Brooklyn-born journalist Pete Hamill has been editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Author of eight novels, two story collections, several non-fiction works, and a memoir, his work includes the best-sellers Snow in August and A Drinking Life. Producer Ric Burns interviewed him during the making of New York: The Center of the World.
Lower Manhattan Before the Towers
The original text of New York is all below Chambers Street. When I take my walk, I pass, in Battery Park City, the place where my grandfather was an engineer for United Fruit, on the ships that came in, the banana boats in 1910. My mother used to take us across the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn, and she more often turned left into the southern tip of the island than she did right and move uptown, although she did go uptown with us. But she would go there because her father had worked on that pier. So she felt that connection to an earlier New York before she ever arrived in it.
And my father, my father was one of these radio freaks. You know, he -- in those days radios had backs you could take off them and actually take the tubes out. And Cortlandt Street, Radio Row, was the place all these radio freaks in New York would all go to to get tubes. And they had tube testers, and you'd stick them in and lights went up, or, but walking around and seeing those buildings with the markings, 1839 and all that, seemed to me some incredibly distant past as a boy. I was nine or ten years old. And I had my father even tell me, you know, that was a blacksmith shop, and that, you know, he knew somehow. I don't know how he knew. It was part of the lore of the street. If they went once a month, they got to know these guys. And they knew what had been there. And knowing what had been there is essential to forming a sense of the place in which you live, no matter where that is. We are what we were, in many ways. And that part of the city was -- is -- the place that we must know first if we ever hope to know the city, including the outer boroughs and its northern reaches, and Fifth Avenue and all the rest of the things that followed, all comes from down there.
The New York Economy
Downtown Manhattan still had a whole lot of these small businesses in these small buildings. And a decision was made that this is no longer the way New York should function. And they literally began to drive as many of those businesses out of Manhattan as possible, hoping they'd go to Long Island City or to one of the outer boroughs. And they inadvertently began to break the back of the work ethic in New York City. I mean, if my father could come with an eighth grade education from Ireland and support a family of seven kids, you know, by working in factories and being a union member and getting as much as he could out of whatever factory he was working at. But he could work. And suddenly in the '60s -- escalating after '62, '63 -- those businesses either went out of business, or they moved to the South first, to avoid unions, and eventually vanished, a lot of them. Beers like Schaeffer and Rheingold and all that, which looked like, you couldn't imagine a world without them, vanished.
And what happened was that you ended up, within ten or 15 years, with the most astonishing welfare population in the history of the world. In 1955, there were 150,000 people on welfare. By the time, by the end of the Lindsay administration, was almost a million. There's nothing like that that had ever happened where one out of eight people lived entirely on the tax money of other people and didn't work, didn't do anything. There were families and kids who never met anybody who ever worked. And that was a huge change, because the thing about being poor in New York growing up was that there was no sin to being poor. There was a sin if you wouldn't work.
And the welfare system, which replaced that work system, and had to, because there was just no jobs, also meshed with the arrival of more people from the South and from the Caribbean who came from agricultural backgrounds and were not trained technicians or mechanics of some kind and had not, very much like my father, had not enormous formal educations. And they got to New York at just the point that the jobs that supported my father began to leave the city. And that was one of the horrors of what happened to the city after this period in which the World Trade Center became the focus of so much energy and money and will. The people building it paid no attention to the consequences of what was happening with the wider idea of what the economy in New York should be like. They thought it would be in trade. They thought it would be in international business. That was the notion of what the port would be, but that trade was no longer shipping bananas to South Street, but some other notion that's more abstract of trade. And I think it really hurt the city that way, because it was, the whole general attitude hurt the city, because it was the consequence of people who didn't know what it meant to have a $75 a week job and to bring home enough food to feed a family. They didn't know that. They had no way of imagining it. They didn't, it's not that they were cruel or anything, they just couldn't imagine their way into those kind of lives. And the casualties were enormous. People really got hurt by that whole period. And this project, in a way, was a symbol of the attitude, in addition to the specific goals.
Displacement and Destruction to Build the Towers
The first thing I remember as a reporter, because I used to work nights a lot, I would work midnight to eight in the morning, and it was the greatest time of my life. I'd go running out on murders and everything. It was, I never had more fun in my life. But when we knocked off at 8:00 in the morning at 75 West Street, we'd walk out the back door and turn around the corner and walk up West Street to the old Washington Market. And that market was itself the consequence of earlier development. It was moved up from down by the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel entrance, where it had, a lot of it had been earlier, to build the tunnel. And it was moved up gradually, so it went all the way to North Moore Street, as I remember it. And a lot of the people who worked in the market were Arabs. They were Syrian, Christians, refugees from the Ottoman Empire. We'd go in the morning and I was a kid, I didn't know... Lawrence of Arabia hadn't even come out yet. I didn't know much about Arabs of any kind, except they were very handsome looking.
But they'd be sitting there reading the Arabic paper and drinking little tiny demitasse cups of coffee. And they were very pleasant to these louts from the newspaper. And I would talk to some of them about, what's the headline mean in the paper, and how do you read the paper, do you have a sports columnist, you know, that kind of stuff. And one of the first things to move was that, was that market. You know, it was like a place of life. You went, and there was exotic stuff and banal stuff and these wonderful old guys sitting around, because their day was over by then, we were like, the tail end of their day. They'd been there since two in the morning. And that moved up to Hunt's Point. They moved it all the way up to the Bronx. And I think a lot of the older men retired. There weren't many women working in it. But there were a lot of men. And some people must have been absorbed at Hunt's Point in some way. But that was the first thing where there was an elimination of something human. There's nothing more human than selling food to strangers, you know? Every one of us eats and those markets were full of, first of all, physical beauty, because of the way the fruits and vegetables and meats looked.
But also, it had a "come on in" feeling to it, not "please keep out." It wasn't a private club. It was a market. And New York is a market town and always has been. It's where you come to buy stuff. So that was the beginning of the change. And then I thought, I really felt the assault on Cortlandt Street, because you slowly began to look at the plans as they emerge, and you find out there's not going to be a Cortlandt Street. They're going to have a sign that says Cortlandt Street, and after that it will be nothing but concrete and a plaza into which nobody ever stepped. And knowing that they were taking away this thing that I thought would last forever, the way we thought radio would last forever, and that it was going without any intercession from the government, because there was no Landmarks Commission at the time, it was around the same period that we were going into when we lost Penn Station, which really provoked the creation of the Landmarks Commission.
So seeing Cortlandt Street, you know, a street in which God knows what great historical figures had walked down, but which my father had walked down, being shoveled off to become landfill for Battery, what became Battery Park City, I mean, literally, bulldozers knocked down the old houses and just tipped them over, smashed them over like they were -- like big fists were being leveled from the sky somehow. Among the many things that were lost on September 11th were the final Polaroid photographs of the houses on Cortlandt Street with their prices that were labeled on them by the assessors, what the owners were going to get paid, you know, 9,000, 12,000, 18,000, whatever it was. All those original Polaroids, no negatives, were lost in one of the buildings on September 11th, so that even that, even that record of it is gone. And I hated it, you know, I hated that, the arrogance of it, as a kid. I was young and I didn't like that stuff.
The Promise of New York
More than most people, I have a lot of reasons to love the city. You know, it gave me my life, it gave me my career, it gave my parents and my brothers and sisters all a way to live, and didn't do it just for me. It did it for millions and millions and millions of people who took what they got here, and some of them moved and went out west, or to Florida or other places.
But exactly because of that, you have the obligation to make sure with whatever little, small talent you have, as a writer, for example, and I think as a politician should have that sense of responsibility too, to not cheapen or coarsen the thing that happened to us, to make sure we understand that it had enormous power and can be turned into something with enormous value and that we can make this a city that, it's even better than it's ever been. That we can, that we can say to whatever poor kid shows up in a bus from Mexico, age 16, having slept all the way in the bus, come on, you can work here, this is your place too, and be able to say that with conviction and mean it and do something about it. Let him in the schools and let him learn something. If we do that, we're honoring all the people that got us here, going back to the Dutch. They helped us get here in some crazy, convoluted, bizarre narrative. They got us all here. We are them. And we'd better honor that. If we dishonor that, if we turn into a nasty city of rejection, we'll have failed ourselves and dishonored ourselves. We've got to keep that going. That has to be our reason for being here.
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