The Archaeology of Home

An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side


By Katharine Greider

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When Katharine Greider was told to leave her house or risk it falling down on top of her and her family, it spurred an investigation that began with contractors’ diagnoses and lawsuits, then veered into archaeology and urban history, before settling into the saltwater grasses of the marsh that fatefully once sat beneath the site of Number 239 East 7th Street.

During the journey, Greider examines how people balance the need for permanence with the urge to migrate, and how the home is the resting place for ancestral ghosts. The land on which Number 239 was built has a history as long as America’s own. It provisioned the earliest European settlers who needed fodder for their cattle; it became a spoil of war handed from the king’s servant to the revolutionary victor; it was at the heart of nineteenth-century Kleinedeutschland and of the revolutionary Jewish Lower East Side. America’s immigrant waves have all passed through 7th Street. In one small house is written the history of a young country and the much longer story of humankind and the places they came to call home.


1.The author's first home in New York, No. 258 E. 7th Street, was occupied in the 1850s by an Irish-born cartman and his family.
2.No. 239 E. 7th Street, the author's one-time home and the center of our story.
3.The author and her family's current home.
4.The Barnards' home on Broome Street (1840s), before moving to No. 239 E. 7th Street.
5.The Weinsteins' home, shortly after immigrating, on Attorney Street (mid-1840s); also a synagogue.
6.The Weinsteins' second location, on Houston Street.
7.The Weinsteins' third location, on Avenue C, just before moving to No. 239 E. 7th Street in 1860.
8.Abraham Weinstein, widowed and remarried, moved from No. 239 E. 7th Street to No. 243 (late 1860s).
9.The Phillips's location on Delancey Street (1850s). Levy Phillips's glazier shop was listed in business directories at No. 255 Delancey Street.
10.Levy and Clara Phillips's s home on Columbia Street when granddaugher Clara Hart was born (1865); several years later they moved to No. 239 E. 7th Street.
11.Rachel and Joseph Hart's home (1865); Rachel, the eldest child of Levy and Clara Phillips, gave birth to daughter Clara Hart here.
12.Isabella Salomon's home (1910); Isabella, the youngest child of Levy and Clara Phillips, moved here after the death of her mother and after the sale of the property at No. 239 E. 7th Street.
13.The Wieders' location, on Cannon Street (1891-1892), around the time of their son Michael's birth.
14.The Wieders' location, on Columbia Street (1893-1894), around the time of their son Morris's birth.
15.The Wieders' location, on Lewis Street (1897), the same year Simon Wieder, the Wieder family patriarch, petitioned for US. citizenship.
16.The Wieders' location, on 6th Street, around 1900.
17.Simon Wieder's trimmings shop, on Avenue C, before and after the family moved to No. 239 E. 7th Street (around 1907)

The Phone Call
THIS MORNING, I have brought out the box. After dropping the kids at school and David at the bus stop, I hauled it from the back of the hall closet and tore off the packing tape, releasing an odor of dust and mildew.
It's nothing but a box of battered files bearing such dry labels as "Engineers' Reports," "Contractors," "Working Loan App.," "Court Docs," and the somewhat more evocative "Gary's Noise Complaint." I lift out the folders. My throat constricts.
These are the records of what David and I came to call our "real estate debacle." For months, I daily thumbed through the files with an anxiety of the sort the body remembers all too well. How fresh these documents have kept the thing, so that now, years later, they tune me up like a music box, setting off the familiar suite of physical responses—the agitating gut, the sweating palms.
The call came late one evening in January 2002. David was out of town. I had the children in bed with me, and reached over their small, sleeping bodies to answer the phone. It was Ralph, the architect we'd hired to recommend a schedule of repairs for the dilapidated row house we called home. He and his colleagues, a contractor and an engineer, had convened that afternoon to study digital photos taken in the dank crawl space beneath our basement floor. The situation, he told me, was more serious than we had supposed. Indeed, the foundation of the building in which my children and I were even now settling down for another night's rest was in what professionals call a failed condition, its crushed and rotted wooden beams propped up by crumbling brick piles and two-by-fours (these last suggesting an inadequate repair of relatively recent vintage). Ralph said he would wait until Monday morning before reporting this hazard to the City of New York, at which time city officials would almost certainly seal the building. And he left no doubt as to what we should do over the weekend: Get the hell out.
This was the squealing-tires moment, time of slow motion, anesthetized, alert, poppies swaying silently in the breeze. I called David. I ran downstairs to tell the owner of the basement apartment. I buzzed the parlor-floor door until someone answered, and broke the news to its tenants, recent college grads. I told the young couple to whom, only months before, David and I had rented the second floor. She answered the door in her bathrobe. Her mother had recently died of cancer. Yes, I insisted, I'm told it's not safe. There's no time. I'm sorry. I went hurriedly back upstairs, lay down next to my children, and, for the first of what would be many, many times, taunted myself with an image that seemed almost as preposterous as death itself: our building kneeling and falling into the street. Also unreeling in my head was a scenario in which I did the prudent thing, woke the children, hustled them to safety, our breaths misting the night air. I didn't move. That night I slept.
It had been nearly a decade since we'd first settled on this block near the eastern edge of lower Manhattan, 7th Street between Avenues C and D. The last five of these years we'd spent on the top floor of a small, south-facing row house, No. 239, about midway between Tompkins Square Park, always sounding with bongos and barking dogs, and the silently moving waters of the East River. During the mid-1980s this four-unit building had been turned into a financially dodgy and socially fractious co-op; as the owners of the top two floors, we were majority shareholders. It was here we brought our newborns home from the hospital in 1997 and 2000. It was here that the one pink towel David and I had quite happily shared for years turned into an entire set. The place literally held together the family we'd made. The precise elevation of its stairs and angle of its light secretly inscribed themselves on our bodies and gave us comfort in familiarity. The house or, to be precise, our shares in the co-op, were our principal investment, dollars laid up like so many bushels of grain. We were at home there. It was the setting of our imagined future.
Very early on, the roof leaked. On one or two occasions, rain trickled down through a ceiling light fixture in the living room. The building's exposed western wall also proved unable to keep out the weather, so that the interior paint on that side, from our third-floor kitchen all the way down to the vestibule, sagged like aging skin. David and I were not handy. We managed to get the roof replaced by a reputable outfit, but work on the parapet went badly; the guy slashed open his thigh with a circular saw and I sent him off, never to be heard from again, with a sandwich bag of codeine I'd gotten after my C-section. All this was exasperating, to be sure, but I thought I recognized a story line in which the young marrieds bungle their way into a charming wreck where they raise their happy brood amid the peeling paint and loose floorboards.
What we got instead was that phone call. We took a three-month lease in a tenement across the street and moved out. Picture the city version of an Amish barn raising. My parents drove up from Washington and my brother and sister-in-law helped pack boxes, tape things up, break things down. So did the neighbors. Our friend Stanley, also the co-op's lawyer, turned up in gray sweatpants, for him an extraordinary sartorial choice that enhanced the atmosphere of quiet but deep alarm. I remember looking down from the place across the street and seeing my grandmother's sideboard in two pieces on the sidewalk. The potted flowers from the deck sat lined up there, too; a young man, not unkindly, offered to buy them. Some stuff came with us, a lot went into a storage unit in Queens, and other things we simply left behind: a crib, a couch, a stash of holiday paper, a litter of abandoned toys. We didn't know if we'd ever be back. All that day David carried and carried like a mule, propping open the door to No. 239 with the sack of change we'd accumulated over the years, until someone stole it, and the door swung shut.
So began the nearly two years we spent trapped in the airless world of that box. "Dear Stanly [sic]," reads a note from the architect, misfiled in the folder marked "Engineers' Reports" and dated February 4, 2002. "This morning I have informed the Department of Buildings that 239 East 7th Street, is a structurally unsafe building. They have informed me that they are sending an inspector to the building. It is critical that all tenants stay out of the building at all times. Please inform them again." And yet the next day I walked through the building with the inspector himself. I had dressed up slightly, thinking to put across the impression of a responsible matron, an effort that was effectively countervailed by the scene of utter ruin that awaited us in the basement, the floors torn up, the apartment empty save for an enormous television on which, in their own extremis of anxiety, the longtime owner and his companion were in fact watching the Jerry Springer Show at top volume. At this point I cried, and the inspector wrote up an extensive violation, and I asked him, "So your only response is this punitive action?" and he wore a bored, irritated expression as he looked at me and answered simply, "Yes."
For the rest of that spring we lived across the street, above a nightclub whose dance track produced a regular wee hours' thumping in the solar plexus. Then we went down to suburban Virginia to stay at David's parents' place for four months. In the fall of 2002 we returned to New York—our oldest was to begin kindergarten—and rented a tiny apartment on 8th Street through most of 2003.
It was during this time, as we vacillated unnervingly between looking at No. 239 as the family home to which we would stage a joyful return and seeing it as a moribund shell, that I came to recognize how much it had contained, how laborious it was to shift those contents elsewhere. And it was during this time that a light slowly rose on the darkened tableau of the past. It began with a question: What happened here? How was it, for example, that the building we'd bought into only five years earlier, and that an engineer had walked through and pronounced in decent shape, was now essentially kaput?
In my box, sitting on top, I find a familiar spiral notebook, its cover a photograph of a monarch against crimson zinnias. During the worst of it I bought two of these notebooks. David's has water and woods on the cover and is filled with the sweat-drenched dreams that poured out of him during those months. Mine is all phone numbers, lists, and jabbing, disconnected phrases. "Get to buildings dept. file," I scratched out, and below this, the words, "treasure trove."
By the time I got to this file, as someone—a lawyer? an architect?—had darkly hinted might be the case, certain documents related to goings-on of the last thirty years were missing. I did, however, discover records on No. 239's rear addition. This project had given each floor a small back bedroom, expanding the building's depth from forty-two feet to about fifty-seven feet. It was listed in the Buildings Department computer as ALT-121–75 and dated 1975, which comported with what our co-owners had told us. But when I pulled the original at the municipal archives on Chambers Street, I right away noticed the looping penmanship and black, fluid ink of another age. And there was the date: May 1875. Surrounded by genealogists at their whirring microfilm spools, I sat there for a long time, studying the permit application. "The present Rear wall to be taken out entirely," it read, "being in a very unsafe condition." So the building had indeed been a wreck, not five years ago but 125 years ago. I laughed out loud.
Notwithstanding the advice we were getting from various friends and acquaintances—sue the insurance company, sue the co-op's original sponsor, sue your co-owners, sue the broker who sold you the apartment, sue the engineer who inspected it—the more I learned about the building, the more it seemed impossible to fix blame for our little disaster on anyone in particular, ourselves included. The thing was laid in place by countless acts and omissions and by time itself. I pursued this line of thinking; it was a relief, an escape from my unhappy self-absorption, to learn that many, many others had attached themselves to this very place and been torn loose, after a year or after fifty years, by choice or circumstance, but without exception, and forever. The answers to that question—what happened here?—kept coming and coming until it seemed to me that to understand this one place might be the closest I would ever come to understanding the universe.
In the cavernous Beaux Arts public library on 5th Avenue, I hunted after the name on the 1875 permit application: Phillips, John Phillips. Soon I was meeting the family as the census taker found it at No. 239 in 1880. Living in an apartment of less than 1,000 square feet were Levy and Clara Phillips, their daughter, Isabella, eighteen, and son, Samuel, twenty, and their eldest, twenty-six-year-old Rachel, with her kids, Clara and William, who first appeared to me not as people long dead but as little children near the age of my own. I was fascinated by their pellucid realness, playing there on the stoop between the curlicued iron railings. I saw their mother coming home, carrying packages, bread and sausages and coffee cut with chicory, perspiration between her shoulder blades under the shirtwaist as she climbed the narrow stair in summer. I listened to their earthy, German-inflected English. What, I wondered, did this place mean to them?
But I couldn't seem to find any trace of the John Phillips who'd signed the buildings department papers. Finally—I was thinking about the gum-snapping inspector who'd found my weeping so banal—it struck me: Maybe Levy Phillips had understood something we hadn't. That the buildings department guy is and must remain a stranger. He is not someone to whom you entrust a thing so intimate and authentic as the Jewish name your parents gave you. To him, you are John. I somehow felt that Levy and I, having lived in the same house, were closer than strangers.
So this is a story about that place through time, an attempt—it cannot be more than that—to reconstruct the lost worlds I once so blithely inhabited and to which my own lost world was soon appended. It is a necessarily selective narrative, extrapolated from the spare documents ordinary people leave behind—letters in a few cases, but mostly entries in the census, vital records, directories—and from histories and contemporary memoirs, and from living memory, that of a few former occupants and neighbors of No. 239 as well as my own. I see it as a kind of conversation among a few of us who passed through this place between Avenues C and D, halfway between the lamp-lit elms of Tompkins Square Park and the coursing, salty-smelling estuary of the East River. The talk is about being there.
The patterns that began to draw me in that day in the archives are the ways people mix themselves with a place, bind themselves to it as if to stop time itself. Family, community, property, status, one's past and one's future—these are abstractions we embody in particulars and "put" somewhere. Among the people who have put themselves down on this piece of ground, who've owned it or lived on it, are a raffish young colonist who loved horse racing and a Puerto Rican mother with her teenage children, a native-born bookbinder turned rent collector and a Hungarian shopkeeper. Strangers. And yet I know something about them. I know a place with which they mixed themselves, to which they were, for a time, bound.
There is no person without place, without context. The moment we're born our lungs sift the air or we don't go on. Heidegger called it Dasein, the human being-there. While we can migrate from place to place, we don't choose to be embedded in place any more than we choose to be born or to hurtle toward death.
Place is a kind of parentage. There is a kinship of place, an alternative genealogy, where instead of sharing the stuff of the body itself, we share the environment each of us, in successive generations, has literally incorporated. The winter sun dropping below the tenement roofs burned down, in a similar pattern, in my eyes and in the eyes of a grocer's daughter, Isadore, who was twelve at the dawn of the Civil War. The stretch of sidewalk from stoop to Avenue C offered the same counterpressure to the legs of a slight man named Simon in 1907 as it did to my daughter's nearly a century later. The feel of the stoop's iron railing was in his hands, now long in the dust, and in his sons' hands.
The most radical incorporation of place is expressed in the word "home." Home, like the body itself, is so critical it disappears from view; it is the place from which we look out. To those of us who made this place home, 7th Street was both a physical and a psychological state; it defined inner and outer, up and down, our orientation toward the city and the world.
All of us impregnated that place with images, dreams, and symbols, and all of us carried something away that went with us wherever we went, a picture of the place, a mental map depicting, at the most basic level, a low place near the eastern shore of a long, narrow island. Over the decades the map took on new elements, while others faded away. Originally it showed a wide-open salt marsh that in the warm months was green and full of good things to eat. Then, for two centuries, this meadow lay in pieces, separate properties divided by ditches, stakes, and imaginary chains. For nearly as long, it has been the sketch of a highly legible—to use urban planner Kevin Lynch's term1—cityscape, a tight grid of paths labeled with numbers and letters, broken to the east by the river and to the west by the open space of Tompkins Square. At first, the neighborhood was at the city's burgeoning northern perimeter—new and uptown; but growth swept past it, making 7th Street old, downtown. The larger district, bounded by cross town thoroughfares to the north (14th Street) and south (Houston Street), was once known as Stuyvesant's swamp, later Kleindeutschland, the East Side, Loisaida, and Alphabet City. Today it's commonly known as the East Village. From the beginning people have read this area as distinct, a topographical zone, and, later, a language and culture island.
It's in the use of a place that people are most attentive to it. Intensively, for centuries, people have used this place near the eastern shore of Manhattan. They have used it to fodder the cattle whose muscle and fat, in turn, fed them. They have traded it for money. By controlling this piece of earth and the improvements on it, they've collected rents and interest on mortgages, taxing the labor of others. They have stored lifetimes of accumulated wealth in the building—equity—and used it in all the usual ways families use wealth, to succor and reward and occasionally to curb and admonish. This place has been a prop in narratives of loss, of gain, and of pitched battle. People have used the building most essentially by living in it; year upon year they have scrubbed the soot of their fires from its walls. In all these ways the building and the land have formed a piece of hundreds of human identities, a small or obscure part in some cases, in others, a defining one.
Each one of us built that environment, and was built by it. Together, as the architects of something perfectly ordinary—our own lives—we became builders of a city so big and various it is beyond knowing. What follows, then, is a creation story of sorts. It is one version of the epic of New York.
Indeed, while people have wrung what value they could from this place, in the end, it isn't so clear whether it's the place or the people who are fuel in the exchange. The latter are consumed in the process. All the city's old buildings are full of ghosts.
By 2010, a modern structure fit to carry new generations through another century had replaced our decrepit old building on 7th Street, all but erasing its memory. And I think what I have been doing these hours in the library is trying to shape a vessel in which to gather, one last time, the dispersed ghosts of that place, not least the ghost of a young mother who carried my name. Some nights I've lain in bed going over the line of title in my head, tapping the syllables together methodically, Van Corlear, Beekman, Steenwyck, DeLancey, Lewis, in the steady rhythm of breathing, or walking, as if I could get somewhere, to some beginning maybe, or some finality, down through 7th Street to the place where rock melts, that unspeakable heat at the center of the world.

The Low Green Prairies of the Sea
ONE AFTERNOON in April 2002, when we'd been out of No. 239 about two months, our fax machine spat out an interesting map. It showed the streets of Manhattan superimposed on the island's original topography, with sinuous waterways draining into the rivers, and hatching where early New Yorkers had extended the shoreline by dumping cartload after cartload of dirt into the East River. A little box marked the approximate location of No. 239. It sat within a marsh, indeed, almost directly astride a former creek.
Richard, the map's sender, was the engineer we'd hired after realizing the extent of the mess we were in—he was expert, eminently practical, also avuncular and wise. Home, he'd later tell us with a shrug, is where you turn the key. The underground stream seemed especially to excite Richard's interest. I could hardly begrudge him that. Nor was the news entirely a surprise to me. Neighbors had often remarked, with that New Yorker's combination of ruefulness and irrational pride, that the whole block was built on a swamp. Still, the swamp had always seemed to me a quaint mythical thing, like the lost island of Atlantis. On the map it swam unpleasantly into focus.
Later I recognized Richard's schematic as an adaptation of a map first published in 1859 by another wise engineer named Egbert Ludovicus Viele and quite famously known as Viele's Water Map. According to the book where I first encountered Viele, Manhattan in Maps, city contractors routinely refer to his work to gauge groundwater conditions at proposed worksites. The book even quotes a contractor, Mel Febesh, who testified that, when laying the foundation for the fifty-nine-story Citicorp Center at Lexington and 54th, the crew dug down and there it was—the stream indicated on the old map: "It's accurate within feet."1
For Viele, the quest to render Manhattan in its original state was a passion approaching obsession. During the decades he spent surveying and poring over colonial-era maps—he published a final, expanded version of his water map in 18742—he also took every occasion to warn the public that to simply suppress the water coursing through this island city was not an option. "I know that it is generally supposed that when the city is entirely built upon, all that water will disappear," Viele noted tartly in an 1865 report for the city Council of Hygiene and Health, "but such is not the case."3
Drainage, drainage, drainage—this was Viele's almost talismanic defense against a truly terrorizing foe, the infectious fevers that stalked city life. The city's perimeter was racing northward during those years, its population growing faster than its public-health infrastructure; cholera, yellow fever, typhus, and smallpox struck with little warning. Viele perceived a relationship among these facts, but as the germ theory of disease was not yet in wide circulation, he blamed the "humid miasmatic state of the atmosphere," which in turn he attributed to building practices that thwarted the flow of waters back to the sea.4 The neighborhood now called the East Village had sprung up in the 1830s as quickly as any latter-day suburban subdivision on "a very extensive area of low alluvial land, receiving the waters of numerous small streams."5 But it was only one of Viele's trouble spots. "And while we are erecting our marble palaces of trade," he wrote, "rearing our domestic altars in gilded and frescoed halls, and seeking heaven with the spires of our gothic temples of religion, let us not forget that more than all this splendor surrounded the thrones of the Caesars, and yet Rome fell under the combined influences of a lawless democracy and the malaria of the Pontine marshes."6
More than a century later, people still predict a comeuppance from the marshes, but in the terms of modern environmentalism. Models of global climate change suggest that over the coming decades, the seas will rise while storms increase in frequency and ferocity, with obvious implications for the highly developed, low-lying shores of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 2006, the city Office of Emergency Management sent around a flyer warning New Yorkers to gird themselves against the powerful storm surge that "could put some parts of New York City under more than 30 feet of water." According to the accompanying color-coded map, when faced with a hurricane of even moderate intensity, East Villagers will want to grab a "go bag" (to include photo ID, proof of address, and insurance cards in a waterproof container) and flee at least as far inland as 1st Avenue.7
"Mitigation" is what we hope for now. Take, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' effort to put back the salt marsh lost to Jamaica Bay, the estuarine lagoon that borders Brooklyn and Queens. This was to offset the environmental effects of dredging New York Harbor, only fifteen to eighteen feet deep in its natural state, to accommodate a new generation of megaships with drafts of forty-six feet.8


On Sale
Mar 22, 2011
Page Count
352 pages

Katharine Greider

About the Author

Katharine Greider is a writer living in New York City. She got her start in journalism at an alternative newsweekly and then a small-town daily newspaper. As a freelancer she has written on health and medicine, culture, and other topics for local and national newspapers, magazines, and non-profit organizations, from the AARP Bulletin to the New York Times. Her first book was The Big Fix: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Rips Off American Consumers.

Learn more about this author