A Pilgrimage to the Vanishing Streets of My Grandmother’s Lower East Side
My family’s history gave me a pedigree as a Jewish New Yorker—until a visit revealed how quickly the past disappeared
I’d lived in the New York area an entire year when my grandmother asked me if I’d ever visited Flushing, the Queens neighborhood where she’d once lived. I told her I hadn’t. When she asked why, I mentioned the distance from my apartment in Yonkers to her old house at the end of the 7 train. But a chronic lack of time wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t gone. I also feared draining the house of its symbolic meaning.
Although I grew up in Phoenix, I’d heard about my New York roots all my life. There was Cannon Street on the Lower East Side, where my grandmother was born. There was Canarsie, Brooklyn, where my mother was born. And there was Flushing, where my mother’s family had its first house, the house where they lived until escaping to the Southwest in 1969. Even in the scorching desert, Grandma Sylvia and Uncle Sheldon referenced the Flushing house, a five-bedroom stand-alone with a yard, as if it were down the street. The talk was always about how the area was partially rural when they moved there from Brooklyn in 1950, about the large Jewish and Italian populations, and how Flushing hosted the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1964. “When we moved there,” Grandma liked to say, “it was the country, and we were moving up in the world.” Each of these homes formed one locus in the triad of sacred places that defined my family’s mythology. Like their loud voices and Yiddish sayings, their history formed part of my identity: No matter how little I really knew about New York for the one year I lived there, I could always say that “my family is from here.”
Like the children of many European Jewish immigrants, my grandmother was born in a tenement. “Cannon Street, 96 Cannon Street,” she said over and over throughout my life. “I can still picture it in my mind.” When she was 2 or 3, in the early 1920s, her family moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn, on the other side of the East River. By then, Brownsville had acquired a reputation as a notorious Jewish slum rife with organized crime, yet in the words of Grandma Sylvia, “It was an upgrade.”
The closest I’d ever been to Brownsville was Alfred Kazin’s memoir A Walker in the City, partly about growing up in Brownsville in the decades before the Great Depression. But my grandmother’s childhood secured her and my place in the great story of the Jewish-American Diaspora, the saga of migration, alienation, aspiration, assimilation, which is itself a quintessential New York story. Tenements, the Williamsburg Bridge, upward social mobility via eastward borough mobility—the touchstones of her early life are now the easy symbols of the immortal Gotham tale, elements so familiar that they have become clichés. Yet for someone born in the American West like me, her cultural DNA seemed to provide my pedigree as a Jewish New Yorker.
In 2007, less than a year after I’d moved back to Phoenix, I visited New York to see jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins play a historic concert, and I decided at last, at age 32, to make a pilgrimage to reclaim my heritage.
Rather than travel all the way to Flushing, I decided to find my grandma’s birthplace on the Lower East Side. Unfortunately, Cannon Street didn’t appear on the maps I checked. Everyone I asked responded with some variation of, “No, never heard of it.” This was before Google Maps became sophisticated, but research revealed the street’s general location: It was down by the Williamsburg Bridge, not far from the East River. Grandma had always said she was born by the Williamsburg Bridge. The street had to be somewhere nearby.
Cannon Street sits in that easternmost corner of the city where the great curve of lower Manhattan Island—the tip of which was known as Corlears Hook during Dutch and British times—breaks SoHo and Chinatown’s orderly grid into a wedge of sideways streets. The FDR winds by like some gray buoyant boom trying to keep the neighborhood’s innards from spilling into the East River, while Delancey Street funnels traffic into Brooklyn. Delancey is one of the main filaments that holds together this edge space of triangles and trapezoids. Other than residents, few yupsters or shoppers have reason to venture this far. There’s no good Chinese food here, no row of art galleries or boutiques. All of the Lower East Side’s remaining ethnic landmarks—Guss’s Pickles, Kossar’s Bialys—are further west. But I had a reason. This sense of purpose and provenance filled me with an almost smug privilege as the B train rattled down its tracks toward Houston Street.
I got off at Broadway-Lafayette and walked to Katz’s Delicatessen. Katz’s may be a culinary landmark, but it’s also a symbol of the neighborhood’s Jewish history. I ordered an oversized brisket sandwich heaped with mustard and sauerkraut and three fat pickles. Even this lunch, I told myself, was part of my heritage.
The Lower East Side was ground zero of the Jewish Diaspora, a homeland before Israel, for it was here that many of the Jews who fled Europe’s anti-Semitism in the late 19th century and early 20th century started their new lives. Like most new immigrants, Jews associated largely with fellow Jews, acclimating to their new home by seeking the old country’s food, language, and customs. The Lower East Side became a neighborhood where, in the words of historian Hasia R. Diner, “Jews lived in a universe of almost total Jewishness.” Yiddish was primarily spoken; the hybrid language helped bridge communication gaps between Russians, Germans, and Poles. It also helped create “a foreign land right in the midst of America.” In 1900, these Jewish tenements contained 640,000 people in one square mile, the densest population at that point in history.
From Katz’s I walked south on Essex, once a major local thoroughfare, and east on Delancey. The further I walked, the less hopeful I became. Because my grandma’s dementia was worsening, I wondered if she might have mixed up location details. The neighborhood was depressing, an industrial forest of brown, brick projects and a few small trees, hardly a historic or visibly distinguished area.
In the shadow of one project, I asked a young man for directions. “Cannon Street?” He squinted his eyes. “Nah, man,” he said. “And I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life.”
I continued east, toward the thick scent of river water blowing between buildings. Then it appeared: a tiny green sign to my right listing Cannon Street. I turned to face it. Cannon was less than half a block long. It was sandwiched between a parking garage and an elementary school, and there were no tenement buildings here, no historic residences of any kind, only rows of projects rising in every direction, indisputably Soviet in their bleak utilitarianism.
I straightened my posture and walked along Cannon. Craning my neck in search of addresses, I scanned the garage’s weathered back side, staring as if the building would suddenly fade into a tenement the longer I looked. In a matter of steps the street ended at Broome, and I turned back around. I must have appeared confused, because a man standing on the front stairs of the school asked if I was looking for something. “Yeah, 96 Cannon Street,” I said. “My grandma was born there in 1919, and I wanted to see the building, take a picture for her. Know where 96 would be?”
He descended the steps and stood beside me, shaking his head. “This is all the Cannon Street there is.” He waved his arm north to south. “From that to that.” He introduced himself as Norris, the superintendent of Florence Nightingale Elementary, P.S. 110. “Most likely they tore yours down to build that,” he said, pointing to the closest brown tower. “Hard to say.”
When I got married, my sheitel was a symbol of my vows and my Orthodoxy. Then it became a symbol of my discontent.