The 1980s are long gone, yet I recall my college course in New York City history as though it happened yesterday. My professor was a slender man in his early 40s with thinning brown hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache and beard, and he routinely guided the class through historical tours of Manhattan. By the time the first tour was over, we were tired, footsore, and thoroughly fascinated by New York’s City’s rich history. Through his actions, the instructor unwittingly became one of two people who fostered my love of history. And the other person? He was a man known to be an electrician, a subway inspector, and a World War II veteran. That man was my Dad.
As the instructor walked us about town the first time, he focused on the city as it was during the Colonial Era (it was muuuuuuch smaller than it is today), and he pointed out specific locations of historical importance. Of particular note was his explanation of the origin of Wall Street, which really was an approximately six-foot-high wall that divided the earlier New Amsterdam colony from the Native Americans outside. With the wall standing at only six feet tall, the Natives were easily able to peer over it and into the Colony. Our minds were blown. Who knew?
He took us to the vicinity of New York’s City Hall and we began to circle the area. As he did so, he provided additional information about the area, pointing out several squares of glass embedded in the ground as the glass skylights of the disused City Hall subway station. We then made our way to City Hall itself, and he relayed that it was built toward the extreme northern part of the city (as it was in the early 1800s). To reinforce his point, he had us circle the building and we saw that its design, that of an ornate southern facade standing in stark opposition to its plain brown northern exterior, truly reflected just how far the north the city grew following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1883. Again, who knew?
Finally, I recall our final trip. We gathered in Washington Square Park and noted he had a smirk on his face. We knew something was up, but what? He asked to walk through the park for 10 minutes before returning to its famous arch. To this day, I think he giggled as we walked away. When we returned, he smiled broadly and informed us that like most other New Yorkers, we had no idea we were walking on land beneath which is a mass grave for victims of the city’s Yellow Fever outbreak of the early 1800s. Several EWWWWWWWS! later, he guided us to the Brown Building, formerly known as the Asch Building, which housed the now-infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and was the scene of a watershed moment in the struggle for women’s rights.
My thirst for history reached new heights. Working independently, I found the piers where the Titanic was due to dock (the old White Star Lines/Cunard Lines iron gates were still there at the time), and I also took the time to stand at 49th Street and 12th Avenue, just as my father did, and I watched the ships and the (formerly) dilapidated buildings thereabouts. That intersection is the location of Pier 88, where my Dad stood in 1942 as one of the thousands of witnesses who saw the NYC Fire Department accidentally sink the fastest ocean liner of the day, the SS Normandie. I stood there, looking at the massive ships, trying to imagine what he saw when the massive liner, smoke pouring from it due to an internal fire, flipped onto its side and became embedded in the muddy bottom of the Hudson River, all because the FDNY flooded the ship instead of allowing the crew to flood the vessel’s lower decks to drown out the fire. As my Dad said to me sometime in the early 1980s, “Son, I saw the Fire Department sink a ship that day. They killed the Normadie! That ship was beautiful, but no more! And let me tell you, it made some noise as it went onto its side. It was like watching a murder in slow-motion!”
He told me that years earlier, he saw the airship Hindenburg fly over Manhattan. Dad said it was the size of a ship, long and very shiny, and it was an amazing and even beautiful sight that he would treasure until he learned of the swastikas painted on its hull and what they represented. He and my Mom also took me to the Lower East Side of Manhattan frequently, back when tenements were prevalent, and I saw much of the gritty underbelly of New York City and the strong people who lived and worked in the area. Today, the local tenements are mostly gone, though their echoes are now preserved in the Tenement Museum.
Years later, my Dad recalled his travels during World War II, and we had his permission to record his every word. Given about 50 years separated the date of his recording from the day he was honorably discharged from the military in 1945, my wife and I then took his taped recollections to the library, grabbed volumes of WWII research books, and compared his statements to the movements of the American military in southern Europe. I couldn’t tell you what I had for breakfast two days ago, but we found that town by town, city by city, his recollection of his unit’s movements showed his memory of the war remained undimmed by time. His accuracy was astounding!
Even as a youth, I was interested in history. For some, the pursuits of youth give way to the needs of maturity, but I retained my desire to dive ever deeper into past events and learn all that I could from them. My Dad and my history instructor fanned those flames, and I thank them to this day. This blog would probably not have the amount of historical content that it does if it weren’t for them and a few others who inspired me to stay true to my interests. To them and to all others who guided me directly or indirectly, I offer my heartfelt thanks. I couldn’t do this if it weren’t for you.
All the best,