Downtown: My Manhattanby Pete Hamill
In Downtown, Hamill leads us on an unforgettable journey through the city he loves, from the island's southern tip to 42nd Street, combining a moving memoir of his days and nights in New York with a passionate history of its most enduring places and people. From the Battery's traces of the early port to Washington Square's ghosts of executed convicts and well-heeled Knickerbockers; from the Five Points, once the most dangerous and squalid slum in America, to the mansions of the robber barons on "the Fifth Avenue"; from the Bowery of the 1860s, the vibrant heart of the city's theater world, to the Village of the 1960s, with its festival-like street life, this is downtown as we've never seen it before. Hamill weaves his own memories of Manhattan with the liveliest moments from its past, and points out the hints of that past living on in the city of today, fueling the ever-present nostalgia of its inhabitants.Hamill introduces us to the New Yorkers who have left indelible marks: Peter Stuyvesant and John Jacob Astor, Stanford White and George Templeton Strong, Edith Wharton and Henry James, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, W. H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg, Boss Tweed and Fiorello La Guardia, Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk, and scores of others. And he takes us to the eateries, saloons, theaters, movie houses, bookstores, and street corners they, and he, once frequented, whether still standing or existing only in memory.
Through the city's transformations, the pulse of Pete Hamill's brilliant voice melds with the pulse that drives New York, that mixture of daring, greed, anger, rebellion, hope, entrepreneurialism, and longing that never fades. Written by native son who has lived through some of New York City's most historic moments, Downtown is an extraordinary celebration of the magnificent, haunted place that Hamill continues to call home, and that people from all over the country and the world have come to call their own.
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Read an Excerpt
By Pete Hamill
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Deidre Enterprises, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Capital of Nostalgia
THIS IS A book about my home city. I was born in the immense and beautiful segment of it called Brooklyn, but I've lived and worked for much of my life in its center, the long skinny island called Manhattan. I live here still. With any luck at all, I will die here. I have the native son's irrational love of the place and often think of William Faulkner's remark about his native Mississippi, and how he loved it "in spite of, not because." New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty. For any native the home place is infused with a mixture of memory, myth, lore, and history, bound together in an erratic, subjective way. That's as true of the natives of New York as of the natives of Oxford, Mississippi. That mysterious mixture is why so much of this portrait is personal. Past and present are merged in its pages, as they are in my consciousness. But something else is in the mix too. Something magical. And certain moments of magic are always present tense.
In my earliest memory, I am five years old, coming home from the Sanders Theater in Brooklyn. I am with my mother and we have just seen The Wizard of Oz. The year is 1940. In the safe darkness of the movie houseI've seen emerald castles and a lion that talked and a road made of glistening yellow bricks. But in memory all of that is a blur. In memory, my mother takes my hand and the two of us are skipping all the way home singing "because because because because because!"
On this wonderful evening, my mother still has brown hair. She is laughing and exuberant, clearly made happy by going to a movie with her eldest son. I remember nothing else, except the word because. Later, I will learn that the woman I call Mom is actually Anne Devlin Hamill, an immigrant from the hard, dark city of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. She arrived in New York, with perfect Irish timing, on the day the stock market crashed in 1929. She was then nineteen. The calamity of the Great Depression did not dismay her. She went immediately to work for a rich Manhattan family as a domestic servant, glad of the work, joyous about being again in the city of New York. In all the years that followed in the life of Anne Devlin, that city would always be a wonderland. Why? Because.
Above all, because her journey in 1929 was Anne Devlin's second migration to the place that would be her home until her death at eighty-seven. On these streets, she had once been five too. I would learn that in New York, many stories begin somewhere else, for people who become center fielders and for those who start as domestics. Her father was named Peter Devlin, who went to sea as a youth, became an engineer, traveled as far away as Yokohama and Rangoon, worked for years as an expert in refrigeration for the Great White Fleet in the banana trade with Central America. He was a Belfast Catholic, and at sea he was free of the accumulated bigotries that went with the endless religious quarrels that began in the Irish seventeenth century. When he married in his thirties and soon fathered two children, Peter Devlin decided that it was time to live again on land. He had seen many places in the world, but he and his wife chose New York. The young family of four settled in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the parish of Mary Star of the Sea, hard by the harbor. There he would work on the ships of the Cunard Line but live on land with his family. The Devlin children (the other was my uncle Maurice) would be raised in a city where nobody cared about their religion. They would grow up in the greatest metropolis in America, where everything was possible, if only you worked. Above all, they would grow up free of the iron certainties of the European past, the first requirement for creating an American future.
Then, in 1916, while the slaughters of the Great War raged in distant Europe, disaster struck in Brooklyn. My grandfather Devlin fell from the deck of a ship and was crushed between hull and dock. My mother was then five, and remembered later the tumult and the tears in the flat in Red Hook but few of the details. She did remember New York fading into fog and the long voyage home across the vast Atlantic. Her mother must have known that German submarines were prowling the approaches to Ireland and England, but she chose to risk any danger to get back among her own people. One of the few consolations in any life is a sense of the familiar, with all of its imperfections.
The widow and her small children made it safely across the Atlantic, but that year Ireland was seething with violence and sectarian hatred. At Easter, there had been a nationalist rising in Dublin against the British rulers of Ireland, with deaths and executions. For many people, Irish nationalism was exclusively Catholic (it wasn't), and in the North, all Catholics were accused by some citizens of stabbing England in the back while the men of Ulster were dying in vast numbers at the Somme. The theory wasn't accurate (many Catholics fought under the British flag), but the fury was real, and so was the fear. But the anger had its own justification. After all, the sons of Ulster were filling the graves of France. It was no surprise that the bitterness, and its local violence, would continue in Northern Ireland long after the Great War finally ended, long after civil war had run its course. Too many Irish corpses would fill the graves of Ireland.
Somehow, in the midst of so much turbulence and fear, young Anne Devlin managed to do what few women, and almost no Catholic women, ever did in those years: she finished high school. That same year, her widowed mother died of a stroke at age forty-seven. And Anne Devlin, now an orphan, decided that it was time to return to the city she had last seen slipping away into fog. Her brother, Maurice, would stay in Belfast for another thirty years. But my mother would sell the family piano, buy a steamship ticket, and go back to the place where she had last seen her father, long ago, when she was five.
My own father, Billy Hamill, was also a child of Belfast. He was twenty when he arrived at Ellis Island, to join two older brothers who had already fled the bitterness of the Irish north. He had only completed the eighth grade when he was apprenticed as a stonemason, but he carried other credentials to America. He was a wonderful singer of songs: Irish rebel songs, the songs of English music halls, jaunty tunes of human foolishness, and songs of sad longing. I grew up hearing those songs and can remember many of the lyrics to this day. He was also a wonderful soccer player. Years later, his friends told me about his magical legs, those legs that carried him across playing fields, that seemed to have an intelligence of their own. The Irish novelist Michael McLaverty, who chose to stay in the Irish north, told me in 1963, "God, he could play that game."
In 1927, his fourth year in America, Billy Hamill was playing for an Irish team in the immigrant soccer leagues that were then common all over New York. There was a Jewish team called House of David, and German teams, English teams, Spanish teams. One wintry Sunday, in the year that Babe Ruth hit those sixty home runs, Billy Hamill played in a game against the Germans. He was viciously kicked in the left leg (almost surely by accident) and fell to the frozen earth with a double compound fracture, splintered bone jutting through flesh. He was taken to Kings County Hospital, the largest in Brooklyn. Because it was a Sunday, there were not enough doctors. There was certainly no penicillin. By the following morning, gangrene had set in. His left leg was amputated above the knee.
The years immediately after that calamity must have been filled with misery, but I never heard him say so. Among the many immigrant codes, spoken and unspoken, there was one that was absolutely clear: The only unforgivable sin was self-pity. He must have felt it. He must have throbbed with rage, too, against his terrible luck. After all, he would never again play the game he loved more than all others. But he would play no other games either. He was deprived, too, of the American opportunities for honest manual labor, those jobs in shipyards and the construction trades that employed so many other immigrants, not all of them Irish. Those jobs made everything possible in America, starting with a family.
And yet he went on with his American life. He would sing his songs for his friends in dozens of Prohibition speakeasies. He designed a bathing suit that covered the stump of his vanished leg and went swimming in the summer sea at Coney Island. And he worked. His penmanship was excellent, and so he worked as a clerk in the home office of a grocery chain. And, with his friends, he even went to dances.
In 1933, after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the end of Prohibition, he went to such a dance in Webster Hall, just below Union Square. There he met Anne Devlin. They started going around, as the Irish said, and eventually they were married. Anne Devlin did not drink. But she must have loved his endless repertoire of songs, his stoicism, his optimism. He surely was attracted by her brown-haired good looks, her sense of humor, and, above all, her intelligence. No child, of course, ever truly knows what brings parents together. Or why a marriage lasts in spite of bouts of poverty, inevitable quarrels, occasional attacks of despair on one side or the other. But they were together until the day my father died at eighty.
I was their first child, eventually the oldest of seven American children, and as a boy, I gradually understood that my father was not like other fathers in our blue-collar neighborhood. Billy Hamill could not take us to play ball in Prospect Park. He could not take us on long walks across that park to the sacred precinct of Ebbets Field. The subway was always a challenge, with its long flights of stairs leading to the street, and the need to be agile, and so he almost never went to Manhattan. He could not even march in the Saint Patrick's Day parade. His America was limited to a dozen square blocks in our small neighborhood.
My mother's New York world had no such limits. She was a quick, determined walker of the city, starting with the streets of our own metropolitan hamlet. In her company, my younger brother Tom and I learned that the only way to get to know a place was by walking its streets. We went with her as she shopped. We soon knew where the church was and the police station and the schools. But she was always expanding our frontiers. She would show us the main public library, where books were free, right there on the other side of the great arch of Grand Army Plaza. She showed us the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden. Sometimes she showed us visions that stayed with us for all of our lives.
One Saturday in the summer of 1941, while my year-old sister Kathleen stayed home with my father (she was born on May 1, his birthday, and he adored her), my mother took me and Tom on one of our longest walks. We ended up at the entrance to the pedestrian ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. We had never before seen this great span. From the Brooklyn side, the bridge rises in a graded arc. The central walkway and the roads for automobiles are flanked by its soaring suspension cables. As my mother pointed out the distant ships in harbor and river, from that great height the size of boats in bathtubs, we reached the top of the rising arc. Then, for the first time, I saw them: spires aimed at the sky. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. All gilded by morning sun.
"What is it?" I said in a stupefied way (as my mother told me years later).
"Sure, you remember, Peter," she said. "You've seen it before." And then she smiled. "It's Oz."
And so it was.
This book is about what I learned in Oz. It is about the places where I lived and about myself, among others. To my astonishment, I've known the Manhattan streets and many of its people for almost seven decades. The day before yesterday I was five, crossing that amazing bridge. We moved in 1943 to a new flat with a breathtaking view from our kitchen windows of the harbor and the skyline, and I could gaze in all seasons at the towers. I seem to have been eleven for a very long time, in days and weeks of an endless languid summer. Then time started to rush, through adolescence and high school and a job as a sheet metal worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and finally into the US Navy itself. Then, after discharge and a sojourn in Mexico on the GI Bill, I was at last a kind of grown-up, living in the buildings of Oz itself. Living, that is, in Manhattan.
As it turned out, my life in Manhattan had its own geographical limits, and they are central to this book. That is why these notes are limited to those parts of Manhattan in which I have truly lived. My own city, the one that feels like home, is the one I've always called Downtown. To me it extends-in defiance of the conventions of guidebooks-from the Battery to Times Square. There is a dense, rich New York beyond the limits of my Downtown, and I've spent some time in its many parishes. But it was never mine in the same way that Downtown became one of my personal possessions. So these notes are personal too. Over the years, I have paid rent at fourteen separate addresses in Downtown, and I live now in a loft in Tribeca that was built in 1872. It stands just below Canal Street, that most exhilarating of New York bazaars. I know Mr. Singh, who sells me newspapers. I know the man who runs the corner variety store. I know the people with whom I share my building. Each day, I exchange hellos with a dozen people who work on my street. When the drivers of cars with New Jersey plates honk too insanely on their horns, I shout at them: "Knock it off! We live here!"
There are other levels of the familiar in the dailiness of my life here. My Downtown is also the place where the city was created.
Excerpted from Downtown by Pete Hamill Copyright © 2004 by Deidre Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
- New York, New York, and Cuernavaca, Mexico
- Date of Birth:
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- Mexico City College, 1956-1957; Pratt Institute
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