Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year's Day: The Brooklyn Bridge and Little Italy

History, great food, adventure, walking, reflection, my sweetheart: my New Year's Day was filled with some of my most favorite things.

"What should we do today?" Steve asked. "How about a walk, across the Brooklyn Bridge perhaps" I said. Off we were. But this visit would be different. I wanted to know more about the bridge than just admire the sweeping views and the architecture.

There's a plaque dedicated to Emily Roebling. Who was she? She was the wife of Washington Roebling, who at 32 took over the project after the death of his father, German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who designed the bridge. John Augustus had a crushing injury to his foot leading to his death after a ferry hit the pier he was standing on while conducting surveys.

But Washington too fell ill, enduring a paralyzing injury from decompression sickness just after construction began on January 3, 1870. First called "caisson disease" by the project physician Andrew Smith, it afflicted many of the workers working within the caissons.

Emily Warren Roebling would study higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction, according to Wikipedia. For 11 years, she would help Washington supervise the construction. Meryl Streep was interviewed on 60 Minutes and spoke of plans for a national women's history museum in Washington, DC, and I think we need one. These stories need to be shared. Today I'm sharing Emily's.

I haven't read it yet, but David McCullough penned a book, The Great Bridge. He is my favorite historian, and appears in this video. As I watched this clip, I thought about all the grumbling I heard in New York City about the bitter cold (I grumbled too) this January of 2012, but really how little the weather impacts us other than an unpleasant commute. No real "tyranny of the weather" for most of us except those without homes. I also considered the infancy of the city. At the time of the bridge's building, the skyline was just four stories.

Off to Little Italy.

Consider this from a February 2011 New York Times article,

"In 1950, nearly half of the more than 10,000 New Yorkers living in the heart of Little Italy identified as Italian-American. The narrow streets teemed with children and resonated with melodic exchanges in Italian among the one in five residents born in Italy and their second- and third-generation neighbors

A census survey released in December [of 2010] determined that the proportion of Italian-Americans among the 8,600 residents in the same two-dozen-square-block area of Lower Manhattan had shrunk to about 5 percent.

And, incredibly, the census could not find a single resident who had been born in Italy.

Little Italy is becoming Littler Italy. The encroachment that began decades ago as Chinatown bulged north, SoHo expanded from the west, and other tracts were rebranded more fashionably as NoLIta (for north of Little Italy) and NoHo seems almost complete....

Even the Feast of San Gennaro, which still draws giant crowds to Mulberry Street, may be abbreviated in size this year at the behest of inconvenienced NoLIta merchants."

I've quoted it before, but I recalled Colum McCann's observation in his novel of New York City life, "Let the Great World Spin,"

"It was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn't care less about where it stood."

I think of how much city life changes, sometimes for the better, like the lack of mafia life that once ruled the neighborhood. Although it's also the dual edged sword of the American dream: to assimilate, but how do we balance our cultural heritage and maintain a piece of it? Whether we like change or not, change is happening.

The Italian American Museum was sadly closed when we passed by it. A display of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 souls were lost, mostly young immigrant women of Jewish and Italian descent. From Wikipedia,

"Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers."

On the way into New York we stopped by a garage sale where I got a vintage dress with a union label on it. I think of all the gains unions and laborers made for better working conditions, only to have jobs disappear. Really, we've just outsourced the poor conditions elsewhere. Some might blame unions for excessive demands, but it seems Americans have been conditioned to not think about and worse, not care at all, where their clothes and other goods are made. I find it telling that in the worst economic crisis since the Depression the main fashion accessory I see women carry are corporate logo bags, many, if not most, made in China, that are marketed as a "luxury" item.

I'm in the midst of reading Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I thought of the great pride little Francie's father took in the union.

"A thought struck him. "The Union label on my apron!"

"It's right here, sewn in the seam. I'll iron it out."

"That label is like an ornament, he explained, "like a rose that you wear....Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big they said, that they could sell the concession. Then I joined the Union...The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trade should be unionized."

I love black and white photography. What were their stories? Francie would stay up listening to her father tell her mother about the night's events at his singing waiter job. "The Nolans just couldn't get enough of life. They lived their own lives up to the hilt and that wasn't enough. They had to fill in on the lives of the people they came into contact with."

So we can't leave Little Italy without a glass of Chianti, $7 and gnocchi with a mascarpone cheese sauce, $9.75, at Buona Notte restaurant? Just walking through Little Italy made us reminisce about our cherished trip a few years back to Italy (Rome, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Capri). We loved it all.

A cappuccino and cannoli at Caffe Palermo. I can't relate to the American food guilt syndrome which mostly focuses on vanity issues of how thin one looks. I love eating. No apologies.

I'm so excited for another year. Stress and personal upheaval of some kind will always be a certainty. But as Francie felt "pleasant anticipation" going into the library (as do I), I'm feeling that way about 2012, and what other adventures await. I'm grateful you are joining me as my American Dream Finder blog enters its second year.


  1. And what a fabulous, beautiful blog it is! Happy New Year. :)

  2. Thank you! Happy New Year to you too! And thank you for being such a loyal reader and commenter. I always love hearing your perspective.

  3. Thanks for making me hungry, Catherine! I like how you described Little Italy. I hope that more people will be inspired to get down there and experience it.

  4. Hi Kristin. I'm always dreaming about my next meal (if I'm not reminiscing about prior great meals!) It's amazing how close I live to the city (and work here) but don't do nearly enough exploring. I'm excited for some New York City adventures this year. Of course, I'll bring everyone along for some history and fun.