Travelmag Banner
Archives
Search
 Features

Stalking ancestors on the streets of New York


I’d always known about my grandfather being summoned from marching in New York City’s 1905 Memorial Day parade to see his daughter — my mother — minutes after her birth at home. Last September I located that home – 482 Amsterdam Ave. – in the state’s 1905 Census. A tiny script, running slightly over the edge of the quarter-inch block for the age of my mother, nee Helen Huljus, reads, “Born 5/30/05.” I gasped, coming across that note while zooming, 109 years later, onto a facsimile of the long-ago enumerator’s form.

I’ve never lived in New York, but four generations of my family did, before and after me. My parents sometimes took me to Manhattan while I was growing up, but never to their old neighborhoods, let alone forebears’ cemeteries. Like almost everyone who could have told me much, they were gone before I became curious.

Prior to a week’s vacation for my husband Robin and myself in Manhattan, I spent late-nighters online searching Census, immigration, marriage and burial records. The trip included a mission: checking on my New Yorkers.

To walk like a New Yorker means fast, but more: it entails a choreography, a grace, in gliding around people and other obstacles, never blocking the way or breaking stride. I think you can become a New Yorker by mastering that walk — plus maybe a few subway routes – the day you arrive from anywhere in the world. My New Yorkers came from Flögeln, Germany; Gravesend, Kent, U.K.; the south of Ireland; and parts of Virginia including the town where my children grew up (and where storekeepers inquired, even after two decades, “You’re not from around here, are you?”).

482 Amsterdam

482 Amsterdam

Our first morning in New York, getting off the subway near Central Park, we quickly found 482 Amsterdam, a tenement-style apartment house on the Upper West Side near 83rd Street. The 5-story, orangey brownstone with fire escapes in front sports an anachronistically modern marquee: “The Rita Berger House.”

As we took pictures, a passerby asked, “Are you Rita?” No one appeared home, but I later discovered the site (named for a founder) is part of a nonprofit, operating since the 1950s, providing “transitional support for people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.”

Had she chanced to live later, that mission might have accommodated my grandmother, named (as Mother was) Helen. A lovely bride in the one extant photo, she had been a nurse and bit-part film actress before the fledgling industry left NY for California. Mother – a lively storyteller when chronicling her early years – initially told me her mother died when she was small. Much later, she revealed, “my mother may still be alive for all I know, but she was a hopeless drunk.”

Next door to 482 is a tavern, the Soldier McGee. Its front, with a 19th-Century Irish soldier’s cameo, has the look of antiquity seen at many NY bars.

Five years later the small family lived even further uptown, at West 108th St. (one of several sites I didn’t have time to seek). Beginning soon afterward, Mother was raised by her father, family friends, and for two years, in an orphanage.

270315IMG_4182 Robin w lifesize replica of Liberty foot (3)

Robin examines Liberty’s foot

I found Grandmother Helen in the 1920 U.S. Census. Divorced, she had taken back her maiden name, Fenning, and was among 77 women and girls living in Manhattan’s “House of the Good Shepherd.” Its address and mission were unrecorded, but I’ve heard of a grim-looking institution bearing the same name in Brooklyn, where a later generation’s parents warned girls they could be sent for “bad behavior.”

Mother’s earliest memories included horse-drawn trolleys, chestnut vendors with monkeys . . . and an uncle stabbed to death in a poker game (the perp’s identity and motive unknown). She said she was born in Hell’s Kitchen – a legendarily tough neighborhood – but the home turns out to be nowhere near it. Hell’s Kitchen runs from 34th-59th Streets. We stayed near its edge at the Wyndham New Yorker (34th Street & 8th Ave.), sometimes breakfasting at the popular Stage Door Deli (33rd and 8th), which proudly advertised its Hell’s Kitchen location.

Two blocks from 482 Amsterdam, in Central Park, pink balloons floating over a picnicking family evoked the continuity of generations. We strolled by Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle, passing ballplayers; dog-walkers; bustling playgrounds.

Later we enjoyed Broadway’s “The Fantasticks” and “The Book of Mormon.” On a Times Square New Years Eve long ago, Mother had recalled a legend that if you stood long enough on Broadway and 42nd Street, you’d see everyone in the world. We walked the High Line, a new, verdant trail above the Hudson on a former elevated rail line my parents likely rode. A “Walks of NY” tour took us through St. Patrick’s Cathedral (might Mother, in her Catholic infancy, have been baptized there?) and Rockefeller Plaza.

My gimpy knees aching from miles on pavement, I was gratified more than disconcerted at how often my white hair got me offered a seat on the subway. We heard varying perspectives on how the city has changed since our last substantial visits there, c. the 90s. It’s cleaner and seems safer, but a cabbie from India lamented its exhausting pace, and prices forcing poorer residents out. I wonder if there are fewer poor, and fewer old, New Yorkers now.

Teddy's bar and grill

Teddy’s bar and grill

We gawked at Grand Central Station’s Art Deco grandeur; then located the Long Island RR depot at Penn Station. (Penn, also our Amtrak debarkation point, situated near the hotel, is not the gorgeous old station. That was replaced in the ‘60s, to my parents’ heartbreak. Circa 1926, Ted and the soon-to-be Helen Edwards often met there after work.) We took the LIRR spur that runs alongside Long Island Sound to Manhasset, to find the home where they and my sister Cindy lived from about 1935 until 1944. I’d never seen, but had heard much about, that place and time when Daddy, an engineer, commuted into Manhattan on that railroad.

Reaching the little station in late afternoon, walking from the downtown’s small green park to a sprawl of chain stores, we got a taxi to 14 Vanderbilt Road – a short ride through a neighborhood of old tree-shaded lawns and gardens. The brick Colonial looks practically unchanged from Edwards-era photos. Yet compared to its perspective on Google Earth, it seemed surprisingly close to the road. No-one appeared home. I regret not peering into the back where Mother made her rock garden.

Wikipedia says the neighborhood, Strathmore-Vanderbilt, was built by William Levitt (later the eponymous Levittown developer) on former Vanderbilt property. Manhasset Bay’s western shore was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for “East Egg” (home to the snooty Buchanans). “Your folks must have been well heeled,” our driver speculated. Well-heeled is in the eyes of the beholder, but the house advertised for $12,500 when they bought it new, my father back to full-time after a spell of Depression-shortened hours. (It last sold in 2008 for $900,000.) In 1936, in my sister’s elementary school in Manhasset, Alf Landon won a mock election by a landslide. The real election would be a landslide in President Franklin Roosevelt’s favor. Mother and Daddy once drove for miles to see FDR, glimpsing his tall silk hat. They took grainy photos of Long Island’s 1938 hurricane damage, heard Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics on the radio, and enjoyed Coney Island and the 1939 World’s Fair.

Following Pearl Harbor, as volunteer airplane spotters, they scanned the skies for enemy planes from a Manhasset mansion’s tower, sometimes on bitter cold nights. In 1944 they moved to Virginia, where Daddy began his job with the US Army. (I arrived the following year.)

Ellis island entrance

Ellis Island entrance

On the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island ferry tour, we climbed to Liberty’s pedestal (but not into the torch, which Cindy and her friends once did; that requires reservations). Twelve million people came through Ellis from 1892-1954. The museum’s online records, starting at 1892, include none of my three immigrant grandparents – nor do the records of Castle Garden, the circular fortress at the harbor’s edge which accommodated earlier arrivals. British grandmother Harriet Porter Edwards, and Irish Helen, might have arrived there. German grandfather Chris (whose namesake I am) should have come through Ellis, having debarked in 1889. Were these new New Yorkers stowaways, or less romantically, casualties of lost data?

We recalled waiting in line beside Castle Garden in 1994 for the same ferry. Albert – my last New Yorker – escorted us there but left; he never liked standing in lines.

After exploring the vast store of artifacts at the 9/11 Museum, we had lunch at nearby Essex World Café, where a makeshift sign, “Medical Station,” has remained since its use 13 years ago. The memorial is the beautiful reflecting pool, engraved with all known victims’ names, on the footprint of the destroyed towers. I had only visited the site before in a dream, touring lower Manhattan with Albert my guide, as a bird darted above us from the pit.

Albert McNett Jr., my son, lived in Brooklyn nearly ten years and is the New Yorker whose walk I best remember. He moved upstate, where he died at 31 from an accident a month to the day before 9/11.

We spent our last full day in NY – Sept. 11 — in Brooklyn. Had lunch in Albert’s Williamsburg neighborhood, under the bronzed bear’s head at Teddy’s Bar and Grill (c. 1887), where he’d taken us several times. Walked to nearby Wythe Ave., but failed to definitively find his home at #419, where we’d stayed one week. Either Wythe Ave’s numbers extend in two directions, or the building’s front is remodeled.

We rode further east to Brooklyn’s Broadway Junction, then walked through a trash-strewn underpass to the vast, verdant Cemetery of the Evergreens. At its office, I presented the burial information on grandfather Christian Huljus and step-grandmother Edna Berry Huljus and received the section and plot number. After nearly an hour’s search among sporadically numbered stones, I found a sequence that led to it. Holding my breath as I neared a gentle hilltop beneath a big red oak, I saw a large stone, “Berry” (Edna’s family name). Nearby was the marker for James Berry, whose name and 1923 death date match my information about her father. No stones in that plot dated more recently than the1920s.
270315IMG_4239 Berry and Huljus plot Evergreens Cemetery Brooklyn (3)
Or did they? On the oak’s opposite side, I found a gravesite in sad condition. Two seemingly unmarked stones were apparently dislodged by the tree’s roots. One is arch-shaped: Grandma Edna’s? She was the only grandparent I knew (both Edwards grandparents, and Chris Huljus, died before my time). Grandma sent Christmas gifts, wrapped in white tissue on top of red to appear pink, and wrote to me of the birds at her feeders. I remember her old farmhouse, 27 miles away in Woodcliff Lake, NJ, which I revisited three years ago.

The other stone, lying face down, was of a size and shape common to military cemeteries. Philippines war veteran/Grandfather Chris’s? It would not budge. A small, tattered American flag lay anchored by a dead branch. I leaned it against the tree, fleetingly I’m sure. I wonder how many years it had been since these graves had visitors. We followed Redemption Road a short distance to the resting place of “Bojangles” Bill Robinson – then headed back.

Time did not allow for finding Elmhurst, Queens, where Daddy grew up, or Far Rockaway, Long Island, where Mother spent her teens. Locating their homes from Census information appears challenging. Although Clarence Edwards (from Virginia — a judge and my only American-born grandparent) lived his final 45 years in Elmhurst, and I’ve found more than a page of his court cases online, I have no lead on his or Grandmother Harriet’s graves. I once spent a day in her hometown, Gravesend. I hope to see both my parents’ colossal high school buildings while they remain standing.

Time also would not permit tracking down 419 Wythe, or Albert’s other homes in Brooklyn — Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg; Jefferson Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. We had a train to catch the next morning.
Truck carrying sculptures
The ride home went through Washington, D.C., where we debarked for the final part of this New Yorkers’ search. Grandfather Huljus was the sole officer with the Woodcliff Lake, NJ police force in 1942 when he died from an accident sustained pursuing a speeder. In 2011, Googling Woodcliff Lake, I discovered tributes the little town has recently paid its one fallen officer, including his name’s placement on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at D.C.’s Judiciary Square. Arriving after dark, we found Christian Huljus’s name engraved on a marble wall. That would have comforted Mother, who took his loss hard.

So much about New York feels like nowhere else: “Whispering Corner” in Grand Central, rendering whispers quite audible 30 feet away. A pickup truck bearing the statue (or replica?) of Empire State construction workers at rest on a high beam. A couple, the woman maybe eight months pregnant, wheeling bicycles on and off a subway car. The time in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel when the car in front of our taxi ran out of gas and its driver negotiated with ours (using hand gestures in lieu of a common language) to push him through. The relief of sunlight at said tunnel’s end.

This is from my journal when we visited Albert in 1994:

Had a cookout on Albert’s roof at 419 Wythe, July 4. The ladder starts 3’ above his floor, requiring agility. Corn roasting in the husks. Big crowd of Albert’s friends. What seemed like hundreds of boats, all shapes and sizes, floating up the East River for an optimal view, ablaze with lights. Macy’s put on a spectacular display, seen through Williamsburg Bridge, with accompanying jazz and corny radio commentary.

270315IMG_4147 14 Vanderbilt Rd Manhasset w myself 2014 (3)

At family’s 1830s-40s Manhasset home

The neighborhood was filled with various illegal fireworks (M-80s?) which we had been hearing off and on for the past two days. “Is that fireworks, or urban violence?” I had asked, 90% in jest, following one of the blasts our first night in NY. Albert and Robin both got a kick out of that. Albert warned us to watch for explosions on the sidewalks. A friend of his had been knocked down by one.

So during the roof party, in a street below and behind us, rockets and other explosives were fired all evening by a big crowd of kids who occupied an entire street (vehicular traffic being scarce). Once a fireball soared right over us; I ducked. Those kids had their own street-level finale – timed to steal some glory from Macy’s. As their thousands of firecrackers went off, gawkers ran across ours and nearby roofs, diverted, by this greater auditory extravaganza, from the more visual rockets up-river.

All my New Yorkers might have smiled.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Americas