This week we welcome Ruth Chon Saiki, returning to New York City from her current home in L.A.
Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. Nearly a decade after moving away from the vibrant stomping grounds of my 20s I return to discover a different city. Both I and the place have evolved in the span from 9/11 (2001) to the Covid-19 pandemic of the 2020s. We’ve both slowed down and taken stock. As orthopedics and kombucha replace heels and martinis, pedestrian promenades and bike lanes proliferate within the arteries of the once congested grid. The push of youth, to drive forwards onto the next thing has now been replaced by a deeper dive into that which has always lain beneath our feet. New paths are created, old ones explored.
I’m a fan of the “The Bowery Boys” podcast, driven by nostalgia and a fondness for the hosts. Greg Young and Tom Meyers, two aficionados of New York City history, have created 370 episodes, all dealing with the most obscure and interesting tidbits of the city. Tom and Greg share microscopic deep dives into neighborhood characters, notable places, and local events that add layers of flesh, bringing the city to life.
In addition to the podcast, the Bowery Boys offer walking tours, both in-person and virtual. Fortunately, their Greenwich Village in-person walking tour coincided with my stay. During my years as a New Yorker, I lost my direction aplenty through the tangled web of West Village streets, the intersections of Waverly Place and Waverly Place or where West 4th crosses West 11th, just a few blocks from the Jefferson Market library. Our tour guide Jeff explained how the red brick “Victorian Gothic,” once a courthouse, jailed Mae West and Angela Davis on the upper floors. Washington Square Park, social hub of the West Village, stands atop the skeletal remains of some 20,000 hapless souls, a potter’s field for early Manhattan’s casualties of yellow fever. On the northwest corner of the park stands what is believed to be the oldest tree in Manhattan, Hangman’s Elm. And yes, as the name suggests, it was the site for public hangings, traitors of the Revolutionary War. And veering away from the macabre, Jeff showed us the birthplaces of theater and folk music, the homes of Edgar Allan Poe and Edna St. Vincent Mallay. We walked through winding quaint streets, saw row houses of the richest and the poor. Iconic locales of gay history. Also learned that from the mid 1600s to the early 1700s the West Village was a community of freed black slaves. We saw the stoops where they’d sit on a hot summer’s eve, with whatever musical instrument could be found, belting out surely an incredible impromptu jam session. As Jeff put it, everywhere in this city you just scratch the surface and the stories pour out.