A Stroll Down Memory Lane

The Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published May 29, 2008, issue of June 06, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The past, it’s been said, is a foreign country whose sensibility and texture all too often elude the contemporary imagination. But for those of us willing to give history a try, there are any number of ways to embrace its pleasures and attend to its cautions. We can read about it, page through photo albums and scrapbooks, talk to our grandparents, enroll in a course or two and even go to the movies, where wide screens and surging soundtracks bring the past to life. We also can encounter history in the flesh, so to speak, by visiting such historic sites as Strawbery Banke in New Hampshire, and Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, or, more commonly still, by talking a walking tour.

WALK THIS WAY: A walking tour of New York’s Greenwich Village, circa 1956.
WALK THIS WAY: A walking tour of New York’s Greenwich Village, circa 1956.

The opportunity to walk in the tread of history became a popular pursuit in the late 1960s, especially when it came to promoting a heroic American Jewish narrative whose locus was Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Labeled by The New York Times as America’s “great ghetto,” that one square mile of densely packed tenements was home to the largest American Jewish immigrant community, certainly its most lavishly, even sentimentally, remembered one. It was also a neighborhood from which most Jewish immigrants, given the opportunity, eagerly fled.

Attempts to persuade former residents to return to the Lower East Side, if only for an afternoon, began in earnest during the 1930s and ’40s when the East Side Chamber of Commerce sought to reverse the neighborhood’s declining fortunes by “putting a white collar” on its gritty streets. Transforming a former slum into a consumer’s paradise, this organization of local shopkeepers, property owners and restaurateurs promised would-be visitors that on the Lower East Side, they could “shop with less tension and more attention,” while enjoying a “good, old-fashioned East Side meal.”

By the late 1960s, though, it was not shopping or dining out so much as history that brought visitors downtown. A new generation of American Jewish activists sought to draw American Jewry’s attention to the fading vestiges of a once vibrant, if complex, Jewish community. Some lobbied for and raised money toward the preservation of the neighborhood’s synagogues; others organized tours or what, in some quarters, soon became known as “pilgrimages.” Meanwhile, for those inclined to go it alone, “The Jewish Catalog,” the immensely popular, latter-day guidebook to Jewish life, offered nine pages of helpful hints on what to do, what to see and how to get there.

Armed with maps and guidebooks and all manner of suggestions, you would think that making your way through the streets of the Lower East Side would be easy and effortlessly rewarding. Yet the hard truth of the matter is that a walking tour is tricky business, as I discovered the other day when I led a tour of my own. For starters, there are many external forces to contend with, like the weather. It’s hard to wax lyrical about the past, to get your fellow travelers to focus on the fading remnant of a sign af Yiddish, or to cast their eyes on a weathered door with an incised Jewish star, when rain pours down on your head, your feet are immersed in a puddle of water and your only thoughts are of shelter and a warming cup of coffee.

Meteorology isn’t the only source of competition. A century of change puts a different spin on things, forcing one’s imagination to work overtime. As we huddled under the leafy bowers that now adorn Seward Park, we found it mighty difficult to conjure up a time when the Lower East Side was bereft of greenery; clustered in front of the now boarded up, somewhat adrift-looking S. Jarmulowsky’s Bank, once the grandest structure in all the land (or at least downtown), we were hard-pressed to envision its former grandeur.

But the greatest challenge we faced was that the Lower East Side, these days, is a living, breathing neighborhood with an integrity all its own. Today, the Lower East Side is no sanitized, reconstructed theme park or shrine to the past. It’s home to a robust community of latter-day Jews as well as thousands upon thousands of Chinese immigrants. Artists, too, now lay claim to Chrystie, Forsyth, Ludlow and Rivington Streets, as do well-financed hipsters whose appetite for good eating and easy livin’ has transformed many a rookery into a sleek and snappy eatery. In a stunning metamorphosis, gritty has now become colorful and chic; the area’s narrow, cramped streets beckon, welcomingly.

As we traversed the neighborhood from East Broadway to East Houston, it became increasingly clear to me and, I suspect, to my companions that the realities of history were no match for the realities of the present. Designed to be an exercise in affirmation, the walking tour left us wondering whether history has simply, and inexorably, lost out to sociology. Is there a place for history in the modern metropolis? Or has the sheer vitality of the urban landscape made the past irrelevant and its pursuit quixotic, perhaps even foolish?

I wish I knew. Still, I haven’t given up the ghost quite yet: Later this month, I’ll be back on the Lower East Side, with another group in tow, eager for a firsthand encounter with what once was

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.