I grew up in Philadelphia. My mother and her parents were born there, too. My dad? His parents met in this country after arriving at Ellis Island and took up residency on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That’s why Dad was born in New York City.
When I was little, we would make the semi-annual trek to N.Y. to celebrate holidays with my paternal grandparents, who had eventually “moved on up” from the L.E.S. to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. [This broad thoroughfare was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris but is considerably larger, four miles long, 180 feet wide, separated into three roadways by tree-lined dividers.] We’d usually detour into Manhattan to see Radio City Music Hall or to catch the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty (I got to climb up the whole height and into the crown long before the events of September 11 forced restrictions). In the 1960′s heyday of “West Side Story” I only wanted to see all the tenements and boarded-up buildings where the film was shot (the current location of Lincoln Center). I thought it so cool — there was nothing like this where I grew up!
My feelings as a child were always the same: New York was bustlingly loud, dark with the height of the buildings, and gave me a headache. It’s ironic that I chose to spend four years of college living in an idyllic isolated part of Manhattan, and never imagined returning when I left to go to graduate school. Life took its twists and I eventually accepted my first job offer (it was an offer I couldn’t refuse) in —of all places—midtown Manhattan.
While hunting for my first apartment, my half-sister took me to a neighborhood she just knew I’d love, because it resembled Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, one of the most charming quarters of my home town. Unbeknownst to me, this was just a short walk from where my father had gone to high school, and a little further from the very building where he was rocked as a baby.
I’ve asked my father many questions about his life, about his parent’s places of birth and the stories of how they came here, of how Grandpa served in the U.S. Army during WWI and was a barber cutting off the hair of all the soldiers, of their small dry goods store and how Dad used to stop at their suppliers on his way home from school to pick up needed merchandise. I never thought to ask him to show me the building where he first lived.
How thrilled I was,when I learned how to research census reports, to find that the first several places where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived and worked when they arrived in this country 100 years ago, were just a short walk from where I’ve lived for three decades!