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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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|1||The Capital of Nostalgia||3|
|2||The First Downtown||27|
|5||The Music of What Happens||103|
|7||The Fifth Avenue||155|
|8||On the Rialto||171|
|10||Crossroads of the World||232|
Posted January 11, 2013
I recently discovered Pete Hamill with his Christmas Kid book of short stories and really enjoyed it. I just finished Downtown and wanted it to keep going and never end. Hamill can say more in one sentence or paragraph than most authors can express in a whole chapter. Any individual who has lived in the Metropolitan area will find this to be a most informative history and the people and times are brought to life. I highly recommend this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 19, 2011
It has great qualities that I appreciateas a lover of literature and history. It is well written by a masterstory teller and manages to provide a unique cultural history of Manhattan. It provides a well written narrative of the people who shaped Manhattan. Stretching from Manhattan as wilderness to contemporary times.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 5, 2011
Conjuring all the magic of a seasoned reporter, Hamill takes you to colonial New York where Petrus Stuyvesant hobbles about the infant city on his wooden leg barking orders at lazy and insubordinate colonists. You stand behind British lines as you watch Washington abandon the city to enemy occupation. My favorite scene is walking with Pete through waterfront streets reeking if Fulton's fish while heading for a favorite lucheonette.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 23, 2010
I'm a frequent traveler to NYC and have been for many years. I thought I knew the city pretty well until I read this book. Not only is Hamill a great writer, but his passion for the city comes through in so many ways as he uncovers the history and landmarks that we pass every day without ever knowing. This book has no equal, I've read it twice, given it as gifts (to New Yorkers!) and plan to take a week to follow it page by page. What an adventure!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 20, 2009
Posted December 11, 2005
Pete Hamill is a gifted writer and a preceptive storyteller and I enjoyed his latest book Downtown, My Manhattan.But Manhattan has a dual personality and Hamill does not capture this central characteristic of this small island in New York City.Downtown is the international face of the great city but Uptown is the ethnic home of Manhattan. I grew up in Italian East Harlem in the early twentieth century and when I took long walks Downtown I felt I was in a different city. Wall Street, Times Square, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the tourists, Washington Square made me aware of a culture foreign to my East Harlem street, family and school cultures.Reading Hamill brought these old feelings back.Hamill has Brooklyn and Irish roots and I am surprised that he feels so comfortable Downtown.My reading of his book makes me more aware than ever that Manhattan really doesn't change much over time.After all, International Manhattan is still Downtown and Ethnic Manhattan still finds its home in Harlem and East Harlem.Readers of Hamill's Downtown, My Manhattan should read my latest book, A Sicilian in East Harlem, to appreciate the other face of Manhattan.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 15, 2005
I grew up in New York reading newspaper articles by Pete Hamill and always imagined him as a rather gruff and cynical newspaper man. In Downtown: My Manhattan, Hamill reveals not only an incredible knowledge of the history of New York, but a tender and affectionate heart towards this most incredible city. Hamill serves up personal stories along with the people and places that once made up and, in many cases, still make up, downtown Manhattan. He takes us on the journey that so many immigrants took, leaving the Old Country and arriving, and often staying, in New York, that amazing melting pot of so many different cultures and peoples. He reminds us of the gifts we now take for granted such as free schools and libraries which were crucial in helping the children of poor immigrant families build new lives for themselves. We learn the history of the Battery, how Wall Street got its name, the development of skyscrapers, stories of the Bowery, Park Row and the Rialto. Hamill takes us along with him to learn about the first newspapers and the men who ran them. He tells us the stories of familiar names such as Peter Stuyvesant and John Jacob Astor, as well as less familiar names including Alexander Stewart who wrought radical change to New York City. We are taken to Times Square and the impact of the subway on transforming this intersection of roads into one of the most famous and influential pieces of real estate in the world. He takes us back to the neighborhoods when the diverse immigrant groups were struggling to make their way in this new world. We go to the villages, including Little Italy, Chinatown, and that most famous of villages, Greenwich Village. Hamill also pays tribute to the World Trade Center and the horrific events of September 11th in a personal and moving reaction to the terrors of that day. Hamill discusses the fact that New York City is always changing, sometimes for the better, but not always. Early on, he explains the difference between sentimentality and nostalgia for things that no longer exist - 'Irreversible change happens so often in New York that the experience affects character itself. New York toughens its people against sentimentality by allowing the truer emotion of nostalgia. Sentimentality is always about a lie. Nostalgia is about real things gone. Nobody truly mourns a lie.' Hamill is the kind of writer who makes it look easy, who makes it sound like he is having a conversation with you about the most everyday of topics when he is actually weaving complex and often obscure historical facts and characters into a most readable, fascinating history of downtown Manhattan. While most of us have heard bits and pieces of this story, few have delved into the truth of it with the gusto and affection of this author. This is a most enjoyable read and one that takes us on a nostalgic, but never sentimental, journey into another time. This is one love letter meant to be shared and savored by us all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 1, 2005
As in other works, Hamill's love of the city flows effortlessly from his pen. He recounts well-known and not as well-known aspects of the most American of cities (a survivor of grandeur and tragedy, populated by dreamers and rogues) through history and nostalgia, explaining why New York IS New York.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 24, 2004
Who knows New York better than former editor-in-chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News, Pete Hamill? Few, I'll wager. Who possesses a better reportorial eye, or greater ability to spot just the detail that will bring his comment into sharp focus? None, I'll bet. Manhattan has been home to Mr. Hamill for some 70 years, and he seems to have loved every minute of it. There's also a bit of the historian in him as 'Downtown' takes us on a journey back in time to some folks and events that have made the Big Apple what it is today. We go from the Bowery of the 1860s to the bohemian enclaves of the 1960s. Night spots are on tap as are remembrances of John Jacob Astor, William Randolph Hearst, and others. The author's personal memories are intertwined with events of the past resulting in a fascinating collage of thoughts and ideas. Mr. Hamill has referred to this work as a grouping of 'essays.' It's so much more than that, especially when we hear it in his voice. 'Downtown' is an intriguing armchair visit to the city that has become emblematic of America. Our visit, while absorbing and enjoyable, is just too brief. - Gail CookeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 7, 2004
Pete Hamill has such a deep love for New York City and you can feel this love with every word he writes. This is an excellent story. Having walked the same streets as Mr. Hamill,and loving this city as much, I related to the story very well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 29, 2011
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Posted January 28, 2010
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Posted November 6, 2008
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Posted September 12, 2010
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Posted January 4, 2010
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Posted March 11, 2009
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Posted August 21, 2010
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