JOE SVEHLAK Interview TRANSCRIPT
CUT 1: 01:00:00:00
JS: Sure. Hi. I’m Joseph Svehlak, and I’m called Joe a lot. So you can use that, and Svehlak is S like in Sam, V like in Vincent, E-H-L-A-K. I’m going to be 75 next month and my profession is currently New York City tour guide.
ER: So…Today is June 3rd, 2015. [Logistical talk]
JS: And you have my permission to archive this and use it for whatever you need.
ER: Thank you Joe.
JS: Okay. My family came from Moravia in Central Europe which is now part of the Czech Republic, the eastern part. And this is my mother’s family I’m talking about. My father’s family did not live downtown, my mother’s family did. And they came when it was still Austria/Hungary. It was, the province of Moravia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire till 1918 when it became Czechoslovakia. And it was my grandmother who came first. Instead of my grandfather it was my grandmother. And my grandmother came because she had a brother here. And her brother worked in Exchange Buffet Restaurant. I know that is one place he worked. He worked as a cook. So he had a decent paying job and such.
And my grandmother was a very, I would say adventurous woman for a [laugh] a woman in those days, because she had already been to Vienna, and she had been a nanny for one of the wealthy people, so she got to leave her little, little, small peasant village and go to Vienna and take care of the, the children of this wealthy family. So she already knew what it was to live in a big city.
My grandfather did not want to come. He was a very simple living man. He was a little farmer. He had his own little farm, which wasn’t that much to support. There were only four children. I have a feeling that there were a couple more that never made it. In those days there was no such thing as vaccinations or medicine or nothing, so the surviving people were the strongest ones that survived all the epidemics and influenzas and such, and they begat the next generation, which is why I think I’m still doing pretty good at 75! [laughs]
Anyway, so, uh, there wouldn’t have been enough, from what I understand, enough of the farm – when you have four children the farm goes to the oldest son, and what happens to the other members of the family? And my grandmother knew that. This was the great time of immigration when people were leaving. And they were leaving for mostly economic reasons. They weren’t persecuted religiously. They were Roman Catholic, and that was the, you know, kind of official, unofficial language of the country at that time, but economically it was difficult because in those days uh, women didn’t have much choice. If they were able to marry somebody who had a house or a farm, well that was very good. But that didn’t happen, because there were many, many more children than there were farms and such like that to ne had, so the women would wind up in service to other, you know, other wealthier, you know, landowners or such. Or in the case with like my grandmother’s 2 sisters, they weren’t able to marry so they wound up in the convent.
And that’s why there were so many religious orders and such those days. It was a job. They had to, you know, they got room and board and they, you know, whether they were teachers or, or monastery kind of nuns, I don’t know, but the two of my grandmother’s sisters that didn’t marry wound up in the convent.
So my grandmother kind of knew that there was not much of a future for her family over there. So she came here around – I don’t have the exact date. I assume the year was 1906, cause my mother was born in 1905. And uh… And she came, my mother said, my mother told me the story, when my mother was a year old. And she returned to Europe, sending money and things of course along the way, when my mother was almost 7 years old. So my mother was brought up by her older sisters, and by her grandmother, because my mother, my mother’s grandmother was in the home with them too. So it wasn’t that my grandmother was leaving them kind of like, without any care. And in those days, my mother’s older sister was 11 years old. You could run a household at the age of 11 over there already. ‘Cause my mother was already responsible, she was responsible at 4 for bringing the geese in from the field, she was already learning to sew and embroider at the age of 4 as well. So all of these, you know, basic skills for living they had.
And so when my mother remembered when grandma came back, and she saw her in their house, her first reaction was to her sisters, “Who is this strange woman in our home?” And they said, “That’s our mother.” She said, “I don’t have a mother.”
It took her years to, you know, get used to the fact that her mother did what she had to do. And they loved each other very much, but it was kind of like, strange for a young child not to be brought up by her own mother, but rather by her sisters, which is why she was always very close. Her sisters were 3 very different personalities, but they were like this no matter what happened. They could argue and fight and everything, but if they needed to help each other, no questions asked.
So it was kind of a strong family I guess. That’s why I’m getting into the fact that they knew how to live together and would make the best of it.
So grandma uh, wasn’t able to sell the farm. She had to rent it. And then in 1912…at the end of March in 1912 they came over, uh, on the Noordam out of Rotterdam. And the interesting story that I have, is when I saw the movie Titanic and the steamship captain…[Microphone falls! CUT]
CUT 2: 01:06:17:08
ER: …About the titanic…
JS: Yeah. And I saw the movie and I got a chill, cause the teletype operator was telling the captain, “We were just, uh, notified by the Noordam that there were icebergs ahead.” So I didn’t know this until I got my mother’s papers from my father after my mother…My mother pre-deceased my father – and then when I got my mother’s papers and I saw that I said, “Oh my God!” And I remember my mother telling the story too. She said when they came here they had family here already. They had, you know, my uncle, and possibly some other cousins that I don’t know about, because more cousins came later after my grandmother. [That] They were told, “Well, we’re so glad you made it!” Cause they had no idea that, you know, the Titanic had sunk or you know, that this was a big major thing, like a big major, you know, ship that was supposed to be the grandest in the world. They were just saying, “Well we’re glad you made it!” And they said, “Well, we made it. Yeah!”
And if you can imagine – I go back in my imagination what it must have been like…If you’re dealing with people who only went as far as they could walk, and picture – and I picture this – my mother as a 7 year old being told she’s going to America. Now they had to go about two towns away to get a train. They had never seen a railroad. So they get on a railroad and they go for about 1000 miles across Europe, you know going also through Germany and then into Holland before they get to Rotterdam. So now they see the ocean, which they’ve never seen! And this is only the story of how many immigrants have had these experiences of where they’re going, and what’s happening to them. And then they’re on a ship for about 12 days. You know, and not in exactly the best circumstances. They were in, you know, third class, so they were, you know, just meager, you know, they were bringing with them their food, and their uh, their featherdown quilts, and pillows, and you know, anything they would need to just come here and survive.
So, well, that’s the background. Okay. So they came to 109 Washington Street. Mother said when I was a youngster she used to walk us, she used to walk downtown. And she said, “Well we lived here at 109 Washington Street when we came from Europe.”
I preume that was the first place. I’m not sure. She said they also lived at 66 Greenwich Street, which no longer exists. They lived after that on the East Side. They lived on Pearl Street, they lived at number 2 and number 5 – number 25 Dover Street, and they also lived in Peck Slip before they went to Brooklyn in 1927.
Mary Ann: Joe did they come to the Lower West side because you uncle was there?…
JS: Yes. My uncle was here already. Yeah. And there was already a community of Slavic people, so they were not alone. So I presume that…And how my uncle got to come here I don’t know. This was my great uncle actually – my grandmother’s brother.
ER: So is it safe to assume that he found them a place to live?…
JS: I don’t know. I don’t know. [ER talks under this] I don’t know how they found it, uh, probably through contacts with somebody that they knew, because that’s how usually, you know. If somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who has an apartment…
And okay, so where they first settled…
CUT 3: 01:09:49:03
JS: …what address…Of course they were renting. They were renting in a tenement building, which was a walkup, and they lived on the fourth floor, they said – my mother said – of 109 Washington Street in the back. So they had 3 rooms. And the room at the windows they rented to boarders, so that they could make a few, you know, extra, whatever, dollars. It was very, you know, hard to make a living those days and, so they rented to two lodgers, to two boarders to help to pay the rent. And my mother said that they slept on fold down mats in the kitchen at night. So they would roll them down and that’s where the kids would sleep, because they had no such thing as like, a living room. These were all just functional rooms for work or you know, for living, you know. So they would sleep on mats on the floor in the kitchen. She said that’s where the kids slept.
And this was nothing strange to them because you know, you think about the sociological impact of how people had to live here, and you’ve got to remember a lot of you know, the poor immigrants who were coming from these small, little, you know, medieval farm villages and such were basically living you know, eight, ten twelve people in two rooms, in a little two room cottage. That was just the way most people lived, whether it was Ireland or Italy or, you know, or Germany or whatever. They were not living in what we have today in a lot of space. So they were used to living close to each other, and with each other. And my mother said that they didn’t wait for a landlord or somebody to come and clean the hallways, they cleaned the hallways and they also even cleaned the fire escape because they would go out on the fire escape when they could to get some air, which is not a legal thing to do, but that’s what you did when you were living in a, you know, in a tenement.
CUT 4: 01:11:47:00
JS: The family members, what did they do?
My grandmother was a cleaning lady. And I presume she got a job easily over a lot of the other Slavic and such cleaning ladies because she spoke German having been in Austria/Hungary and having worked for some wealthy, you know, family. It was, German was the language of the business people, of business there. So she spoke German. And at that time the Germans were here already, so they were in charge of a lot of the, you know, buildings and such, like that. So…
So she was a cleaning lady.
ER: Her native tongue was…?
JS: Was, yeah, Moravian – a Moravian dialect, a Moravian/Slovak dialect – which I still know some of – which is dying out over there because of course then it was just people living in the same place and not travelling very far, so the languages don’t change much. But today everything is you know, radio, and then tv, and now everything – the consolidated language. It was not – the language they spoke, the Moravian dialect would be similar to what people here in Appalachia would speak. It’s a very singsong dialect. And it was very close to Slovak because it was right on the Slovak border. They were called Moravian-Slovaks because they came from this area of Moravia that was southeast Moravia, which historically was part of Bohemian Moravia, was part of the great Moravian empire way back in the 800’s and such, but they were a tribe of Slovaks that had crossed the White Carpathians, so they were kind of mixed.
But it’s interesting, because you know, you can get into all these different ethnic groups that you have down here which was what you had. You had Slovaks, and you had, you had what are called Ruthenians, and they are now northwest Ukraine people. And they speak their own special Slavic dialect as well too. And there were Polish and there were Ukrainian and so it was quite a mix. So there were Slavic people here. And…
CUT 5: 01:14:06:16
MDiN: Joe, the expressions that your mother used…There was one she used when you came home from school…Can you tell us about that and was it in the Moravian dialect?
JS: Yes…Yes it was.
We were a very religious family. They went to church of course, you know, Sundays, of course, holy days of obligation, everything, fasting, and all because of, you know, the different times of the year before, you know, Lent and so on. So we prayed before our meals. Ad we prayed after our meals too. We said out prayers kneeling at the side of the bed before we went to sleep at night. And my mother when she would come into the house, before she would open the door, she would say, “Pokvala ne bot Jesus Christos,” which means “Praise be Jesus Christ.” And we would answer, “Na veki vieku, Amen,” “Forever and ever Amen.” So she was like, making a blessing that God is with us. And this was part of their, you know, old, their old cultural, you know, religious tradition. They were very religious people, very…
But, you know, what was very interesting for me, thinking about all of this, you know, it was the religion that gave them a sense of, of, everything is alright. They had God with them all the time. No matter what was happening they were, they were good people, they were just very, I think, kind people, and as far as I know I didn’t see any bigotry in the family. I mean there were people who had differences with each other about, you know, some things economically, or how do you bring up the kids, or whatever here in America, but they were never prejudiced against anybody. They just, “well they’re different.” Or, you know, or “People have a right to…They’re themselves.” They would just not get involved with anything that was different. And…okay…
What caused the people to move in and out of the neighborhood…
ER: …Well you were talking about what everyone did for a living…
JS: Oh yes, my grandfather, yes. Grandpa…
CUT 6: 01:16:20:18
JS: Grandpa, I knew since he could not speak any English, and he was just, you know, whatever he could get. And I know at one point he was a dishwasher. And he was a dishwasher in Coney Island at one of the big hotel-restaurants there in Coney Island. And I know that because my mother told me this story when they were young girls, you know, of 8, 9 years old, or such like that. On a Sunday, people had off on a Sunday, and after church – They went to St. Peter’s on Barclay Street here because they were Roman Catholic. At times my grandfather would take them out to Coney Island on the high speed trolley, which was the MacDonald Avenue route, which now is a train that runs above ground, but at that time it was a high speed surface rail that would go out to Coney Island. And he would take them to Coney Island, and he would take them back into the kitchen where he worked, and they would give the girls a banana cream pie, and you know, a strawberry shortcake. My mother said they were things they could never afford, but you know, she said, “We always got sick on eating all that stuff!” But you know, they were trying to help, you know, because he worked there in the kitchen, and so these were his 2 daughters and such, and they were the 2 younger ones.
My uncle was 13 and my Aunt Nettie was 17 when they came, and so they both had to work in the factory or something. I don’t know where they worked. Oh, Aunt Nettie worked, and she worked always in domestic service. She was a housekeeper for people out on Long Island. I remember in the 1960’s or such, and so on. So she was still working in her 70’s as basically a housecleaner, but I think she had other, other jobs in between. But she got married. When she was about 18 years old she got married. And it was kind of like – Well, I don’t think she was too happy with her husband [laughs], because he was, not only was he bossy, but he was alcoholic…But at that time he was from the same village. And my grandmother said – because I asked Aunt Nettie, I said, “Well how did you, you meet Uncle Frank?” And she said, “Well, my mother knew him, and my mother said to me, “He’s got a job, you should marry him.” So that was, you know, economics those days.
My grandmother I think really loved my grandfather. He, he was special to her, and he was, from what my mother and my Aunt Elizabeth said, he was the kindest of human beings you could imagine, which is why I think my grandmother, who is…My grandmother was the Head, my grandfather was the Heart. And he would always be, my mother said, very loving. My grandmother would give you a hug, but my grandfather would really embrace you, you know, and that was…and they knew that.
So he was always happy to be just with people, and just, you know, just, he was a simple living man, which is why he wasn’t the practical one to come. Grandma was. But I really believed she loved him because, you know, she understood that he meant well no matter what he did.
And one of the stories that I heard too from my Aunt Elizabeth – One day my grandfather comes home in wintertime without his coat. And my grandmother looks and says, – His name was Joseph too, and it’s Yosef in Czech – “Yosef, where’s you coat?” And he very sheepishly – my aunt was very good at descriptions – she said, he very sheepishly looked at her. He said, “I gave it to my friend.” And she says, “What?” He says, “Well, you know, it’s winter and my friend doesn’t have a home, but I do.
So my grandmother [laughs] kind of bit her lip and they went on! But…he literally gave the coat off his back to someone that he felt needed it, you know. Not practical, but kind, very kind. So, you know, I’ve heard good stories about, like I said, you know, about who they were, so…
CUT 7: 01:21:05:15
JS: They, they actually didn’t stay on the Lower West Side all the time because my, my grandfather died in 1921. My mother was only 16 years old. He had appendicitis. In those days, you know, without really medical care or anything, they didn’t catch it until it was too far gone.
But what my grandmother had done, being the practical woman that she was, she knew there were a lot of Slovak and, and Slavic farmers out in New Jersey and in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. She bought a farm out in PA. I don’t know how she did it with whatever money she was able to get together, but of course my mother already at 13 and my Aunt Elizabeth at 13 were working in the factories already. They were, you know, I said, they could sew from the time they were children. So they did piecework. They worked 6 days a week, sometimes 10 hours a day, got paid for just what they could sew, by the number of garments they could sew or whatever the pieces were and that’s how they got paid. But my mother said that they went to PA – I think it’s about a year or two or such – And they had the farm so that grandpa could have the farm. But then after when he…
This was 19, maybe 1920, 21. So they had been here, like 6 or 7 years already. So they had to eventually sell the farm, because it turned out my uncle just wanted to work with the horses and ride the horses and stuff, and he wasn’t too good of a farmer. And, and my Aunt Nettie was already married – the oldest one starting her own, she had 5 children after. And the farm was too much for them to handle, because my grandmother came back to the city to work and so did my Aunt Elizabeth, and my mother was left just to take care of the animals on the farm and such until they were able to sell it.
So that’s when I think – I think that was the break from when they lived on the Lower West Side to when they moved over to Dover Street and Pearl Street and Peck Slip in the 1920’s, and then in 1927 they went to Brooklyn, to buy the house in Brooklyn together, so.
ER: What section of Brooklyn…?
JS: It was Old Bay Ridge, which is now the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was the Sunset Park neighborhood of Bay Ridge. And it was mostly all Norwegian, some Irish, a couple of Italian, a Greek family, and, uh, and us! [Laugh] So we were a minority at that time in that neighborhood.
And I think it was my uncle, my Aunt Elizabeth’s husband, who worked for the BRT, which is now the BMT, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, now Brooklyn Manhattan Transit. He was a switch maintainer, so he had a good city job. And the switch maintaining yards where he worked were out at 9th Avenue and about 37th Street. So I think he was familiar with the neighborhood and saw that there were nice 2 family houses there and that’s how they got to go out there to live. So that’s…Let’s see, where am I?…
CUT 8: 01:24:41:16
JS: When they left it was because of economics. It was better. They were all working. You know, my mother was working still. She worked until, until I was born, and then she stopped working. Same with my Aunt Elizabeth – She already…had one child, and she did work somewhat, and then Grandma would watch the child during the day, and then at night she would go and do cleaning in the building still. So they were able to have the house in Brooklyn where we all grew up.
Okay. Where am I? What ties linked various households in the neighborhood?
I guess the church. They went to Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street. My mother went to school at St. Peter’s, which was right on, I think it was Thames Street and Trinity Place, just diagonally across the back of Trinity Churchyard. And when she went to school she remembered telling me…the only thing she recognized that first day at school was her name being called. And she went to school with people who spoke Arabic and Greek and you know, Polish and so forth, and the other different nationalities that were here. And the Irish kids used to make fun of them. And my aunt, who was the feisty one actually got into a fight with one of them, and said, “Well, you know, you were lucky. At least you came here with a language.” You know, we had to learn the language too.
And because my mother and my Aunt Elizabeth had the benefit of a grade school education – The other 2 in the family, as I mentioned were, like 13 and 17, so they never went to school here. So they spoke English with a broken accent. But my mother and my Aunt Elizabeth spoke beautiful in English – no accent or anything. They wrote in the beautiful Palmer method, which they had to learn. So that was their education in grammar school. Then she had to work when she was 13 in the factories.
So, let’s see…
CUT 9: 01:26:64:14
JS: Did various groups clash?
They never spoke much about any of the other groups that were here. One of my mother’s cousins just remembers, she said that her mother used to say, “Ah, Te Syriania!” “Oh, those Syrians!” Like, you know? They were different kinds of people! [Laughs] You know. We’re talking about 1905, 1910, you know, when people dressed a little more exotically, and probably when, you know, they had different languages and such like that. So, it was like, I don’t think it was a slur or anything. I was just like…”Oh, we’re living all these different people are around us!”
So that’s the only thing I know about the, you know, the mixing or whatever. The mixing was in school, and the kids did play with each other, you know, they did, on the street and such. My grandmother was a wise woman. My Aunt Elizabeth was the feisty one. She was about 2 and ½ years older than my mother. She was basically responsible for taking care of her younger sister too. She got into a fight with a – my Aunt Elizabeth – with this Polish kid. And so the mother comes up to my grandmother’s apartment, and starts in, like, you know, “you daughter was, you know, fighting with my daughter!” And mt grandmother just said to her, “Whatever the children do, that’s up to them. You and I don’t have to fight. Have a nice day.” And she closed the door on her. [Laughs]
So. Anyway, family stories.
CUT 10: 01:28:30:03
JS: Okay. Am I deviating too much? (Reading from questions)…What was the American response to your ethnicity?
I guess the Irish were saying we were different, you know.
…Events and activities or problems that brought people together?
JS: That I don’t know. That I don’t know. I guess since I didn’t live in the neighborhood, so I didn’t hear any stories about that.
ER: Well if people were sick or if they needed…
JS: Yeah. Well…As far as I know, outside of my grandfather they were a healthy bunch!
ER: Are there any games that the kids would play together that you know of?
JS: Not that I know of. Not that I know of. The kids didn’t have much time for games. They were [coughs] from what my mother and my aunt told me, I mean…
CUT 11: 01:29:29:14
JS: (continued)…They used to get up sometime at 3 or 4 in the morning before they would go to school, and they would be given a few cents to babysit the children of some of the cleaning women who had to work early in the morning. So they did that. I presume that, you know, they were responsible for taking care of things at the home, meaning you know, as far as, you know, food and sewing and so forth like that.
And they, they used to go down to the United Fruit Company piers and wait for the ships that were unloading, you know, the bananas and pineapples and whatever, and, you know, see if any of them would fall out of the cargo bunches and whatever, and if they would, well they would go for it. At one point my mother said she used to be held by her sister by her legs over the side of the dock and fish them out of the water. So they would get the fruit, which they would never really afford to have, and, you know, they would have that themselves, and then being entrepreneurial, they would take the, you know, the bananas and the pineapples and whatever down to the Financial District a couple blocks away and sell them to people. So, I think…
Oh! My aunt – the strong one – They were digging in 1915, 14, they were still digging the BMT subway here on Greenwich Street, so it was her job to go look for wood. So she would go down into the excavations and pull out a piece of wood, whenever she could. And she still did this when she was, when they were living – Let’s see, where were they living? I’m not sure. – But anyway, she told me she was going across City Hall Park with a big log in her hand. And it was like, you know, holding it to her so that she wouldn’t drop it. And this man with a top hat came by, and he wanted to give her a dime. And she wanted to take that dime so much, but she couldn’t put the log down, because she said, “If I put the log down I’d never be able to pick it up again!” So he looked at her and he put the dime in her pocket .
Then I heard the story about John D. Rockefeller, Sr, who used to go around giving dimes to you know, people and such way back when. Maybe! [Laughs] Maybe that was what it was, but she told me that, so.
So she was entrepreneurial, you know. [Laughs] They had all their little chores to do and things to survive because it was a cold water flat. The only heat they had was in the stove, in the wood stove, you know. And whatever they could, you know, they tried to forage for wood so they didn’t have to pay for any fuel.
ER: How would they chop up that big log?
JS: I don’t know. Maybe in the back of the little backyard back there? Cause I don’t know then at that point, your building was redone, I don’t know in the early 1900’s or something? They might not have had the toilets in the hall, they might have had in places, she said where they lived they even had toilets down in the backyard. [Coughs] So maybe they chopped the wood.
CUT 12: 01:33:02:23
ER: …Can you talk about the configuration of the apartments…?
JS: Well, like I said there were, you know, 3 rooms through, and the room at the end pf the apartment was where the windows were. So they basically lived in the two rooms without the windows.
ER: But the bathroom?
JS: The bathroom, I don’t know what it was at 109 Washington Street, but I know in one place she told me that they actually had, the toilets were in the backyard. And my Aunt Elizabeth said that she wouldn’t go down at night. If she had to go to the toilet, you know, they had the chamber pot under a blanket and that’s what they would do. Cause it was, you know, a few flights down and out in the back and in the wintertime.
ER: Wasn’t there a bathroom in the hallway at one point?
JS: There may have been at 109 Washington Street, but remember they lived in 66 Greenwich, and 3 places on the Lower East Side, you know, as well too. One of those places had the toilets in the backyard. I don’t know which place that was.
Yeah, and then when there were toilets in the hallways – I found this out from one of my cousins who said that they, you know, there were 4 apartments per floor, and there were 2 toilets on each floor, so 2 apartments had to share one toilet actually. Yeah.
CUT 13: 01:34:5:22
JS: So where are we now?…Did people tend to marry…
Well, in my family they all married into their own, into their own ethnicity…They stuck together.
MDiN: Do you want to talk about the institutions in the neighborhood Joe, the church or anything else?
JS: Okay, Yeah. The question I can answer here – Where did they go for recreation? What did they do? – Battery Park had the city aquarium until the building of the Battery Tunnel. And then by 1950’s it was out in Coney Island. So there was an aquarium there, so grandpa used to take, you know, my aunt and my mother on a Sunday to the aquarium. And it was free. So they used to go to the park. Which was what, you know – They really had a, a feeling of openness there to go to the park. And they could get a little bit of light and air if they went down to the docks and out onto the piers, but it was nicer to go out to Battery Park itself. The big attraction was the aquarium.
RK: You mentioned the clothing. [JS: Yes] Did they keep their traditional garments [JS: No.] or did they change? How did they change when they came here in terms of clothing?
JS: Uh, my grandmother…
CUT 14: 01:36:11:18
JS: …from the old pictures I’ve seen, was always neatly but modestly dressed. I have some old pictures that I…I guess I should have brought the pictures for you. And they dressed as Americans when they came here. They, at that time, I have a picture about 1914 showing my mother and my aunt in just white pinafores with a white bow in their hair and my uncle in a suit and my grandfather in a suit and my grandmother had a long, a long pleated skirt with a wide belt and a shirtwaist kind of, with nice billowy sleeves, very white and pleated. And my Aunt Nettie looked like a Gibson Girl, you know, very nicely dressed and all, and her hair, you know, done up in like, a big bun and so on. They always dressed very nice. It was modest, but it was nice. And they were always good dressers, especially since they all could sew. You know, they all had not many clothes, but what they had was nice. I always remember that. They were always good dressers, all of them. They would never go out, you know, on the street, you know, even later on when I was a kid in the 1940’s and 50’s they would dress with a dress, you know, not slacks or anything like that, and even if they were going just shopping in the neighborhood and so on.
ER: Were there any events…where they would dress in traditional garb?
JS: There were some, but they didn’t. My mother’s cousins, there were some of them that belonged to different Czech societies, and they would have gone, up until the 1960’s there was the old Bohemian-Czech church up on 61st Street, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which is where my mother’s 2 sisters were married. And they did have festivals and such, but they didn’t have any of their traditional peasant garb, but there were, my mother’s cousins who did, who belonged to different singing societies or different theatrical groups, and sometimes they would perform with their national costumes on – a feast day or something. They would have a procession on the East Side, cause they didn’t have a church down here. The Bohemian church was up on 61st Street up on, on the Upper East Side. That was the Czech neighborhood up there till about the 1940’s, 1st, 2nd Avenue, between about…where the Queensborough Bridge is up to about 77th Street, and then it became Hungarian to about 82nd, 83rd, then it was Germantown, it was Yorkville up there.
So, you know, they did go to a lot of the festivals. I say that because as a kid I went with them, you know, to Bohemian Hall in Astoria, the old beer garden. They had picnic and they had events, and then there was also the gymnastics society – the Sukkol (?) on I think 71st Street, then the Bohemian Hall – The National Hall – which is on 73rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. So…
ER: Now they moved out before the Downtown Community House was built…
CUT 15: 01:39:48:18
JS: Oh yeah. They were living I think already on the west side…I presume now that they, in that transition between the farm and coming back, I think they came back to the Lower, real Lower East Side. Cause there are streets there now around the Brooklyn Bridge with all the new approaches in the 1960’s that used to have a lot of tenenments as well too. My cousins used to live in some of them. And those streets no longer exist. You have the Police Plaza, and you have streets closed there, so there were people living there – Slavic people living there too, on the edge of the Italian section before it became Chinese. [coughs]…
CUT 16: 01:40:43:22
JS: The old country. Yes. Since my grandmother was here a couple of her nephews came when they were like, teenagers to avoid going into the Austrian army before the First World War. And also, some of her cousins came. And she would have them come and they would sleep on her floor until they found jobs and then would get their own apartments. So, she brought several people over after her. And she kept, you know, sending money back to her mother-in-law in Europe and her mother-in-law passed away before the Second World War – my great-grandmother.
MDiN: Going back to what you said before – So the main Czech shops and Czech press…
CUT 17: 01:41:49:23
JS: It was on the Upper East Side. Everything was on the Upper East Side. There was nothing here outside of what, you know, I found out from the Rizeks. They had a Slovak school down here, but the Czech community activities were all on the Upper East Side.
ER: I guess they were living here during World War I. [JS: Yes they were.] What did they do during the war?
JS: I don’t know. I don’t know. I know they were working. They were all working.
ER: Nothing specific about how it affected them.
JS: Not that I know of. No. But I know after the Second World War when everything became collectivized over there – all the farms were gone, you know, it was all one collective farm under the Communists in ’48, so all the property, whatever little property there was, it was, you know…[ER: Confiscated?] …Confiscated yes! Collectivized.
MDiN: Are there any other special memories or special events that you heard about?
CUT 18: 01:43:04:13
JS: I don’t know. I think I told most of my stories already. You know…Oh for me, you know, why I have an affinity for the neighborhood is because it was, always a place that, you know, my mother and family talked about that they lived here. And we came down here at the time of the Second World War. I was just a little kid, you know, three or four years old back then in the 1940’s. And we used to come to get butter and eggs down in the market, which was on the site just above where the, you know, Fulton Street is, where the World Trade Center would eventually be built. And they would take me along because we had ration coupons. And anyone with a ration coupon and a dollar – and a dollar was a lot of money then, you know, people were not even making a dollar an hour sometime then, and $30 would get you a 5 room apartment, I mean, so, you know, a dollar was a lot of money. But you would get a pound of butter with a dollar and a ration coupon. So my mother and my aunt would take me [Coughs] with them, cause I was a person, this little kid. [coughs, water break]
And I can still see myself doing it because I knew I was kind of, like afraid or something, or that I wouldn’t do it right. My mother gave me a dollar, cause they would only give it to each individual person. So I’m standing behind this big white porcelain counter, which must have been about 2 feet higher than I was or whatever. And I hear this voice that says, “Next!” And I would stand on my tiptoes, stretch my hand up, with a dollar bill and that ration coupon and say, “A pound of butter mister, please!” And we got our pound of butter, our extra pound of butter.
DiN: Joe do you remember enough about the Washington Market to describe it…?
JS: Not really, except that it was very, very hectic. I mean, if you can imagine pushcarts, and things all over, and trying to get through, because we used to go through there sometimes coming back from New Jersey. My uncle had an old Oldsmobile, that we had relatives living across the river in New Jersey so we would be coming back through the Holland Tunnel at that time, and coming down to go over the Brooklyn Bridge. So we would be driving through that area and I just remember that it was like, trying to get through all these carts and things on the street, you know, with the car. Hectic. I don’t remember the market itself.
MDiN: Now early in your working life you worked around, in the Lower West Side…
CUT 19: 01:46:09:22
JS: I worked all over downtown. I was a messenger between 1956 and 1958.
MDiN: Can you tell us about what downtown was like then?
JS: Oh, it was quite different. About a third of it is gone already! You know, with the development of the World Trade Center, with the Battery Tunnel. I mean, I remember as a kid they were building the Battery Tunnel, so I didn’t really see what was there before the Battery Tunnel, but I had walked the streets, you know, Cortlandt and Dey Street, and the places where the Hudson tubes were, the PATH train now, the Hudson Terminal buildings that were there, and a lot of other small industrial buildings, still, like you’re gonna see. Maybe up on Murray Street and Warren Street there were more buildings like that, further down to Liberty Street, and there was still a mixture of residences and commercial buildings there and some market type buildings, and the great area that was, you know, the electronics center, Radio Row. And I remember that because my uncle used to fix radios and televisions. And I would go with him and my cousin sometime when they would go to buy different tubes and different parts and such, and that was a very, very busy active area. So that’s all gone.
And I remember, like I said, when Water Street was not there. Water Street was a narrow street before all the 1960’s and such with all of the development of the high rise buildings, and they widened Water Street to make it twice as wide. It was just a narrow street with small red brick buildings like you have still on Stone Street and on Pearl Street. In the early 1800’s it was all like that there. So the South Street Seaport area, you know, that’s been preserved. We lost about four or five times that amount of area to the development.
ER: That’s interesting on Water Street, because…
CUT 20: 01:48:12:22
ER: (cont)…if they widened the street they knocked everything down all at once? Because it would’ve been my impression that they would knock things down as they built thing up…
JS: Well, I think they were widening the whole street so that then they could develop it…Yeah. And you’ll still see on the west side of Water Street you’ll still see a couple of those early, or mid-19th century red brick 4-storey buildings. You still see a couple of them. Because that’s where the street was and then they widened it to the east, so those were the new blocks, although part of the new, you know, new buildings also on the west side. So. So it was all like that. All low, low rise buildings, loft buildings. There were tanneries there, there were, you know, leather goods places. There were a lot of printing establishments there, cause I worked for an engraver. And I used to take his dyes that he would make to…that were printing letterheads, and business cards, and company stationery and stuff like that. I would take those dyes to the printers. So, you know, somebody would get a, make an order, and then they’d have their own printer so it wouldn’t be to the same printer, or whatever. So I got to go deliver all over – in loft buildings that I even had to climb up ladders to get into certain places. It was quite something. And I remember even down around the South Street Seaport they had even a couple of places that still had hitching posts for the horse, and also a granite block to climb up to get into a carriage. That was still down there in the 1950’s.
MDiN: On the Lower West Side, Joe do you remember besides the electronics area were there any particular groupings of manufacturers…
CUT 21: 01:50:01:21
JS: Not that I remember. Barclay Street was noted for its religious goods. There were about at least a half a dozen stores there that sold, you know, chalices and vestments for the priests and, you know, Catholic religious goods all…That was the religious goods center actually for New York. There were several stores. That whole area from Broadway down to Church Street, that one block in particular.
MDiN: Were there any newspapers around City Hall at that time?
JS: Well yeah. The newspapers I think were still…Hmm. I don’t know. I shouldn’t say that. I don’t know. I don’t know if there were any newspapers that were still published down there at that time, because they were all tearing down the buildings. I remember they tore down The World. They tore down the Herald Tribune. The Sun building came down. That was all where Pace College is and then the reconfiguration of the entrances to the, you know,the ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge. Cause I remember coming over the Brooklyn Bridge, and we would go right on Chambers Street to go across town, and we drove right through the Municipal Building, through that big arch in the middle of the Municipal Building. That was a street!
CUT 22: 01:51:15:20
ER: What about in terms of garments, caused I know that when it was Little Syria down here there were a lot of garment…
JS: There were lingerie shops and such. I vaguely remember. I mean, I wasn’t looking at those kinds of things, you know. I remember there were a couple of…taverns where different Slavic people went. There was one on Thames Street between Trinity and Broadway, and that’s just gone in the last couple of years. It was one of those buildings that had a tavern in it. There were a couple more taverns down there that serviced the Slavic community, and…
So I don’t really remember. I remember the, the churches. I did go into the St. George’s and St. Nicholas’. I did go into both those churches, and into St. Josephs also.
MDiN: Can you tell us what St. Josephs was?
JS: Well, St. Josephs was more of a plain church…
CUT 23: 01:52:21:17
JS:…it wasn’t a very ornate decorated church.
ER: That was the Maronite church.
JS: That was the MAronite church. It had regular pews. And I didn’t recall any kind of (?). I recall statues that were there and some stained glass windows. [RK: And what street was that on?] It was on Cedar and West Street. It was right on the corner next to St. Nicholas’, you know, Greek Orthodox Church.
MDiN: And then I think it moved to Washington Street.
JS: No it was on Washington Street first. When they were building the Battery Garage they were eminent domained out, so they moved up to Cedar and West Street. And now I think that some of the stained glass and a couple of the statues are at St. Josephs chapel inside Battery park City, and that’s under the auspices of St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, as kind of a, you know, little subdivision church for St. Peter’s parish. My mother and family went to St. Peter’s church.
But I remember all of the churches. And the most beautiful of the three of them was the Greek church. Have you been in the Greek church, St. Nicholas’? Yeah? Magnificent, I mean just a small church with…[coughs]…Yes.
MDiN: And that was destroyed on 9/11.
JS; Yes. Incredible. Mmhmm.
ER: Do you remember the school that was where the hotel is now?
JS: No I don’t. I don’t remember that. (?) Mmhm. You’ll have to ask Marian about that.
So that’s all folks!
CUT 24: 01:54:07:06 [OUTSIDE on Washington St.]
JS: Okay. Yeah. We’re standing in front of 3 remaining buildings that are miraculously here with the eminent domain actions of the Battery Tunnel to the south, and then 20 years later the eminent domain actions of the World Trade Center displacement to the north. SO these couple of streets have a few of the remaining old Lower West Side immigrant neighborhood, and unusually so that you have 3 representations of what the neighborhood was about – a religious building, the church, the social service building, the Downtown Community House, and the one remaining tenement on Washington Street. And they each have a different style of architecture, so that’s kind of unique also. To find 3 buildings like this side by side.
I don’t know of them anywhere else in New York City like that, where you have a social service, a residence and a religious building that are right next to each other. They may be across the street from one another, around the corner or such like that, but in this trilogy of representation they’re quite unique, and of course the uniqueness is also in the styles of the architecture.
You have the wonderful neo-Gothic former Saint George Syrian-Melkite church – beautiful terra-cotta, beautiful ceramic Saint George slaying the dragon over the entranceway, and it’s done with this gothic mode to it that was formerly a, a townhouse that was added to later, heightened and made into a tenement, and by 19… I believe 20 (1920) the Syrian Church got what was the building that had a shop in the…first floor, a kind of a haberdashery shop, a clothing store on the first floor. And by 1929 Harvey Cassab, I think he’s a Lebanese-American architect, designed the wonderful neo-Gothic façade to make it look like it’s really, you know, a Gothic church in beautiful terra-cotta.
And the community house next to it is done in a neo-Colonial style. If you look at the brickwork there – a long brick and a short brick, a long brick and a short brick, and that was very indicative of the old Colonial and early Federal style architecture in New York. So it was meant to represent kind of what our country is all about – the history going back to the beginnings of our, you know, our democracy and it was a way of showing the immigrant people, “Well this is, you know, America.” This is an American ideal. We’re doing an American style of architecture, so as to inspire you when you come in here to learn or get, get health services facilities.
I mean, it has a lovely mansard roof with the slate tile shingles still up on the top, and also [coughs] the, the paneling in a swag between the third and fourth floors, which are very indicative of a neo-Colonial style, or of a Colonial style. And the bottom is still pretty much intact, although when the Buddhist Temple used it last they had added that ceramic sort of uh, kind of first floor overhang a bit, but that’s coming off it seems. It’s not permanent, and if the building should be landmarked, which we’ve been struggling all these years to do, with our groups and such, I’m sure that that would be coming off and then the rest of the building would look more of its original style.
And the tenement next to it is a restrained neo-Classic style rather than very embellished, which a lot of tenement architecture had, with a lot of carving and such in stone, or in terra cotta around the windows – very simple, but very elegant. It has cast-iron Federal swag style lintels over the windows, and also cast-iron window sills. So you can tell it’s cast-iron, because if it was brownstone it would have been wearing away a lot more. And the brickwork is a veneer brick, not just a regular red common brick, and it has also what appears to be like a, a limestone banding around the top of the windows, which adds a nice touch of a restrained Classicism to the building. And the fire escape is placed nicely in the center so it’s not really obtrusive to the façade of the building. The downstairs has been changed quite a bit, as has the entrance. I believe the original entrance was probably on the right side, but then when it was redone, the hallways and such, the entrance was made on the left side.
So it’s a very nice, you know, trilogy of the 3 buildings, and we hope it’s preserved, the both other buildings that are not landmarked. It took 6 years of campaigning to get the Syrian, former Syrian church landmarked and now we’ve been spending at least, again, uh, since 2009, another 6 years already on the Community House. And of course, there’s so much threat with re-development we don’t know what’s gonna happen, and we can only hope and see that we can save at least the façade of the building. So…
ER: …Can you say…were exactly the buildings are…?
CUT 25: 01:59:45:04 [OUTSIDE on Washington St.]
JS: Yeah, we…Yeah. The buildings I’m talking about are 103, 105-107, the Community House, 103 is the church, and 109 Washington Street, which is the tenenment, and they are located on the east side of Washington Street between Rector and Carlisle, which is just 2 blocks behind Trinity churchyard.
ER: And what is the significance of 109 to you?
JS: Oh, 109 was one of the places my mother and family lived when they came from Europe, so that’s why I know about it.
ER: Tell me more about what the neighborhood was like before and what caused its destruction.
JS: Well there were dozen and dozens of tenements and apartment houses on all these streets and there was lots of little shops and restaurants, and taverns, and little, little hotels and businesses were down here and also other churches were down here. Besides the Syrian Melkite Church there was, there was until 1920, there was the Syrian Orthodox Church further down the street and there was Saint Joseph’s Maronite Church down at 51 Washington, and they moved up with the eminent domain of the Battery Tunnel, they moved up to the corner of Cedar and West Street, and that was taken down when the congregation was so small, and it was just made a chapel now in Battery Park City, and it was next to Saint, Saint Nicholas’ Greek Orthodox Church, which was a gem of an interior church, and it was uh, it was totally destroyed during 9/11.
So the neighborhood was a very active busy business neighborhood, a business and residential neighborhood. And [coughs]…and from what I heard from people that lived down here, they didn’t want to leave, because they loved it here. Because it was sort of, very quiet, especially on the weekend. They could, you know, the people who worked in the buildings on Wall Street, a lot of them were in the maintenance department or, you know, cleaning or services, or elevator operators or whatever, or they worked in the cafeterias and the restaurants and such. So they could walk to work. They had the Washington Market just, you know, above where the World Trade Center is, and they had Battery Park to the south a couple of blocks. SO they had everything for shopping, everything to get outside and get some fresh air, and be able to walk to work. It was a self-contained community.
ER: Now…Tell me why they had to leave.
CUT 26: 02:02:29:15 [OUTSIDE on Washington Street]
JS: They had to leave because of the eminent domain actions, because of the, the tearing down of the lower end of the neighborhood in the 19, 1930’s and 40’s for the Battery Tunnel, then in the 1960’s for the World Trade Center further north. So they had to leave. They were evicted. And if they didn’t they were, you know, forced out. And they were not compensated much either for their loss of businesses or homes.
ER: Do you know where most of them went?
JS: Most of them would probably go to Brooklyn or Staten Island, because they were used to taking the ferries to Brooklyn and to Staten Island, so some of the communities would move out there, or probably as they prospered too, and found other areas where they had, uh, you know, they had, you know, churches or organizations – They would go to maybe Queens or the Bronx. My mother’s cousins went to Queens, Woodside, Astoria, Long Island City, we had some up in the Bronx. Some people, like the Rizeks went to Staten Island. They were some of the last people living in the neighborhood. There were communities of them out in Staten Island. And my mother remembers telling me that they used to go to South Beach and Midland Beach instead of sometimes going to Coney Island, because it was closer to take the ferry over to Staten Island and get to those beaches. So they left.
We still have a few survivors here, of people living here for how many, 25, 30 years and such? [ER: 31] Thirty-one years already, so…[ER: Well Eddie’s…] There you go. So. It’s amazing, you know, that this history is still hanging on in the memories of us old timers, and, you know, and people who are interested in the history project of an immigrant neighborhood that was one of the most diverse immigrant neighborhoods that ever existed in New York City history. Because of all the different peoples from the Middle East, from the Slavic countries, from, you know, Ireland and Germany that were here earlier, and then the populations changing, you know, according to the demographics of who’s coming. It was the Irish and Germans first, in the 1840’s, and then by the 1880’s you had people from the Middle East, and, you know, they were not only Syrian and Lebanese. There were Greeks, Turks, Armenians and, and then you had people from the Slavic lands coming about the 1890’s.
So this was a great melting pot since they all lived so close to each other, or went to the same schools together. They went to different churches, but the kids would go to the same schools. SO the kids learned from each other. And as you know by some of the things we’ve heard already, some of the families even intermarried. You know. Amazing.
ER: And you said once that there was a census…
CUT 27: 02:05:20:23 [OUTSIDE on Washington Street]
JS: Well, back in 1917…Yeah, in 1917 the Guarantee News stated that there were 27 nationalities living in this small area, from just the World Trade Center site to the Battery, to the west of Broadway. Twenty-seven nationalities, a small area, maybe 8 to 10,000 people. And that kind of mix you didn’t have anywhere else in New York. So it’s, so it’s a shame that the history isn’t being properly identified. Landmarks said, “Well we gave you the church.” I said, well that’s the Syrians and maybe the Lebanese, what about the other 20 some nationalities that lived here and thrived? So they’re represented in the Community House and in the tenement. And it’s amazing too, the tenement still has people living in it, and it’s a wonderful story of how they survived 9/11 and such as well. They’re trying to stay in the same neighborhood with all that’s going on, so…
ER: [Indicating the west side of street] Now, do you know anything about this building here?…
CUT 28: 02:06:20:00 [OUTSIDE on Washington Street]
JS: No. Don’t know anything about it.
Oh, no. The one up above you’re talking about, that was the New York Post…That’s the New York Post. That was in the 1920’s. SO before the 1920’s, and the building of the New York Post building, and before the building of the…American Stock Exchange, and the building further down of the, the Downtown Athletic Club, there were tenements, and a lot of apartment houses on those sites too.
So, you know, that all happened, as times changed and this became more of a commercial area, took over from some of the residential areas that were here already in the nineteen-teens and twenties. And so that was forcing people out already. But they weren’t eminent domain actions, they were just individual business deals of selling old buildings and building, uh, building skyscrapers.
MDiN: [inaudible] (Something about)…skyscrapers crowding them out and…
JS: That’s when they…Well they already…Well you know that, because that’s your field, that they were starting down there already in the 1890’s even I believe. And by the early 1900’s they had a presence there. And that’s the wonderful story of New York. Ethnicities change in neighborhoods. And that part of Atlantic Avenue was known as “Swedish Broadway” because the Swedes were there before the Arabic people came, or Middle Eastern people came.
ER; SO what was this neighborhood called…
CUT 29: 02:07:50:01 [OUTSIDE on Washington Street]
JS: Yeah. It was referred to “downtown”. People said they lived downtown. That’s all. They were “Downtowners.” But it was also identified as “Bowling Green Village” in one case, okay, and of course “Little Syria” for the predominance of the people from Syria and Lebanon. And actually that was Greater Syria, which encompassed a lot more than what is Syria today. It was part of, you know, what’s Lebanon and part of Iraq, and Jordan, and the Palestine territories, and Israel too. That was all Greater Syria at that time with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. [R: Was it also called “Little Moravia?] No. Not at all. Not al all. No, no, no. Little Bohemia was up on the East Side. And the Moravians get lost because we were a minority of the Czechs. There are 2 Czech people. There are Bohemians and Moravians. There are 6 million Bohemians and 4 million Moravians, se we’re kind of the…we’re we’re the lesser of the Czech people in terms of, you know, whatever, in terms of population, but, but we had some great people. Sigmund Freud was from Moravia not far from where my father came from.
02:09:09:04: END of INTERVIEW