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Author Biography: WILLIAM H. HEMP is the author and artist of three books, including If You Ever Go to Dublin Town and Taos: Landmarks & Legends. He also worked as a television talk-show host in Taos, New Mexico. He lives near the ocean on Long Island, New York, with his wife, Maggie.
South Street Seaport
White-maned walt whitman once described New York as the City of Ships, and South Street, in the early nineteenth century, was known as the street of ships. In those days the waterfront was a forest of masts, spars, and jibbooms. The bowsprits of clipper ships like the Flying Cloud stretched clear across the barnacled docks, poking their nautical noses almost into the windows of the ship chandlers' offices opposite. The street, lined with saloons like Jip and Jake's and Shanghai Brown's, swarmed with tattooed sailors, travelers, and townspeople scurrying to market. The odor of rum, molasses, wine, and spices was intoxicating.
You get a taste of the salty life on the old New York waterfront by setting course for the South Street Seaport. Here, a conglomeration of cobblestoned blocks, bounded by Peck Slip and Pearl, Front, John, and South Streets, has been restored in the heart of the old Fulton Fish Market, a flotsam and jetsam affair anchored along the East River.
On entering the seaport, you are welcomed by the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, a monument to the 1,505 souls who died as heroes on April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic collision with an iceberg of the White Star leviathan declared "unsinkable." At the foot of Fulton Street, beady-eyed gulls hover over a pilothouse that pipes you aboard the flotilla of tall ships and small boats floating proudly at the piers. These include the 1911 four-masted Barque Peking; the 1908 lobster-red Ambrose Lightship; the 1930 canary-yellow
W.O. Decker tugboat; the fire-engine-red tugboat Helen McAllister; the 1885 schooner Pioneer; and the square-rigger Wavertree,launched in Scotland in 1885.
Just west of the wharf and Pier 17, a multitiered marketplace, stands Schermerhorn Row, a staggering sight of high-pitched roofs and Flemish bond brickwork. This business block was built during the War of 1812 by Peter Schermerhorn, a prominent citizen who ran a ship chandler's business on Water Street. It is the only remaining complex of commercial buildings in the Federal style of architecture in Manhattan.
The galleries of South Street Seaport Museum on Water Street contain a treasure trove of nautical memorabilia that includes the Der Scutt ocean-liner collection, Monarchs of the Seas. It showcases plans, models, and film footage evoking the majesty of a time when ocean liners like Cunard's RMS Queen Mary and the Art Deco SS Normandie were the last word in luxury travel.
Time to break for lunch and wet your whistle? Then land at the Bridge Café at 279 Water Street, housed in a sagging three-story red clapboard structure snuggling in the shadow of Roebling's masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge. The proud owners proclaim that it was originally listed as a wine and porter pub as early as 1794, making it Manhattan's oldest bar in the district's oldest remaining wood-frame building.
To landlubbers and seafarers alike, the South Street Seaport and the old Schermerhorn block tell the story of New York as a seaport city. By casting an eye about the timeworn cobblestoned streets and exploring the well-scrubbed ships, you are transported to 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine in the service of Francis I, rounded Sandy Hook and sailed the Dauphine into New York Harbor, launching Manhattan Island's history as a haven for ships.
Washington-Harrison Street Houses
Just a stone's throw from the Hudson River and not very far from where the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center stood until tragically destroyed by a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, huddles a small group of historic pink-brick dwellings known as the Washington-Harrison Street Houses. They make a touching tableau juxtaposed between two towering housing complexes on a cobblestoned street in the trendy district now known as TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal).
These early Federal houses were not always anchored to this spot. Some were once situated two and a half blocks away amid the wagonloads of cabbages, cauliflowers, radishes, and rutabagas that once comprised the old Washington Street produce market. When that busy enterprise moved up to the Bronx, the federal government, under a special grant for historical restoration, provided the funds needed to relocate these houses to their present site at the corner of Greenwich and Harrison Streets.
The dwellings date from 1767 to 1828 and were built for specific owners on property that was originally part of the well-known farm of Annetje Jans. The land was granted to her by the director general, portly Wouten Van Twiller, in 1636. As the city grew up from Wall Street in the early nineteenth century, the commercial activities of the Washington Market expanded northward until, by the end of the century, the entire area was wholly commercial. By then there were no more than a handful of the original town houses left. Now that they have been grouped together and restored to their original glory in 1972-1974, the Washington-Harrison Street Houses present a late-eighteenth-century to early-nineteenth-century profile that exists nowhere else in the city of New York.
Who lived in this L-shaped cluster of charming dwellings during their early days? Well, we do know that the house situated at No. 31 Harrison Street was built in 1827 and originally owned by Jacob Ruckle. It is typical of the small but comfortable dwellings of the merchant class of New York City in the early nineteenth century. The dwellings at Nos. 29 and 33 Harrison belonged to Sarah R. Lambert and Ebenezer Miller, respectively. Nos. 315 and 317 Washington Street, now moved to Nos. 25 and 27 Harrison, were designed and built by John McComb, the city's first native-born architect. He also created New York's City Hall, completed in 1812 and considered to be the most beautiful in all fifty states. The McComb house at No. 27, with a fan-lit doorway, was the architect's own residence and one of the very few surviving Manhattan houses dating back to the eighteenth century-1796 to be exact. These houses once stood on what was once a very picturesque spot, beside a cove on a small spit of land, just one hundred feet from the river.
The Washington-Harrison Street Houses, with their high-pitch roofs punctuated by dormer windows and tall chimneys, show the craftsmanlike attention to detail that is so characteristic of the Federal style. If John McComb were alive today, he would be content to know that the masterpiece in which he lived during his early years as an architect is now as sparkling fresh and spanking clean as it was back in 1796. That was back in the days when the New York Stock Exchange was doing business beneath a grove of buttonwood trees in the open air on Wall Street.
When the fieldstone Church of the Transfiguration, at 25 Mott Street, was built in 1801, there was not a Chinese person to be found anywhere in New York. Then, in 1807, Pung-hua Wing Chong, John Jacob Astor's manservant, visited the city. Whether he was the first Chinese to settle on Manhattan Island is anybody's guess. Some say it was Quimbo Appo, who supposedly arrived in the 1840s. Others contend it was Ah Ken, a Cantonese merchant who opened a cigar store on Park Row. Whoever it was, he started Mott Street on the happy road to becoming the Main Street of New York's Chinatown, once called Five Points. With a population of about 150,000 residents, the enclave is now the largest Chinese community in the western hemisphere.
Today, Mott Street is as colorful as a dragon kite, as surprising as a fortune cookie, and home to the throngs of Chinese people scattered about the metropolitan area. It is to this cacophonous carnival below Canal Street and off Chatham Square, where chop suey was invented in 1896, that they come on weekends to shop, play mah-jongg, meet old friends, and dine in the exotic atmosphere of the ancient Orient.
One of the city's great adventures is a stroll down Mott Street at sundown amid the hodgepodge of tea parlors, restaurants, and souvenir stands. As you meander along, a peek into shop windows rewards you with mouthwatering displays of roast ducks with golden-brown skins.
The many-splendored treasure to be found on Mott Street is the rich collection of Chinese restaurants, some upstairs, some at street level, some subterranean. The fun comes in searching out a favorite for yourself. The cuisine is always authentic and prepared in one of many sumptuous styles, from the long-favored Cantonese to the more exotic Mandarin, spicy Szechuan, or hard-to-beat Hunan. Be it at a spotless lunch counter or in a lacquered emporium, you can feast on such favorites as scallops in black bean sauce or shredded beef beneath a warm blanket of snow peas.
Searching for a bit of antiquity? Well, you'll find it at 32 Mott Street General Store, the very oldest in Chinatown. This venerable emporium has been offering tea sets, brass Buddhas, jade statues, and decorative urns since 1891, when Lee Lok first opened its doors.
Strolling east off Mott to 13 Doyers Street, you arrive at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which is situated at the bend in the narrow lane. Since it opened in 1920, this tile-floored tea parlor has been a popular favorite with New Yorkers and visitors alike for its genuine Chinese tea luncheon. This usually consists of dim sum, an assortment of Oriental pastries such as minced pork with vegetables encased in a wonton covering, or ha gow, chopped shrimp with mixed Chinese vegetables encased inside a plump dumpling, served to your table from steaming carts on wheels.
For dessert, you might order a Frisbee-size almond cookie washed down with a scalding cup of oolong tea. Then queue up at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory at 65 Bayard for a double scoop of green tea ice cream.
The Chinese New Year falls on the first full moon after January 21, and dancing dragons and serpentine chains of costumed children roll around the streets to the din of resounding gongs. But no matter what time of the year you make tracks to Mott Street, it is an unforgettable adventure and a gastronomical experience complete with chopsticks.
Remember those spirited songs by Irving Berlin? Those "'s-wonderful" Gershwin tunes? Those madcap Marx Brothers movies? Well, all these show-business greats had their roots in that neighborhood known as the Lower East Side, where Delancey Street ends at the Williamsburg Bridge.
The East Side story begins in 1880. That year New York had a population of about 80,000 Jews, mostly of German extraction. In 1881, Czar Alexander III began persecuting Russian Jews by forbidding them to acquire land and carrying out cruel pogroms. An exodus resulted, and by 1910 a total of 1.5 million Jews had sailed by the Statue of Liberty and disembarked on Ellis Island. Most of them settled in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that became known as the "Gateway to America." Many lived in crowded cold-water flats, observed the Sabbath, socialized on fire escapes, and eked out a living hunched over sewing machines fourteen hours a day in the sweatshops of the expanding fashion trade. At one time nothing but Yiddish was spoken for blocks in all directions.
Today, this is mostly just memories. The pushcarts have faded away, and many of the Jewish residents have dispersed throughout the city. Still, a subway ride to the neighborhood around Orchard Street, "the bargain district," is like a voyage back to Eastern Europe. It was Irving Berlin who commented: "Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life."
Every Sunday the Orthodox Jews open their stores on Orchard Street for the first day of their business week. This is when bargain hunters hasten to rummage through the clothes racks and storefront bins. You can join in the fun by jostling your way through the pedestrians to the plethora of garments swinging overhead. Who knows? With a little chutzpah you might find just what you're looking for among the loads of luggage, leathergoods, and bolts of cloth piled on every available inch of space.
Have a yen for kosher victuals? You find places aplenty on the Lower East Side to please the palate. Katz's Delicatessen, at 205 East Houston, opened in 1888 and continues to carve corned beef and juicy pink pastrami by hand. During World War II, Katz's coined the slogan "Send a salami to your boy in the army!" Yonah Shimmel's Knishery, founded in 1910 at 175 East Houston, still supplies the neighborhood with flaky potato knishes, blintzes, borscht, and egg creams. Yum yum!
Now that your shopping bags are filled to overflowing, make a sojourn to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. Constructed in 1863-1864 by Lucas Glockner, a German-born tailor, the building is now on the National Registry of Historic Places. A guided tour through the dark and dingy twenty-two-unit tenement-where artifacts were found beneath floorboards and behind layers of wallpaper-brings alive the harsh existence of the one thousand three hundred people who called it home during the years spanning 1863 to 1935. Just outside the museum, Guss' Pickles sells the sour green giants from orange barrels lining the sidewalk. You get what you bargain for on Orchard Street. You get to see, smell, hear, touch, and taste all of the magical ingredients that produced "Monkey Business," "Rhapsody in Blue," and "God Bless America."
Aficionados of neopolitan cuisine should make a beeline for Mulberry Street. Here in this boisterous byway of Little Italy you can enjoy all of the delectable dishes you would expect to find in the sun-splashed villages along the Bay of Naples. One glance at the montage of salumerias and trattorias, of smiling signoras poking plump elbows out of tenement windows along with the alfresco aroma of peppers and sausages frying, and you come to realize that Italian culture has a firm foothold on Manhattan Island.
The perfect place to say "arrivederci" to a trim waistline is Paolucci's Restaurant at 149 Mulberry, around the corner from the imperial dome of the former police headquarters building. This prestigious old spaghetti palace is located in the parlor of the Stephen Van Rensselaer house. Built in 1816 as the town house for the upstate patroon family well before the massive migration from the boot-shaped peninsula began in 1885, it is a fine example of a modest Federal house complete with gambrel roof and dormers. Inside the landmark-opened by Donato Paolucci in 1947, you might order zuppa di mussel followed by pork chops Pileggi accompanied by a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Parked across the street is Vinny's Nut House on wheels. It's a sure bet that the proprietor will coax you into trying a jaw-breaking chunk of imported torrone, a nougat confection of almonds and egg whites in a sugar paste.
One block west at 119 Mott, you arrive at the Original Vincent's Restaurant, situated there since 1904, when Guiseppe and Carmela Siano first established the eatery and named it after their son. That same year Carmela introduced her secret old-world recipe for the internationally celebrated Vincent's sauce. Today, gregarious Vincent Generoso concocts three kinds-sweet, medium, and hot-all served in his squeaky-clean dining room crowded with photographs of celebrities, politicians, and sports figures.
Posted July 10, 2014
Posted July 9, 2014