about the numbered tattoo on a neighbor's arm, asking why the woman didn't have it removed, the neighbor replied, "No. I want people like you to ask me about it."

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.

Ernesto Rossi
Rounding off the evening was Ernesto Rossi, whose grandfather started E. Rossi & Company music publishers on Grand Street in 1910. Mr. Rossi who grew up on Mulberry Street, now runs the store, which once sold sheet music to the Neapolitan population of the district. An accomplished musician himself, Mr. Rossi closed the show with a heart-warming and rousing  rendition of a song he wrote for his wife, "Di Fare L'amore Con Te."

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.