Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Madison Street 1924: A Hub Of The Greek American Community

This old building at 47-49 Madison Street always fascinated me
from New York City and The Greeks,published i 1924
Pass rapidly under the arch of the bridge that extends from the Municipal Building to Brooklyn Bridge, near the Pulitzer Building which at the time of its erection was the tallest in the city, and is now dwarfed by buildings three times its height, pass on and you emerge to where you get a glimpse of the East River, and you are in a dark street, lined with pawn-shops and hardware shops on both sides, with dingy restaurants where saloons have been, and sulphur-smelling hotels, and drunkards decrepit and broken down, leering with shifty, watery eyes at you from every hallway, accosting you with demands for a cup of coffee and a cruller. The pullers-in of the second-hand stores cry their wares in your face, barring your way to the middle of the street. A Gipsy woman wants to tell your fortune. Half a dozen boys offer you papers. A Chinaman looks at you.
Forget that you are in New York. This is the lower part of a Levantine port. Cross one of the right-hand streets into Pearl Street. Walk up to the corner of Canal Street, after passing Fraunce's Tavern where Washington was received by his friends, and you are at the old Jewish Cemetery, which, according to the tablet on the arched door inside, beyond the huge iron fence, was inaugurated in 1656, and had been fortified during the Revolution. The cemetery is between an old wooden shanty inhabited by a Greek cobbler and an Italian grocery store on the corner. The gray and brown tombstones lean pitifully on one another as if looking for support in the last agony of their lives. Long lines of wash flutter diagonally across the burial-grounds. Colored aprons and children's dresses and underwear filled with the wind will make you think of what life is; a momentary inflation of a flexible shell and then deflation again. Thus the traveler has improved his mind by humbling himself.
Look up! Between Henry and Oliver Streets stands the massive square structure of the old Mariners Temple, which had originally been the Baptist Meeting-house in 1795. This part of Oliver Street, in rows of old red-brick houses, -is still inhabited by old Dutch families, who so much resent the foreign invasion about them that their children, if any, are seldom seen on the street. There are some wonderfully beautiful doors and copings in these old houses. The street is remarkably clean . . . but without any animation. The Greek and Italian children in the neighborhood call it Old Man's Street.
I say Greece, but I should perhaps say a Greek city; perhaps only a reproduction of the Greek quarters in Stamboul. Stamboul on the Hudson ! For though the down-town Greek section is in many respects the principal one, there are several other Greek quarters, the importance of the Madison Street district being chiefly in the fact that the Greeks living there and on the side streets leading toward the East River wharves are here with their families, while the other Greek quarters up town, between Twenty-seventh and Thirty-sixth Streets and Sixth Avenue, are only merchants' quarters. Their families are living in Greece, and their children are brought up there until they have reached the working age, when they are imported here to work, if "Patera" has not returned to Corfu or Candia a millionaire meanwhile. For whatever one may say of the Greek he is a very calculating and economical animal. It is cheaper to raise a family in Greece, where American dollars are translated into drachmas and lephtas. One can live there a month on what it would take to live here two days. The growing family is being visited every other year or so. It is absentee fatherhood with a vengeance.
One is struck on Madison Street by the innumerable coffee-houses. The windows are curtainless and the swarthy men inside play cards as furiously, as passionately, as if their lives depended on the turn of the next card. There are numerous small banking-houses, combined with barber-shop and tobacco-dealing facilities. The banker, between more important business, is keeping his fingers supple rolling cigarettes in the window of his establishment. On *the street men drag their babouches slowly.
The hurry, the noise and bustle do not affect them. They are accustomed to it from childhood. Born somewhere near other wharves, on the AEgean or the Ionian Seas, life there is at as rapid a tempo as here. Not because of individual hurry, but because of the simultaneous multitude of movements in different directions.
Madison Street, from Pearl Street to Market Street, is the main street of the principal Greek section of New York. At Market Street it ends, after thinning out at the fringe like a border town, where the Italians and the Jews are disputing for supremacy, with the Italians in the better strategic position. The boundary line at Market Street is marked by the Maternity Center. On the steps, after school hours, the older children wait for the doors to open so they can see their mothers within, and their new little brothers and sisters. It is an Italian Maternity Center. One might as well concede that, but the ground is still disputed. Close by the Maternity Center, in one building, is a Spanish barber in the basement, an Italian political association on the ground floor, and a Jewish congregation on the floor above that.
The streets branching out from Madison Street and Cherry Street, from Pearl Street on, are all occupied by Greek families. Only on the fringe toward South Street, which is the shore-line of the East River, are living Spanish families. They are mostly recent settlers, who cannot pay the high rents of the Spanish district further up town. They are wedging in in the continual displacement of group populations in the city. One can easily see the difference between the two peoples, not only in the signs on the Spanish store windows, but also in the bits of color that appear, and the red and green curtains with which the doors of the grocery stores are hung. The Spaniard loves to live behind curtains, the Greek in a show-case.
There are but few Greek stores. They are further up town. The first thing a Greek business man does when looking for a location is to ascertain there are not many Greeks living in the neighborhood. It is indeed a very difficult matter for one Greek to sell to another and make profit on the transaction.
The old houses are probably the most decrepit in the city. The rear houses especially seem unfit for human habitation, with their peeling walls and rickety stairs, and none of the modern accommodations. Even the comfort-rooms are down-stairs, as well as the water. Many of the oldest houses have no gas and are using kerosene lamps. It is only chance, and because the people living there have lived in similar conditions across the water, that fires do not occur more frequently in that district. Should anything happen, whether it begins on Cherry Street, the first house under the bridge, which is a wooden shack, or begins at the other end near Catharine Slip, the whole section might go up in flames ere the fleetest firemen could apply their hose to it. In such a holocaust I have no doubt many people would perish, for there is a great scarcity of fire-escapes or other means of saving oneself from such a catastrophe. It is interesting to note that according to official figures the density of population on the lower East Side is three times greater than the densest London quarters.
From Catharine Slip, from the corner of South Street, where the San Catharine Mission is, or from the mission-house at the corner of James Slip, standing under the sign over the barred windows, "You must be born again," one can see the spans o f three bridges, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg, from the same point. I know of no more magnificent sight at night when the bridges are lit; or early, on a misty morning with the gray buildings across the river rising like giant shadows into the dusky light above. It is worth while staying up late; worth while getting up early.

1 comment:

Renee Pitts said...

I am very pleased to announce the publication of
Cataclysm in Blue Water

This novel is a complex historical mystery. It is also a detailed accounting of the Bronze-Age eruption in Santorini which eliminated the Minoan civilization from the world stage. Designed to entertain and enthrall, Cataclysm in Blue Water contains a wealth of information. The research for this book was deep and thorough.

It was my objective to put flesh on the Minoans of ancient Thera, and give the reader an eyewitness view of one of the most horrific eruptions in human history. I wanted to let the reader experience the world of the Minoans, their daily lives and surroundings via human drama employing several fascinating ancient characters. I based my characters on figures from the frescoes of Akrotiri (Minoan excavations in Santorini.)

Please visit my web site for more information. The novel is available to retailers via Cataclysm in Blue Water is available to readers via,, and Seaburn Bookstore & Publishing of Astoria, New York will be hosting a book event on October 22, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!

Best Wishes,
Renee Louise Johnson