Monday, May 18, 2009
The East Village History Project aims to educate folks on the East Village/Lower East Side through programs, walking tours, performances, arts and historical exhibitions. Eric Ferrara is the executive director of East Village History Project. He talked to EV Grieve via e-mail about his memories of growing up on Suffolk Street, why it's difficult for him to move away from New York City and how to learn more about the neighborhood.
You're a fourth-generation New Yorker. What's your earliest memory of the EV/LES?
Well, to tell you the truth, it was kind of gritty. We're talking about the early 1970s when the city was going bankrupt. But it was a real tight neighborhood with multi-generational families who all knew each other. My family's run-down tenement building on Suffolk Street had a closet-size tire-repair shop on the first floor and a junk-strewn abandoned lot next door. It was one of those bathtub-in-the-kitchen relics -- common at the time but probably barely exist anymore with all the remodeling and development going on. The immediate area was predominantly Hispanic by this point, with some other left over Slavic and Jewish working-class families (I am half Ukrainian) and a few "hippies" sprinkled in. Underground/independent mechanics lined the blocks. Stray cats roamed freely from one generous old lady's yard to another. Kids played on the sidewalks until all hours (the most popular games were stoop-ball and stick-ball.) People were on the streets all day and night shopping, hanging out or hustling; It was all about the hustle: work, drugs, cigarettes, 8-tracks, auto-parts, whatever -- everybody had a game. There was a shadow economy in NYC that I'm not sure exists anymore.
You've lived other places, but you always came back to NYC. Why?
This I ask myself almost daily... "why!?!" I guess New York City is in my blood. It is where I feel comfortable. Like being in the company of an old friend or something. Sure, he still owes you $50 bucks, but you know your safe and you can be yourself.
Jeremiah Moss, BoweryBoogie and other writers chronicle the ongoing changes in this neighborhood and elsewhere. What's your reaction when you read that, say, another mom-and-pop shop closes in the neighborhood....?
As a historian, I understand this is the nature of the city. Manhattan was built on commerce; set up as a trading post on day one. The Dutch did not arrive and say, "Hey, this is a great place to incubate arts, culture and affordable housing..." That stuff was a byproduct of the ebb and flow of capitalism. This neighborhood in particular has undergone several extreme population changes since the early 1800s, and we are going through another one now. But on a personal level it saddens me greatly. I'll leave it at that until my lawyer is present.
When you give people tours of the EV/LES, what tends to garner the biggest reaction?
Well, the Drinking Tour never disappoints -- but contemporary images of this neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s really shock people who are not aware of the drastic changes. Rows of abandoned, burned out and boarded up buildings; entire swaths of blocks in rubble; homeless sleeping in tents; drug dealers; and so on. I don't want to disillusion people that the entire neighborhood was run-down and entirely dangerous... there were also incredible arts and activism breeding during this time period and a largely hard-working, middle-class population. But I use these particular images to drive the point home of how far we have come.
People also seem to love the gangster stories. Many criminal legends grew up and started their careers on these very streets. We dig deep into the early lives of guys like Luciano, Lansky, Siegel and Rothstein, which the History Channel always skims over. Our Five Points and Women Movers & Shakers tour are also very popular. The Five Points is the birthplace of the melting pot -- and genesis of modern day, working-class, multi-ethnic, industrial America; And some of the most influential women in American history spent time here on the Lower East Side.
What is your favorite part of the tours?
It is really great to meet people from all over the world every day. And I love when long-time locals attend and provide personal experiences. It helps me learn and make up the bigger picture. But the guests I probably appreciate the most are new residents interested in learning about the history.
For those folks not familiar with the East Village History Project,
can you give them a quick overview of what you do?
We are a nonprofit organization made up of native and veteran EV/LES/NY'ers who are active community members and historians. Our goal is to research and accurately document the great history of the Lower East Side and present it to the public through various educational programs (like the walking tours). The idea is to raise public awareness of the historic significance of the greater Lower East Side. EVHP has teamed up with several other local historians, preservationists, museums and educational institutions to provide the most authentic experiences possible. We recently opened the East Village Visitors Center in partnership with the Bowery Poetry Club at 308 Bowery. Here the public can come in at any time and interact with us directly and learn about the neighborhood.
The East Village History Project also has a new Web site.
[Photo of Tompkins Square Park and the LES via the East Village History Project]