Saturday, February 27
...found me slogging through the snowy streets of Chinatown with a dozen young people who could never slog again. They all had been through their personal hell in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of them had the misfortune to step on bombs, and one had had a major stroke. All were my guests from Hospital Audiences Inc. (HAI), found at www.hainyc.org and all were disabled. Parents, spouses and children came along.
I had gotten an email from Guides Association president Tony Di Sante a few weeks earlier, looking for volunteers to do this unpaid gig. The only payment was to be a dim-sum brunch. Well, it's the off season, and I love dim-sum. It's not as if I had work that day. I signed on. Joe Mauriello, another long-experienced guide, also agreed to take a group.
I got there about five minutes late, the Smart Car having slowed to a crawl with all other Saturday-morning traffic on the West Side Highway. The crews were out doing pothole repair, a real necessity this winter. I parked at a garage on Worth by Broadway, and jogged down to the debarkation point in my snow boots. I have plantar's fasciitis and quickly discovered that a walking tour in snow boots wasn't going to do me any good. But what's fasciitis when compared to the loss of a leg?
All these people were strangers to New York City. Nick, in a Quickie, was wearing a bright red Huskers jacket. I asked if he was a Nebraskan, but he replied that he was from Missouri! Shelly or Shelby, alternating between a Quickie and a cane, was from Alexandria, VA. It was his first time here; her third. I didn't have a chance to ask the others where they were from. But most if not all were staying at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. HAI ran them up here for a weekend of fun, paid for by donors and staffed by volunteers.
HAI runs buses with ramps or chair lifts around the city for the convenience of their guests. These people stayed in a hotel. The bus picked them up and took them to the corner of Worth & Baxter, a great location for people who have essentially worked for the federal government for the past few years, when you think about it. Quite a-propos for these veterans: some of them joined the armed forces because of The Attacks of September 11. They got off the bus right across the street from the Federal Court House, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammad may -- or may not -- be tried for the murder of over 2,000 New Yorkers.
This was the old Five Points neighborhood. The corner of Baxter & Worth was the only intersection left, after much official revamping by the City, of the original five intersections. This is the area celebrated in the wildly inaccurate 1920s book, "Gangs Of New York" and in the wildly inaccurate Daniel Day Lewis film of ten years ago. For instance, while city statistics show around 100 murders per year at that time, the book "Gangs Of New York" insisted that there was about a murder a night, in that area alone.
New York City in the 1860s resembled the set of the film made in Italy only in that all the structures were made of wood. NYC was essentially a wooden city at that time. The Great Fire of 1864, however, had prompted city officials to alter the building codes to preclude wood from construction materials after 1864. That is, all new construction had to be brick, metal, glass, stone, or other non-flammable materials. But most existing buildings were still made of wood, in that day. However, the hundreds that went up in flames would soon be replaced by the wonder material of the day, cast iron. The region between Houston and Canal, for instance, would become known as The Cast Iron District; later known as SoHo.
Depictions of the Chinese in "Gangs Of New York" was also inaccurate. The prostitutes with whom the gang members were sleeping could not have existed in NYC at that time, because of highly restrictive immigration laws of the day. These barred Asian women from entering the USA at a time when the White-run government wanted to keep the country as White as possible. The fear of Asians was known then as "the yellow peril."
I know this because, for a decade, it was my business to know the 1860s inside and out. I was an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. In fact, the Daily News ran a photo of me, in costume, at the Green-Wood Cemetery grave of gangleader Frank Poole.
The Five Points neighborhood had been greatly revamped, as said above. Ethnically, it was rich with different peoples, though those populations distrusted and often fought each other.
The Points had been the site of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere (still two blocks away), the people of Shearith Israel of the 1650s, actual victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Plus, it was where half-free Blacks had lived and farmed outside the protective town wall at Wall Street. After the failed Irish uprisings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Five Points became home to angry, revolutionary Irish emigrees, a population that swelled steadily, with every attempt to overthrow the British. This population perhaps doubled in size during the Potato Famine -- now referred to by Irish historians as The Great Hunger -- of the late 1840s.
And then came the Italians. The 1850s were a time of civil unrest in Italy's city-states, a string of civil wars slowly unifying a fractured nation into the modern state of Italy in 1861. In that year the Italian government allowed the emigration of the people, and hundreds of thousands of citizens of economically-depressed Calabrese left for the West. Many settled in Five Points, spreading a few blocks to the north, into what is now known as Little Italy.
And then came the Chinese, first laborers on the Western railroads who moved east, joined by those who sailed the seas but settled here. After restrictive immigration laws were eased in the 1880s, Chinese women started trickling into New York, and the true Chinatown was born. Ironically, Chinatown was first a street-corner in Little Italy. Now Little Italy is surrounded by Chinatown, and half the buildings of Little Italy are Asian-owned. And a Malay restaurant located itself across from Ferrara's on Grand Street in the 1990s.
Jews, Blacks, Irish, Italians and, finally, Chinese swelled the neighborhood to the breaking point. Not only was Five Points considered the worst neighborhood in the USA, it was also the most crowded. About five thousand people lived in the tenements of the two blocks bounded by Baxter, Mulberry, Worth and Bayard streets. We know this because it was the number of people evicted from their homes -- without relocation rights! -- in 1895, when the City destroyed their tenements and put up a park on the site. Italians dominated street life in that day, so the park was named for Columbus. Nowadays, Chinatown completely surrounds Columbus Park, seen here:
This was where my guests debarked down the wheelchair ramps. The Park was open, but a foot of snow stood on it, rendering it unusable until a few days of warmer weather could melt the snow away. I had to find a way to conduct a tour while simultaneously figuring out what sidewalks were shoveled wide enough for people with crutches and wheelchairs. It wasn't easy.
Our destination was Jing Fong, a gigantic dim-sum house on Elizabeth Street, five blocks away. I led them through the basketball courts at the south end of Columbus Park, a mistake, I realized too late. There were three steps down into the basketball court. This slowed everyone down, because a tour group only moves as fast as its slowest member. Shelly had to get out of her wheelchair and walk downstairs with the aid of a cane, eschewing the help of her father. Nick was an athlete: he did a wheelie on his Quickie and bounced down the steps to a perfect two-point landing, then came to rest on his guide wheels.
We went north on the Mulberry side of Columbus Park. Just at the spots seen in the video above, but much snowier. We turned right at Bayard, then left on Mott. Once on Mott, we stopped halfway up the block. I turned their attention to the south end of Mott Street, where Transfiguration Church stands, and told them of the Cuban Catholic priest Father Varela. He, in the 1850s, united Irish Catholics and Presbyterians into The Ancient Order of Hibernians, the organization that runs the Saint Patrick's Day Parade to this day.
While the Catholic church stood within sight two blocks away, I pointed out the Buddhist temple just to our left, and remarked that, while many Chinese in New York are Christians, a large number are Buddhists. And many are in "mixed" families that follow the traditions and ceremonies of both faiths.
And tell me what street
Is nice as Mott Street
After a struggle north, we got to the intersection of Canal and Mott, which had been plowed several times. The sun was coming out of the clouds. It was above freezing, and we had to negotiate a large snowbank, followed by a large puddle. That done, we crossed Mott and did the same with another puddle and snowbank, then continued east on Canal.
"This is not the hardest thing these young people have done," I told myself. They've seen far worse. Everyone crossed the street in good humor, as far as I could tell. Positive attitudes, all of them.
We came next to Elizabeth Street, where the Fifth Precinct is housed in an 1881 building, as seen here:
I essentially told the group the same story I tell in the video, with one addition: In the 1940s, Dynamic Comics (later DC) created a character, a member of an interplanetary police force, which took its name from from the lantern held by the Dutch Night Watchmen of old Nieuw Amsterdam: The Green Lantern.
Jing Fong Restaurant is seen behind me in the video. We went in and and enjoyed a dim-sum brunch, on the house. I was awed. The place is gigantic. It must have more than 500 seats. A dozen ladies pushed dim-sum carts around, and we picked and chose what dishes would be put on the table to dip into.
After brunch I volunteered to take another group down Canal to the schlock shops, where they could buy fake watches, fake bags, fake sunglasses and maybe some fake food. The HAI buses were scheduled to pick them up at Canal and Elizabeth in one hour. It took a good twenty minutes to get to the shops, down Canal around Lafayette Street. Once there, I chatted with the shop owners, most of whom, as it turns out, are Bangladeshi.
I pointed out a cast iron building on Broadway at Greene, and mentioned that it had been an impromptu jail for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Then they went in shopping. I didn't have the heart to tell them that money made from the fake bags would possibly go to fund international terrorism. These people only make $20,000 a year, and can't afford nice things. So let them shop and have fun, I thought.
With fifteen minutes to go, I went back into the shops and gathered them up, one bunch after another. The shops, each essentially a hole in the wall, mostly had no doors, so spotting group members was easy. We went back up the hill, with the same problems over and over: crutches and wheelchairs negotiating snowbanks and puddles. One guy, from Fresno, CA, opted to walk on crutches and his one leg, to spare his wife from having to push the heavy wheelchair through all that. He wasn't very good at it yet, but he did okay. He didn't fall in the slippery conditions, which had been my main fear.
Once the group gathered at Canal and Elizabeth, they gladly got into the buses. Each bus had a driver and aide who either escorted people on crutches up the steps, or pushed wheelchair people up the extendable aluminum ramp. Glad to get on the buses for two reasons: One, they wouldn't have to work their way through snow for the remainder of their trip. And two, the buses' next stop was the Theater District, where the HAI guests were treated to Broadway shows at the Saturday matinees.
A few days later I left a message on the phone of the HAI co-ordinator, volunteering to do it all again, next time a group comes to New York. It's the least I can do; they deserve everything I can give them.