Archive for May, 2008


Friday, May 30th, 2008

Former Odd Fellows Hall, 98 Forsyth St

In the second half of the 19th century, the Lower East Side was known as Little Germany. Recently, with the guidance of Ruth Limmer’s Six Heritage Tours of the Lower East Side and the company of a fellow descendant of Germans, I followed the German heritage walking tour from Grand Street, up the Bowery, across St. Mark’s to Tompkins Square Park, and back down to Houston.

I can’t say I could truly picture the area swarming with Germans. The trail goes through such a variety of neighborhoods that have been transformed—over and over—with such vigor. Still, the buildings that remain give you a sense of the lives they tried to lead. The Social Reform Association, the Free School, the Bowerie Lane Theater, the German American Shooting Society, the Ottendorfer Library, and Stuyvesant Polyclinic—the people were active and idealistic. After Germany’s uprisings in 1848, a generation of revolutionaries began arriving, following by another after 1865. There were staunch conservatives as well, such as Father Müller of Most Holy Redeemer R.C. Church, on 3rd Street between Avenues A and B.

Monument to children who died in General Slocum disasterAccording to Limmer, “the heart went out of Kleindeutschland” after the General Slocum disaster in 1904. More than a thousand passengers on a special church excursion, mostly women and children, died when the steamer went up in flames in the East River. The Germany community dispersed—primarily to Yorkville and Astoria, Limmer says. There’s a monument to the children in Tompkins Square Park, although the area is closed off right now (at least, it was on Memorial Day).

Upcoming screening of HOME

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008
The Chashama Film Festival is showing the excellent movie Home, which I wrote about last month, at 6 pm Saturday, May 31, at 217 E. 42nd St in Manhattan. Director Dawn Scibilia will be there for a Q&A afterward. Tickets are $5 in advance or $8 at the box office.

Beautiful bridge

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

The Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883, making it 125 years old last Saturday. As part of the celebration, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum has a small exhibit on immigrants’ contributions to its construction. You’ll find it near the baggage area in the museum, through Sunday, June 1.

(As a side note, May 1 was the centennial of the subway’s arrival in Brooklyn. The date went virtually unnoticed, but the MTA did run a special train from Grand Central to Atlantic Avenue and back to Manhattan.)

You too can debka

Monday, May 26th, 2008

On Sunday, June 8, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn Arts Council Folk Arts presents free Folk Feet dance workshops. This year’s theme is Earth Stomping Dance Traditions, including:

  • Juxtapower: gum boot and Zulu traditional warrior dance
  • Our Lady of Lebanon troupe: Lebanese-style debka line dance
  • Najma Ayashah: Indian kathak dance
  • Alberto Gonzalez and Conjunto Nuevo Milenio: Panama’s cumbia atravesada with zapateo 

The program runs from 3 to 5 pm, and includes demonstrations and lessons. The rain date is July 13.

BAC’s Folk Feet program is dedicated to supporting the work of traditional dancers in Brooklyn. They’ve identified 180 traditional dancers or dance groups in Brooklyn alone, and it’s possible to arrange workshops with many of them.

Finding a father

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

There are plot contrivances. But Sangre de Mi Sangre, written and directed by Christopher Zalla, presents some interesting perspectives within the melodrama. Teenage Pedro gets himself smuggled from Puebla to Brooklyn to find the father he’s never met. He can’t read, he doesn’t speak English, and he knows nobody; all he’s got is a locket and a letter of introduction from his mother. When a fellow traveler steals his identity and takes the letter to his father, the plot is set in motion.

The suspense is fairly effective, although I assumed I knew how it would end; I didn’t. The story has more to do with the things we pin our hopes on than any kind of typical immigrant experience. Sociologically speaking, it’s more about the consequences of distant fathers, although Mexico-U.S. immigration certainly plays a part in that. The movie explores the idea of family and the meaning of “blood,” and it’s at its best in this department.

The issue of work, too, is central. One scene in particular, where Pedro fights his way onto a work crew, left an impression on me. It’s almost impossible to imagine an American-born teenager doing that. And that kinda says it all.

Inheriting the City

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

The May 14 panel discussion to introduce Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age at CUNY’s Graduate Center in Manhattan, was encouraging—with a few caveats.

The new book, by John Mollenkopf, Philip Kasinitz, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway and published by Russell Sage Foundation and Harvard University Press, presents the results of what the Graduate Center calls “the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of second-generation immigrants in New York City.”

Basically, second-generation New Yorkers whose parents were immigrants are doing better than their parents, and sometimes better than native-born New Yorkers, although Dominicans are not blazing ahead to the degree those of Chinese and Russian Jewish background are. (The authors also studied offspring of West Indian and South American immigrants.) They are overwhelmingly fluent in English and don’t have the occupational segregation of their parents’ generation.

Sewell Chan of the New York Times, who moderated a Q&A with the panel, sums up the study’s results here. A few things from the discussion he didn’t mention:

It’s possible that the third generation will not see the same gains. Sayu Bhojwani, former commissioner with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, who was born in India and grew up in Belize, said, “Part of the motivation comes from watching our parents work so hard,” which presumably won’t be the case for the second generation’s children.

And while the study found that “they are not ‘torn between two worlds’—language and transnational ties decline quickly,” Bhojwani felt that the young people surveyed may have downplayed tensions. For South Asians, she said, “there is a sense of gratitude to be here,” which may cloud their perspective about problems and challenges. And despite gains, skin color still makes a difference in how both immigrants and children of native New Yorkers are treated.

Yet the second generation holds certain advantages over children of native New Yorkers. While assimilated in school and work, they tend to be less “American” at home, living with their parents longer (obviously a huge advantage in New York) and drawing on a community of support—choosing among elements of both worlds. They also may take advantage of policies and programs originally intended to help native minority groups.

Author Philip Kasinitz spoke of the competition for space between the second-generation immigrants and the native-born populations: “This New York competition for space underlies a lot.” But that’s been the story for centuries. Like those before them, he said, this generation will revitalize the city, and “leave a new inheritance for others to follow.”

Middle Eastern Brooklyn

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

Talk about hospitality! Yesterday’s walking tour of Arabic Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, conducted by the Brooklyn Arts Council Folk Arts staff, was simply terrific.

The area—we made stops on 5th Avenue from Bay Ridge Avenue to 77th Street—used to be Scandinavian, and a few vestiges of previous generations remain: an Irish pub, a German restaurant. But the Middle Eastern community is building on itself here, especially families from Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine.

Sweet Arayssi

The tour began at Princess/El Amira Music, where drummer Gamal Shafik played tabla for us; he gave examples of three common rhythms and demonstrated the range of the instrument in an improvisational solo. We tasted Lebanese pastries, cookies, and candy at Najjar Pastry Shop and Arayssi Pastry Shop, and falafel, pickles, olives, potatoes, and meat pie at AlSalam restaurant. At five-year-old Balady grocery, the Palestinian owners carry 20-30 types of spices, many varieties of coffee, natural soaps, and traditional remedies—besides all the Middle Eastern food. One of the owners, Essen, said his father came to the United States in 1965. Now, he says of Bay Ridge, “The community’s grown to a point where it feels like back home.”

Pyramids JewelryWe took a brief break from food to visit Pyramids Jewelry, run by a former five-star general from Egypt and his wife, and the Arab American Association of New York, which opened in May 2001. They provide social services and cultural resources, helping 5,000 clients a year with health and immigration issues, counseling, translation, legal advice, after-school programs, and dance classes. We also had the chance to see the work of calligrapher and artist Majed Seif, who accompanied us on part of the tour.

At Meena House Café on Bay Ridge Avenue, Yasser Darwish, who participates in BAC’s Folk Feet program, demonstrated the saidi stick dance, from upper Egypt. We tried hookahs packed with shisha; hibiscus juice; a hot porridge-like sweet drink called sahlab; and more food.

We stopped for a primer on Islam at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge’s masjid (mosque) and then walked to 3rd Avenue for lunch at Tanoreen. The gracious owner, Rawia Bishara, and her daughter supplied eggplant salad and hummus, pita and za’atar bread, lentil pilaf, falafel, olives, tahini, pickled cucumbers and beets, chicken kabobs and salad, lamb kafta, a chicken dish with pine nuts, Egyptian rice and vermicelli, and a distinctive lemonade with rosehips. Wow—it was all first-rate.

At every stop, people took the time to answer questions and tell a bit about their business and how they came to be here. We felt very welcome.

On DVD: Tough times in 1915

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

The 1915 film Regeneration, one of the early works directed by Raoul Walsh in his 52-year career, gives an interesting (if melodramatic) picture of tenement life for Irish immigrants. This Lower East Side tragic romance between gang leader Owen Conway and socialite-turned-social worker Marie Deering is set in battered apartments, gangland hangouts (a saloon, a basement), and a settlement house. There’s a boat outing that turns disastrous, neighborhood “domestic troubles,” and sad-faced children that look just like Jacob Riis photos. And a surprising number of cats. As a film, of course, it’s slow-paced and simplistic by today’s standards.

The source material is Owen Kildare’s “My Mamie Rose: The Story of My Regeneration,” an autobiography of his transformation from illiterate urchin to professional writer. In 1908, Kildare suffered a mental collapse and was sent to Bloomingdale sanitarium after “My Mamie Rose” was presented on stage with unauthorized changes.

The perspective is pretty much that of the settlement house. These centers were established to help the poor—especially the working poor—improve their lot; according to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, they were also a place where college-educated women could work when other professions were closed to them. Henry Street Settlement, established in 1893, still delivers social service and arts programming.

The film comes on a disc with Young Romance (1915), a story of love, class, and identity theft directed by George Melford.