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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

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Cannon and Delancey, looking west. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; map NYPL)
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He offered to show me the blueprints and old area photos that the school kept on file. “We’ve got ’em upstairs,” he said. “Any other day, just tell me the next time you’re coming.” He liked the idea that I’d come to take photos for my grandma and to understand our family history. “My grandmother,” he said, “lived to be 104. And my son—he’s 30 now—went to school right here.” After we shook hands, he went inside and left me wondering what to do. So, I photographed the street and the school, even photographed the projects and garage, all of it and its meaning dwarfed by the soaring steal mass of the bridge. I stood and stared. This was a weird little street.

Cannon wasn’t Manhattan’s shortest street. That title often went to Weehawken in the West Village, though some argued that Moore Street, in Battery Park, was shorter. Others said Edgar Street downtown was the shortest, though thanks to its size and configuration, Edgar hardly resembled a street, more just the lanes feeding a parking structure. But I didn’t care about those obscure names. They were bits of someone else’s mythology.

I shuffled back down Lewis, feeling thwarted in a way beyond defeat. What had I expected? To walk past Essex and find a preserved tenement etched with a large bronze “96,” in a streetscape like those described in Joseph Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon? This wasn’t a Martin Scorsese film set. This was the other quintessential New York story, the story of New York the recycler, New York the perpetually reborn.

As Cynthia Ozick said in the opening lines of her New Yorker essay “The Synthetic Sublime”: “More than any other metropolis of the Western world, New York disappears. It disappears and then it disappears again; or say that it metamorphoses between disappearances, so that every 75 years or so another city bursts out, as if against nature—new shapes, new pursuits, new immigrants with their unfamiliar tongues and worried uneasy bustle.” In Through the Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik expressed this phenomenon another way: “There is always a new New York coming into being as the old one disappears.” Which is also true of ideas: Hundreds of writers and thinkers have stated this same simple fact in their own way countless times before, because my sense of loss, and the city’s fundamental dynamism, exists on a continuum of loss and gain stretching back through the modern waves of immigration, to the Indians who lost their land to the Dutch. I shouldn’t have needed to traipse all the way down Delancey to discover this, the obvious truth of countless New York books and movies. But it wasn’t truth that I was after.

I’d assumed I was trying to educate myself about my origins, yet only after circumstance deprived me did I realize my true goal. I wanted to feel that I finally belonged to this city, to relate as something other than a fleeting, one-time commuter who forged his own fabricated rootedness from other peoples’ stories. I wanted to feel that there was more to my connection here than an aging bloodline. If I could touch some part of the old metropolis—a house, a brick, just one iconic building like the ones on nearby Pitt Street—I could truly inhabit the family triptych and tell myself and everyone thereafter, “That is where I’m from.” Instead, all I had was another clichéd Gotham story—the failed pilgrimage—as well as the old one: my grandmother, daughter of immigrants.

***

A few years later, on a frigid winter day, I tried another pilgrimage—this time to Flushing. I pulled up my coat collar and stepped from the 7 train into a bustling streetscape. Bright banners overhung storefront windows, their Chinese characters trailing vertically alongside melting sleet. Thanks to recent immigration from all parts of China, Flushing now housed the second-largest Chinatown in the city, second only to the one in lower Manhattan. It was a thriving, fascinating place. My mother wouldn’t recognize it, though she would love to see it.

I ate hand-pulled noodles in the Chinese food court of the Golden Mall and studied my map. When I returned to the surface, though, I reconsidered my plan. It was late. The bus route I’d mapped to the Flushing house was too convoluted to be much use at this hour. The distance was too far to walk, the air too frigid. My best bet was a cab, although in rush hour traffic, a ride would be expensive. It seemed wasteful to come this far and not visit the house, even tragic, yet I still refused to go. After the previous disappointment at Cannon, I wasn’t eager for another letdown. And really, what was there to see? My grandmother’s birthplace was gone, and even though my mother’s childhood home still stood, what did I expect it to show me? The Jewish-Italian Flushing wasn’t the Flushing of these Chinese residents any more than modern Flushing was my mother’s. Yellow cabs lined the street, but rather than flag one, I returned to the 7 train. And even as I did it, I thought of that day at Cannon.

Projects loomed around me. A pigeon flapped down the street. Instead of walking toward Brooklyn and the river, I walked the other way, toward Kossar’s Bialys and away from an idea that would remain, like so much of this city to those of us who never really lived here, a myth, bits of someone else’s childhood, yet still central to my own.

A different version of this essay originally appeared in Black Warrior Review.

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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

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