When I was a teen, my dad took me to America — the only time I’ve ever been there. For him, it had been over thirty years. The previous time, he’d gone by boat.
When my dad was fresh out of high school, he implausibly got into an exchange program that had him staying in the U.S. for a year. This was in the 1950s; he was an impressionable, bookish teen with radical leanings from a small Dutch town. He travelled to the U.S. by boat, with one suitcase — a suitcase we still have, which I used again last month when emigrating across Europe.
His placement with a posh family in Yonkers, NY, was — perhaps predictably — brief and unsuccessful, and he was almost sent back. Instead, he met fate: they found just the right people for him. A socialist reverend and his wife who ran a church in Detroit, one of the first to open its doors to both blacks and whites.
The pastor had a long activist past, though the McCarthy era had cast a pall over it; he’d even gotten name-checked in Reds and Our Churches for serving as VP of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He was an immensely inspirational father figure for my dad, and we were going to the States because it was clear this would be the last chance he would have to see them again. They lived in the Rocky Mountains by then, and they were lovely, impressive people. I also remember how he took me down to a sizable basement library, which notably included detailed presidential election maps and, as he showed with a grin, a collection of Soviet magazines that my dad would not have known about.
Before visiting them, though, we travelled across a large swath of the country. We stayed in YMCAs and youth hostels — I remember the cockroaches which infested half of them. We went hunting for the places where he used to live in Dearborn, MI, and Yonkers; we stayed in New York and Washington, DC; took a bus down to New Orleans; an onward train to El Paso, TX; and moved up to Santa Fe, Taos and Denver before heading into the Rockies. We finished up with a long but stunning train ride to Los Angeles, where a great-aunt who emigrated from Holland in the 1950s lived with her family.
Everything was impressive: the cities, the mountains. Inside the cities, I found the contrasts equally intense. The skyscrapers; all the homeless people. (We wouldn’t get those in Holland, not in remotely comparable numbers, until later.) How hurried and busy people were in New York, how friendly they were in the West. But also the cop car that came up behind us in New Orleans, warning us we were walking in the wrong neighbourhood. When my dad insisted that no, he’d looked on the map and this was the shortest way, they left us with instructions not to look at anyone, stay on the middle of the road, and not to talk. In New York on the other hand, when we’d ambled through the Village and around Tompkins Square Park, the site of a riot that same summer, he bottled it and we didn’t continue into now-gentrified Alphabet City.
I took some photos. I liked taking pictures, and probably used a camera my mom gave me. I even printed out some of them by hand (the black-and-white ones in this post). At some point, a decade or two later, I scanned a bunch of them. Now, I found back those files, and I thought it’d be interesting to see if I could find back a few of the same spots on Google Street View.
Above and at the top of this post (and in full size here) is 30 Mercer Street, in SoHo: then a “loading zone” for Dukane Fabrics, whose main address was on the flip side on 451 Broadway. That company still has a website — but it ain’t much. Apparently it was founded in 1948, and moved into this building in the early 70s. It was long just used for storage, with maybe a couple of offices for salesmen, company boss Warren Leshen recounted in an interview for the New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project. He and his partners renovated the building over a couple of decades as a hobby project, he says, which must have paid off handsomely. The ground floor space is now taken up by CB2, Google Street View reveals — a furniture store that sells $700 chairs.
Pegging the location of this one involved a bit of sleuthing. It took a Marvel Comics fan-wiki reference to place Rose & Bob’s Candy Store (on the right in the 1988 photo) on 9th Ave., where The Hulk apparently battled Electro (“Slaughter on 9th Avenue!”). That’s a pretty long street, but this beautiful photo features Rose & Bob’s as well, and on this crop someone posted to Pinterest you can see the street number of the neighbouring Aguilera record store (discs, tapes and religious articles!). The brick patterns above the windows and on the walls of the building on the nearby corner of 9th Ave. and W 48th Street helped pinpoint it.
Gone, too, but not as long as Rose & Bob’s or Aguilera, is Pozzo’s Pastry Shop. A family business, it shuttered after 55 years in 2007, leaving behind grieving customers and a dull vista on Google Street View. The owners are fine though, a former employee chimed in: “Joe and Mario Bianchi owned the building, they both used to work very hard […] but the rent they collect on the apts and store front make for a great early retirement. They deserve it.”
A couple blocks up, still on 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, we get a different juxtaposition. Each of the buildings got a new lick of paint at some point, so the colours have all changed — but it’s the same spot. This time round, the spirit doesn’t seem to have changed all as much, at first glance, either. But La Palma Oriental, written up for a Health Code violation in 1978, has been gone a long time.
If you have any idea where the other photos in this post were taken, exactly, provide your hints in the comments!