The summer tourist season is upon us, and those who would like to see the city “back to normal” will be carefully tracking pedestrian counts in Times Square, Broadway ticket sales and hotel occupancy numbers. Oft-cited statistics vaunted a pre-pandemic high of 66.6 million visitors to the city, with resulting jobs (almost 400,000) and “economic impact” (close to $70 billion). Others, noting reports that Airbnb listings currently outnumber apartments for rent, and with fading memories of a city to themselves, might like to see another way forward, where everyday access to safe and dignified housing and sufficient open space come first. These people might find a more “equitable exploration” in the newly published A People’s Guide to New York City, the latest installment in a series of books which began with Los Angeles a decade ago, and now covers Boston, San Francisco, and Orange County, CA. In the excerpt below, guide authors Carolina Bank Muñoz, Penny Lewis, and Emily Tumpson Molina begin with a view of a most familiar landmark from the perspective of the those who helped build it. From the Empire State Building, they move out across the five boroughs to introduce lesser-known sites of struggle, and even some favorite neighborhood restaurants along the way. Rather than a cosmopolitan spectacle to take in on vacation, this is a guide to a New York City made and remade by immigrants, people of color, and the working classes in the image of their own needs and desires.
No subways take you directly to its doors. But leave any station on 34th Street (33rd on the east side) and you will find, towering above you and dominating the nearby skyline, perhaps the most iconic of New York City’s skyscrapers, the Empire State Building. New York elites who sank their millions into this construction project at the outset of the Great Depression did so as a symbolic assertion of the power of capital to rise again.
The Empire State Building sits on property formerly owned and developed by the Astor family, New York’s first real estate moguls. At their height, Astor family holdings included properties on eleven Manhattan avenues and at least 98 streets, including the entirety of what is now the west side of Times Square, from 42nd to 51st Streets west of Broadway. Little surprise that the Astor name lives on across the city — at Astor Place in Manhattan’s East Village, along Astor Row in Harlem, and in the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens.
Construction on the Empire State Building began in March 1930 and was completed on International Workers Day, May 1, 1931. Built in 14 months under the direction of New York’s former governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, the Empire State Building represented, in Smith’s words, the “brains, brawn, ingenuity, and the muscle of mankind.” In the building’s lobby, above the doors, are platter-size brass medallions that salute the building’s “Masonry,” “Heating,” and “Electricity” that were the marvels of the age. Its difficulty finding tenants in the Depression’s first years earned it the nickname “the Empty State Building;” the 1933 film King Kong, which featured the giant ape climbing to the top of the radio tower, helped turn its fortunes around. Soon hundreds of businesses, many of them connected to the fashion and garment industries whose base was in the neighborhood, located to the building.
But who built this soaring tower? Thousands of workers piled millions of bricks, hauled tons of steel, limestone, and marble, and installed miles of pipes and wires. Their frenetic pace surely helped contribute to the five official deaths recorded during construction, but as one worker recalled decades later, they were “glad to have the work” in those grim years.
And among the thousands of European immigrants and their children who formed the core of the construction workforce were hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers who immigrated to the city from Kahnawake, a reservation town outside of Montreal, Canada. These “skywalkers” were the riveters, also known as the connectors: they bolted the steel beams together after they had been put in place. Working with portable furnaces, red hot rivets, and heavy mallets, theirs was the highest, hardest, and most dangerous work in construction, and also the best paid. Mohawk ironworkers had come to New York during the building boom of the 1920s, and over the following years hundreds made the journey. They helped to build not only the Empire State Building, but Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, and, later, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and the World Trade Center. Today, there are still around two hundred Mohawk ironworkers in New York, comprising around ten percent of the workforce.
To consider the lives these ironworkers led in mid-20th-century New York, you could take a train from the west side (the 2 or 3) or the east side (the 6 to the 4 or 5) to Nevins Street, Brooklyn. Nevins Street begins at the edges of Brooklyn’s ever-expanding downtown, heading south off Flatbush Avenue. For a few blocks, it would barely qualify as a commercial strip. The large buildings that line these blocks show their backs here, opening their freight entrances and little else. Yet as Nevins approaches Atlantic, you will notice a quick change in the character of the street. Suddenly you will come across two- and three-story residences, smaller shops, honey locust trees, and the occasional Callery pear.
75 Nevins Street, between State and Atlantic, is a hair salon today. Over half a century ago, it was a bar called the Wigwam Club. Here, and in the streets to the south, you are in what was once the heart of “Little Kahnawake.” For a few decades, most of the Mohawk ironworkers in the city settled in the ten square blocks of Brooklyn known then as North Gowanus, today as Boerum Hill. Surrounding the Gowanus Canal, it was an industrial area, described in 1949 by the writer Joseph Mitchell as “old, sleepy, shabby,” but it was also filled with red brick and brownstone residential buildings. The ironworkers moved there for its proximity to their union hall on nearby Atlantic Avenue, Local 361 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers. The hall served as a community center for the Mohawks and other ironworkers in the area, where they could find jobs and travel quickly — on the train you just left, which was only a nickel until 1948 — to the construction sites of downtown and midtown Manhattan. Their wages assured them a decent living, and many moved their families to Brooklyn or married local neighbors; Mitchell observed that the Kahnawake lived “in the best houses on the best blocks.” A Presbyterian minister on Warren Street learned enough of the Mohawk-Oneida language to translate the Gospel of Luke and to preach to his Native Canadian immigrant parishioners once a month. The Nevins Bar and Grill, a neighborhood bar, became the Wigwam, where walking in one could find tomahawks and feather headdresses, and a sign over the door that read “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Thru These Doors.”
Like weeds, condominiums and new office towers have sprung up to the north, west, and east of what was once the Wigwam. But from across Atlantic Avenue, looking north, you can still see the top of the Empire State Building rising above the midtown skyline in the distance. As you contemplate this symbolic center of the Big Apple from afar, you might consider some defining social contrasts that help to make sense of New York, stories concealed in the footprint of the tower and in the steel beams that help it fly to the sky.
You will likely encounter mention of the Empire State Building and the Astor family elsewhere in your journey to New York City, and many other guidebooks will draw attention to their prominence and legacy. But if you know where to look, and how to listen, different stories can be found as well. We can see soaring evidence of fortunes piling on fortunes, how city investments help the wealthy increase their wealth. Yet with some imagination, as you walk the quieter Brooklyn streets, you might still hear the communities formed by immigrant First Nation workers. And certainly, all around the city, we can see the fruits of their labor.
A People’s Guide to New York City is the fifth in a series of books that seek to create a “deliberate political disruption” of the ways we know and experience the urban environment. As the authors of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles observed in their introduction, “Guidebooks select sites, put them on a map, and interpret them in terms of their historical and contemporary significance. All such representations are inherently political, because they highlight some perspectives while overlooking others. Struggles over who and what count as ‘historic’ and worthy of a visit involve decisions about who belongs and who doesn’t, who is worth remembering and who can be forgotten, who we have been and who we are becoming.”
As told by most guidebooks, the story of New York City lingers on the stories of people like the Astors, or celebrities and artists who made their fortunes here and shared their fame with the city itself. The everyday citizens of New York are not necessarily forgotten in these guidebooks. Indeed their diversity and hardiness, their capacity for invention and overcoming adversity, their toughness, tolerance, and fast-talking hustles are often celebrated. New York is a global city, an immigrant city, a rags-to-riches city, a mecca for money and artistry. New York has created or refined dozens of cultural motifs that leap beyond its boundaries, and fortunes that span the world as well. Even the radicals agree. Leon Trotsky noted in his autobiography, describing his brief 1917 residence in New York: “Here I was in New York, city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city in the world, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.”
Over a century later, New York City continues to represent, in many respects, the fullest expression of our modern age. That is, it is a city of intensive and uneven capital investment; tremendous labor power, employed and not; vaunting ambitions and crippling inequality; and a myriad of peoples struggling to get by, creating communities, and establishing their very right to the city they live in. Guidebooks will often narrate aspects of this city of contrasts. But in capturing such contrasts as spectacle, such accounts do not make sense of the manifold relationships between the glitz and the glamour on the one side, and the grit of the people and the grime of the streets on the other. Guidebooks, by their very nature, must freeze dynamic urban processes at a point in time.
A People’s Guide to New York City makes the straightforward proposition that the life and landscape of New York are products of social power and its attendant struggles. The streets, the buildings, the institutions, the people, tell a story of movement and countermovement. It is often a story of the prerogatives of great wealth; a story of government invention, intervention, and repression; a story that is also of people’s demands, creativity, and self-organization. It is a story of standoff and of compromise; battles won, lost, avoided, celebrated, forgotten.
To see this, you have to see the whole of the city. As such, A People’s Guide brings you to the five boroughs. We present them from north to south, and we also organize our sites from north to south and by neighborhoods, moving from Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx to the Lenape Burial Ridge in Staten Island. We selected sites that tell different parts of the stories of the people of New York City over time and today; not just who they were and are, but how they have made and remade the city around them. Our sites should change how you view the city itself — its physical landscape and the places that are most significant in its history and ongoing development. By making visible the invisible social dynamics that undergird the city, we hope to shift how the reader determines what and who are important to the Big Apple.
The following excerpts are just three stories from the more than 150 sites
explored in A People's Guide to New York City.
This building was slated for demolition in 1965 when Dr. Evelina López Antonetty and a group of parents took it over for the headquarters of the newly established United Bronx Parents (UBP), a grassroots group dedicated to improving schools in the Bronx. UBP moved on, but the building still stands today. Many of the most significant efforts to improve housing, education, health care, and basic social services in some of the Bronx’s most underserved communities have been organized by Black and Latina/o/x women.
In the mid-1960s, Dr. Evelina López Antonetty, known as the “Hell Lady of the Bronx,” and her daughter, Lorraine Montenegro, founded United Bronx Parents to fight for bilingual education, training local parents to advocate for better schools. It also established a bilingual day-care center, youth programs, and AIDS outreach programs. In 1990 it opened La Casita, a residential drug treatment center for homeless women that allowed them to keep their children with them in treatment. UBP continues to provide a wide range of social services for residents of the South Bronx.
Building on the crucial work of women like López Antonetty and Genevieve Brooks, women continue to organize and lead strong, dynamic grassroots movements and organizations to improve educational opportunity and quality of life all over the Bronx. Mothers on the Move, for example, was founded in 1992 out of an adult literacy class and began as an educational justice group advocating for fair educational leadership and resources for the schools in the neighborhood. Compared to the whiter and wealthier schools in the north Bronx, Hunts Point students had less experienced teachers and fewer textbooks and other crucial resources. The group successfully elected members to the local school board, and eventually their agitation and advocacy won area schools more support and recognition from the New York City Department of Education.
Early in their organizing, responding to the record level of asthma rates among students at P.S. 48, Mothers on the Move turned their attention to the issue of environmental justice as well, an issue around which they have been a neighborhood force for the past two decades. They are joined by Nos Quedamos, founded by Yolanda García, which works to resist development that would displace Melrose residents and fights for environmental justice in the Bronx, and countless other organizations and grassroots groups.
The Play Pen is one of the last vestiges of the once thriving adult entertainment industry that blanketed this neighborhood. For decades the Cameo Theater was located here, marking the first of a number of adult theaters that ran up the avenue to the Adonis at 51st Street. Most of the great burlesque and movie houses along West 42nd Street had become “grindhouse” theaters by the middle of the 20th century, playing continuously running double (and triple) features for cheaper prices. These included second-run Hollywood films, lower budget “B” movies, sexploitation, and, eventually, hard-core films. The sex-oriented adult theaters, particularly along 8th Avenue, would sometimes run all night, and were frequently sites of semi-anonymous sexual encounters, both paid and unpaid.
These theaters characterized the streetscape of this unique neighborhood, along with the adult bookstores and peep shows for straight and gay alike, massage parlors, dive bars, indoor and outdoor drug marts: from the years after World War II through the 1990s, Times Square was NYC’s premier red light district and center for easy vice. A transit hub, with most of the city’s subways and suburban transit systems passing through or near the neighborhood, and with the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey on its western edge, the Times Square area is uniquely situated for commuter commerce: a perfect place for a brief visit, or to stop after work. Hundreds of thousands of people come through Times Square each week — and, for decades, one of the area’s primary draws was the sex, drugs, and other forms of adult entertainment available there.
The sex trade in the theaters and the drugs exchanged in marts were mirrored by robust street trade. Sex workers and hustlers rented rooms by the hour in small hotels lining the side streets. By the 1970s, child sexual exploitation joined the adult trade, with young male “chickens” preyed upon by “hawks,” as the police described it. Alcoholic and drug addicted men (and some women) occupied many of the sidewalks. By the 1980s, one had to avoid crunching the crack vials that littered many of the entrances to and gaps between the area’s buildings. The crime, visible addiction, and tawdriness generated by the sex and drug trades in the area catalyzed multiple calls over many years to “clean up Times Square,” with uninterested or fearful locals and tourists avoiding the area at night and “legitimate” businesses complaining that their profits suffered (the profits of the illegal businesses were doing just fine, though, which is one of the reasons that organized crime invested there).
Today Times Square is emblematic of the sheer power of urban planning and capital investment to rebrand an urban space. The city’s director of Midtown Planning and Development was off by over a decade, but otherwise accurate in his 1972 prediction that “over the next 10 years the whole area’s going to be redeveloped and, as it’s redeveloped, the sleazier activities — the massage parlors, the porno shops, the prostitution hotels are going to be driven out by economic forces.” In the mid-1990s it was the Disney Corporation’s commitment to rebuilding the New Amsterdam Theater that initiated the successful redevelopment that followed, including the construction of numerous new office towers and corporate headquarters. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made the cleaning up of the vice industries a cornerstone of his law-and-order, “broken windows”–oriented policing, and in 1995, the City Council successfully changed zoning laws that effectively kicked most of the sex trade out of the neighborhood. Hence, the near ubiquitous description of today’s Times Square as “safe” for families now, and “Disneyfied.”
But the Disney label goes beyond the provenance of the cleanup. The Times Square that emerged had thrown off the crime, exploitation, and desperation that marked so much of its red light past. But it traded them in for an urban landscape whose sterility and aggressive embrace of capitalist consumption erased the history and meaning, tawdry and deadly though it often was, from the space. Times Square today has an ersatz feel to it, like a place that is running according to script and under surveillance. It may be literally and figuratively perverse to have nostalgia for the old Times Square, but it is not an atypical feeling among old-time New Yorkers, who remember a period when thousands operated outside the boundaries of taste, the law, and safety, often out of choice (though too often not), establishing their own corner of the city.
The Brownsville Labor Lyceum was the beating heart of Brownsville’s intellectual community and radical politics from the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s. During this period Brownsville had over 100,000 residents, 80 percent of whom were Jewish. The neighborhood boasted over 40 synagogues. Brownsville was a quintessential, working-class Jewish neighborhood. These were largely “Jews without money,” as writer Mike Gold from Manhattan’s Lower East Side would say. And, like Mike Gold, a fair number of them were communists. Even before the Lyceum opened, workers were active in Brownsville’s unions. The Knights of Labor organized garment workers there as early as 1885, and in 1908 over eight hundred garment workers went on strike against local firms. By 1917 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) had more than 2,500 Brownsville members.
The Lyceum served as headquarters for the Socialist Party, as well as a number of labor unions and worker societies such as the Workmen’s Circle. (The Communist Party, meanwhile, met in numerous branches across the neighborhood, including at 207 Stone Street, now Mother Gaston Boulevard.) The Lyceum was also home to the Socialist Sunday School which sought to “counteract the overly individualistic, competitive, nationalistic, militaristic, and anti–working-class schemes that appear prevalent in public schools and other aspects of capitalist culture.”
When the Lyceum was rebuilt after a fire in 1917, the new building included a library, bowling alleys, a pool, billiard and recreation rooms, and an auditorium. Historian Wendell Pritchett notes that the Lyceum was also famous for its courses and weekly lectures that covered topics ranging from “Fundamentals of Socialism” to “Advanced English” and “The International Labor Movement.” Labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Socialist politicians like Norman Thomas gave lectures there. Brownsville was also home to two libraries, a Carnegie library that had the largest circulation of any library in Brooklyn until 1940, and the first Children’s Branch in New York City.
In 1919 the Brownsville Lyceum was raided in what became the Palmer Raids. Socialist leaders were arrested for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it easier to deport noncitizens who were deemed dangerous and criminalized critics of the federal government. While those arrested were not found guilty, Pritchett explains that the “goal of this action was to weaken the party and scare away supporters.” While the Socialist Party lost power in the 1920s due to expulsion from the state assembly and the gerrymandering of the district, the American Labor Party was very active in Brownsville throughout the Great Depression.
Excerpts from A People's Guide To New York City appear courtesy of
University of California Press.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.