New York has a long history of welcoming popes

—Paul Moses

As Pope Francis arrives this week for the fifth-ever papal visit to the Big Apple, he’ll be buoyed by a modern-day tradition — New Yorkers love their visiting popes.

Somber like Paul VI, ebullient like John Paul II, gentle like Benedict XVI: All of the popes who traveled to New York over the past five decades have thrived on enormous, enthused crowds in a city where Catholics have long been the largest religious denomination.

Pope Francis’ salt-of-the-earth style seems an especially good match for New York, and his distinction as the first pontiff from the Americas has added to the expectations for his trip.

“There are a lot of Catholics in the city,” said Peter Quinn, author of Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. “He’s head of an organization with a billion people . . . practicing Catholics, cultural Catholics, even people out of the church, they want the leader treated with a certain kind of respect.”

Some 36 percent of the New York metropolitan region’s residents are Catholic, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. That is tied with Boston and Pittsburgh for the biggest percent of Catholics in the top 30 metro areas — but given New York’s larger size, it makes the city essentially the capital of Catholic America.

A breakout of the institute’s data shows especially large proportions of Catholics on Long Island: 45 percent in Nassau and 48 percent in Suffolk. (For the city’s five boroughs, it is 30 percent.)

Beyond the large number of New Yorkers who identify themselves as Catholic, there are many others who have left the church but feel its tug when a pope visits.

Nationally, the Pew Research Center found that while 21 percent of Americans say they are Catholic, nearly 1 in 10 Americans who practice another faith, or none at all, consider themselves “partially Catholic.” Adding in those who consider themselves former Catholics, and those who have some other Catholic connection — perhaps those with a Catholic parent but not brought up in the faith — means that 45 percent of Americans are Catholic or have some connection to Catholicism, Pew reported this month.

That’s one reason for the attention that visiting popes receive.

“The people I know, there’s still an emotional attachment, even if it’s not religious anymore,” Quinn said. “You have a certain attachment to these symbols, I think. It touches something in people.”

Appealing to other masses

Another reason is that the popes have had crossover appeal. Beginning with Pope John XXIII, they’ve been working to undo many centuries of ill will toward Jews and are always sure to make a gesture of solidarity to New York’s large Jewish community.

“Ask Jewish New Yorkers of a certain age, and they’ll tell you that John was the first pope they really embraced,” said Terry Golway, author of Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics. When Pope Paul VI arrived, cheers were especially strong for him in the heavily Jewish enclave of Forest Hills, Queens, news accounts noted.

That 1965 trip came at what seems to have been the peak of Catholic influence in the city.

In Rome, the three-year Second Vatican Council was near its end. Paul VI’s decision to retain the church’s opposition to artificial birth control, which led to widespread dissent, was still three years away. The nation had mourned the death of its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, whose widow greeted the pope. Millions of people had flocked to the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to see Michelangelo’s Pieta.

On Long Island, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, created eight years earlier, was rapidly building churches and schools. And New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, organizing the first papal trip to the Western Hemisphere, presided regally from a chancery dubbed the Powerhouse.

Police estimated that some 630,000 people watched the pope’s motorcade travel slowly from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge on Oct. 4, 1965. Many spectators were Catholic school students given the day off.

The key moment of the trip was the pope’s call at the United Nations for an end to war: “Jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre!”

It became a template for the future addresses that popes would give at the UN.

When Pope John Paul II prepared for the next papal visit in 1979 — a six-city journey in the 12th month of his papacy — he said his own speech at the UN would be “an extension” of Paul’s. The same will likely apply to Francis’ address before the General Assembly on Friday, just nine days short of the 50th anniversary of Paul’s call for peace.

The charismatic John Paul used a method that would turn up in many more of his journeys: Celebrate a nation’s highest cultural ideas — and then hold the people to them. At Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, he spoke of the freedom this symbol meant for immigrants, and of Americans’ “willingness to share this freedom with others.”

Later, in a Mass at Yankee Stadium, he spoke of the responsibility that freedom requires: “We cannot stand idly by enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our door.” He also attacked “the lifestyle of many of the members of our rich and permissive societies.”

Francis is likely to hit similar themes.

John Paul returned to New York in 1995, wizened and bent after breaking his leg the previous year, but still dynamic as he celebrated Mass in Central Park. Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, then director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled how the pope shocked the security contingent at the end of a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The plan had been for him to leave by a side door. Instead, he went back down the main aisle and out the front to greet more people, recalled Maniscalco, now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Hempstead.

All of the visiting popes have struck a chord in New York because of the people they are and the position they hold, according to Maniscalco. “Catholics really do sense the pope as head of the church,” he said, adding that like the heads of other religions, a pope can give his people the sense of being in contact with God’s will.

Much as John Paul thrived on his connection to Polish New Yorkers, other papal visitors have had ties to ethnic communities as well. In 2008, Pope Benedict connected to German Catholics through a service at a traditionally German church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

For Francis, watch for the impact that the visit of a South American pope whose native language is Spanish will have on Latinos, who, according to Public Religion Research Institute data, make up the majority of Catholics within New York City.

Times, and attitudes, have changed

Popes weren’t always welcome in New York.

Throughout the 19th century, “the idea of a pope visiting New York would be unthinkable,” said historian Patrick McNamara, author of “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & the Works!”

In 1853, the journey of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, a papal nuncio, sparked riots in various cities. To help the cleric safely board his ship home, New York’s mayor arranged for Bedini to be taken in secret to Staten Island and put on a tug that met the vessel.

New York’s tough, Irish-born Archbishop John Hughes, who was in Cuba trying to recover his fading health, later wrote Bedini that if he’d been home, “We should have taken a carriage at my door, even an open one if the day had been fine enough, and gone by the ordinary streets to the steamboat.”

An 1898 film short of Pope Leo XIII giving his blessings alarmed Protestants who thought it might have been shot in the United States, McNamara said. “This was shown in nickelodeons around the country, and there was a big uproar because people were scared that the pope was actually making his way to the United States.”

The visit of Ireland’s Cardinal Michael Logue to celebrate the centennial of the Archdiocese of New York in 1908 was more promising. He brought greetings from Pope Pius X and received a welcoming letter from President Theodore Roosevelt. Catholics responded with a huge outpouring; newspapers provided expanded and respectful coverage.

In 1936, Spellman, then an auxiliary bishop in Boston, engineered a trip by the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. He stayed in the Manhasset mansion owned by Catholic philanthropist and businessman Nicholas Brady and his wife, Genevieve. Called “Inisfada,” Gaelic for “Long Island,” it later became a Jesuit retreat house that closed and was demolished in 2013.

Having brought the second-ranking figure in the Vatican to New York, Spellman then got to host Pope Paul VI’s visit as archbishop of New York. “By ’65, this was old hat for Spellman,” McNamara said.

Now, as with the earlier papal trips, there is great anticipation among Catholic New Yorkers.

“Just on a personal level, I have appreciated each visit,” said Sister Camille D’Arienzo, a longtime commentator on WINS/1010 radio who has observed the trips. “But I haven’t felt the depth of warmth and almost comfort that he’s coming. I’m so proud of him.”

Paul Moses is Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). His book The Saint and the Sultan won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book.

[This piece originally appeared in Newsday.]

St. Patrick, St. Joseph and Irish-Italian harmony

—Paul Moses

[This post originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.]

Right after Valentine’s Day, the front window of my Brooklyn home sprouts a field of cardboard shamrocks each year. A statue of St. Patrick appears on the bookshelf and a sign is posted on the back door: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

moses-comp-finalThis is the work of my Irish-American wife in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. As the Italian-American husband, I have in past years suggested equal attention to St. Joseph, a favorite saint of Italians. Nothing doing.

The proximity of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Feast of St. Joseph two days later leads to a good deal of teasing and ribbing every year between Catholics of Irish and Italian ancestry.

There is nothing extraordinary about this little bit of fun, unless one considers the bitterness that once marked relations between these two peoples. As impoverished Italians poured into New York and other major cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the already established Irish became their mentors and tormentors—more so the latter, at first.

Much of the rivalry concerned jobs: Italian laborers were willing to work for less pay and longer hours than the Irish, and sometimes they were used to break strikes. Fights were so common between crews of Irish and Italian construction workers that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined a 1894 editorial: “Can’t They Be Separated?”

This bitterness spilled over into the Catholic parishes where the two peoples mingled with their very different forms of practicing the same religion.

The Italians “are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church,” a Vatican agency noted in an 1887 report that singled out an Irish parish on Mott Street in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown for maltreatment of Italian immigrants.

The pastor of Transfiguration Church responded through an article his brother wrote in a Catholic journal that said the Italian immigrants didn’t know even elementary Catholic doctrines. Nor were they so concerned about having to hold services in the church basement, it added, because “the Italians as a body are not humiliated by humiliation.”

These were, in turn, fighting words for a prominent Italian priest who wrote to his bishop in Italy: “I have proofs at hand—it would make your blood boil—to see how Italian priests have been treated by American pastors.”

Such exchanges continued for decades, with Irish churchmen trying to cope with the “Italian problem” and Italians complaining angrily to their bishops and the Vatican.

The Italian brand of Catholicism—with processions and raucous street celebrations in honor of patron saints—didn’t sit well with Irish-American prelates. They knew their Protestant opponents looked down on these customs as pagan-like superstitions. Michael Corrigan, a son of Irish immigrants who served as New York’s archbishop in the late 19th century, tried to bar the processions. The Italians ignored him, and took note of the fact that the Irish celebrated their own feast on St. Patrick’s Day.

This battle within the Catholic Church was fought in many big-city parishes well into the 20th century. No Italian-American headed a diocese in New York state until 1968, when Francis J. Mugavero was appointed bishop of Brooklyn.

And yet, as a diverse group of marchers steps up Fifth Avenue led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it is worth noting that the Catholic parish played an important role in reconciling the Irish and Italians. In the years after World War II, people got to mingle and know each other in their parishes, especially in the suburbs and residential sections of the city.

Scholarly studies have shown that Italian-Americans who attended Catholic schools became more like the Irish in their practice of the Catholic faith.

As a result, as one 1960s study of New York Catholics found, Italian-Americans who went to Catholic schools and attended Mass regularly almost always wed spouses of Irish origin if they did not marry another Italian. That’s especially so for third-generation Italian-Americans, as I am on my mother’s side, a fact to which my Irish-American wife Maureen can attest.

In the early years of the 20th century, those who predicted large-scale Irish-Italian friendship and intermarriage were dismissed as impossibly optimistic. But the story of the Irish and Italians in America demonstrates that it is possible over time for serious divisions to be transformed into a matter of gentle teasing and ribbing between friends—if not husbands and wives.

Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be published by NYU Press in July.

Q&A with Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land

In Brooklyn’s Promised Land, historian Judith Wellman sheds light on the virtually lost history of Weeksville, an independent free black community in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. 

Founded after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, Weeksville provided a space of safety, prosperity, education, and even power. Its residents owned property, set up their own churches, established two newspapers, and even created a baseball team, appropriately named the Weeksville Unknowns. 

In the interview below, Wellman discusses her research for the book, Weeksville’s most remarkable features, and the national significance of this extraordinary place.

Q: Why is Weeksville important?

Judith Wellman: Through the lens of Weeksville as a unique community, we see how real people dealt with national events and movements in African American and American history. Formed at the end of slavery in New York State, Weeksville was a reaction to the attempt to send free people of color to Africa. Its citizens were involved in virtually every movement for African American rights in the nineteenth century, including the black convention movement, voting rights, Underground Railroad, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the emergence of Progressive reform. Weeksville’s success transcends its unique local history and makes it an important model for the world.

When and how did you first come across the space of Weeksville?

In the early 1980s, I was working with a National Park Service Ranger named Stephanie Dyer. Stephanie lived in the Bronx, but she and I were both working at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. When I visited Stephanie in New York, I thought we were going to visit the Teddy Roosevelt birthplace, but Stephanie took me instead to Weeksville. I’ll be forever grateful for that. And I’ll never forget my first sight of Joan Maynard, founding director, coming down the narrow staircase of one of the old houses on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center. I have been hooked ever since! 

Your study relies mostly on public sources instead of private manuscripts. Could you say more about these materials?

So few early Weeksville residents wrote specifically about their own experiences that we began to look for every public record we could find. Census records recorded (or at least attempted to record) the names of all U.S. residents, including those in Weeksville. They gave us vital information about race, age, sex, occupation, literacy, and property ownership of Weeksville residents. They also gave us names, which we used to look up deeds, assessment records, genealogical materials, and newspaper accounts. Newspapers, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, online through the Brooklyn Public Library, provided invaluable details. So did numerous maps. Most unexpectedly, we also found many images relating to Weeksville’s houses, institutions, and people.

This book includes forty-two images and six maps, to give readers a sense of Weeksville as a real place. Wherever possible, it also includes direct quotations from Weeksville’s residents, so readers can hear real voices.   

You described your approach as both chronological and topical. Which period between 1770 and 2010 would you consider to be the most representative or most important in Weeksville’s development?

I most enjoyed learning about Weeksville in the two decades before the Civil War, when it was first founded and grew. By 1855, 521 people lived in Weeksville. Eighty-two percent of them were African Americans. It was a cosmopolitan community, attracting people from the eastern U.S. (including New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., South and North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland) and also from the West Indies and Africa.

Although only the school principal—Junius C. Morel—was nationally known before the Civil War, Weeksville was home to a variety of remarkable people, including Francis P. Graham, “a man of many eccentricities,” as noted by the New York Times, who was accused of participating in the Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, went to Liberia, and then returned to New York City. He later became a minister, shoemaker, and the largest resident landowner in Weeksville. His nephew (or perhaps his natural son), James LeGrant, became Weeksville’s only carpenter. James LeGrant married Lydia Ann Elizabeth Simmons LeGrant, one of only four women in Weeksville who owned land. All of these people and more lived on the block just north of the current Weeksville Heritage Center house, where the Kingsborough housing project now stands.

How was this community rediscovered in 1966? Was there any historical reason behind this rediscovering moment?

Weeksville was rediscovered in the context of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s. Major credit for this rediscovery goes to Jim Hurley, formerly an aerial photographer with the U.S. Navy and Vice Consul to Pakistan. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Hurley was giving tours of New York City neighborhood through the Museum of the City of New York. In 1968, he offered a noncredit workshop through the Pratt Institute of Community Development called “Exploring Bedford-Stuyvesant and New York City.” Delores McCullough and Patricia Johnson were students in this course, and they focused on Weeksville. This group identified the old Hunterfly Road. Then Joseph Haynes, an engineer for the Transit Authority and a professional pilot, took Jim Hurley on a flight to take photos of the old landscape.

The following year, in 1969, the Model Cities Redevelopment Program decided to demolish several old houses near the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. Local residents, including William T. Harley, students from P.S. 243, and Boy Scouts from Troop 342 worked with Jim Hurley, who had a small grant to retrieve objects from these houses before they were demolished. Among other items, they found a Revolutionary War-era cannonball (Weeksville was on the pathway of British troops who came to Long Island) and a tintype of woman who came to be known as the Weeksville Lady.

Local supporters organized Project Weeksville to continue this research. Barbara Jackson worked with students in P.S. 243; Robert Swan did detailed research; Loren McMillan and students from P.S. 243 convinced New York City to designate Weeksville as a landmark. Joan Maynard became Director of the new Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant history, bringing this grassroots preservation effort to national attention. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

What are the most remarkable features of Weeksville? 

Weeksville was a success story. So often we hear about the horrors of slavery and the difficulty of African Americans surviving as free people of color. All of this is important. We need to know this. But if we focus not on what people in the dominant culture did to (or for) African Americans and highlight what African Americans did for themselves, we often find a very different, much more positive story.

This book highlights the experience of ordinary people who together created an extraordinary community—a place of physical safety, high levels of property ownership (about thirty percent of adult men owned property), political participation, education and literacy (with a 93 percent literacy rate for young adults in the 1860s), and the development of community institutions (two churches, a school, an orphan asylum, and a home for the aged) that ultimately formed an important grassroots basis of social reform—the Progressive movement—in the early 20th century.

By the 1850s and 1860s, they had attracted the attention of nationally known African American leaders. People such as Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Rufus L. Perry made Weeksville the headquarters of the African Civilization Society (designed to set up communities of free people in West Africa). Maritcha Lyons made a career as an assistant principal in the Weeksville school, the first person in the U.S. to mentor both African American and European American student teachers together. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, daughter of one of Weeksville’s early landowners, became an early woman doctor.

One of Weeksville’s most noticeable features is that the whole village was dramatically changed—virtually wiped out—by the expansion Brooklyn’s street grid after completion of the Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, only a very few of Weeksville’s pre-Civil War buildings remain, including the ones on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center.

How does remembering Weeksville shed light on the future of African American communities and our society at large?

Weeksville’s citizens wanted to make real in their own lives the American ideal that all people are created equal. Ironically, to fulfill this dream, they had to move to a place outside the control of the dominant culture. As one of about one hundred African American intentional communities before the Civil War, Weeksville fulfilled its goals as a place of safety, property ownership, education, and employment for its residents.

The residents of Weeksville formed a unique community in a unique time and place, but their message transcends that uniqueness to speak to us all, as citizens of this world in the early 21st century. Specifically, Weeksville challenges us as citizens of this world to consider the usefulness of separatism versus integration as a way to create places of respect and empowerment for all people.

As a historian of European American background, how did you become involved in the project?

This project actually started out as a National Register nomination, not a book. In 2003, Pam Green, Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, invited me to work with them on a National Register nomination for the Weeksville houses. We had a wonderful team of people—Cynthia Copeland, Judith Burgess-Abiodun, Theresa Ventura, Lee French, Victoria Huver, and others—with everyone working on different sources. We were all astounded by how much we found. The project kept growing, until it finally became this book.

Truly, in so many ways, I am an outsider to Weeksville. I did not grow up in Weeksville. I did not grow up in any African American community. So there is much that people who grew up there would instinctively know but about which I am completely unaware.

Yet, by their success, the people of Weeksville transcended their own small unique community. They spoke to Americans—white as well as black—across the country, today as well as in the nineteenth century. We all—as citizens of this world—need to know their stories, so that we can learn something from them.

UP Week: Announcing the new Keywords

Happy University Press Week! We are thrilled to once again be featured the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, co-editors of the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Designed as a print-digital hybrid publication, Keywords collects more than 90 essays—30 of which are new to this edition—from interdisciplinary scholars, each on a single term such as “America,” “culture,” “law,” and “religion.”

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the other press blogs featured today! [Friday’s tour includes blog posts from Columbia University PressUniversity of Illinois Press, Island PressUniversity of Minnesota Press, and University of Nebraska Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

We’re thrilled that the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies is finally here. In our roles as co-editors, we have had a great time working with such an exciting group of scholars across a wide array of interdisciplinary fields, including American studies and cultural studies. We hope that you will find their essays as stimulating and thought-provoking as we do.

As we note in our introduction to the second edition, we’ve been working with NYU Press on this “hybrid print-digital publication” even before any of us knew exactly what that phrase could or would mean. It’s been a learning experience for us as co-editors and for the Press. Now that it has arrived, we hope that it will be a rich and engaging learning opportunity for our readers.

The site is pretty straightforward. It includes the digital essays in full, the opening passages of the print essays, and resources for anyone interested in using the publication in courses. We’re particularly excited about the search and category functions, both of which allow users to map uses of a concept across the print, digital, and post-publication keyword essays. We invite you to play with these tools to see what they can offer!

As we mark and celebrate this launch, we also want to highlight one claim that we’ve made across both editions: a keywords project like this one is never done. It is a necessarily incomplete, participatory, and collaborative mapping of knowledge formations across multiple fields and from diverse positionalities. For this reason, we have built into the publication several ways that you can contribute to Keywords.

·      You can propose to author a “post-publication essay,” a contribution that responds to or deviates from the essays included in or absent from the project. Contact us at

·      You can contribute to our archive of assignments that have engaged the publication and/or used the Keywords Collaboratory.

·      We can post to the Keywords blog by describing pedagogical or other deployments of Keywords.

If you are interested in doing any of these things, please contact us. That’s all for now. Enjoy Keywords, in print and online, and please do let us know what use you make of it.

Bruce Burgett is Dean and Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, graduate faculty in the Department of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, and co-director of the UW graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship. Glenn Hendler is Associate Professor and Chair in the English Department at Fordham University, where he also teaches in the American Studies Program. Together, they are the co-editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition (NYU Press, 2014).

How Katz’s Delicatessen became a New York icon

—Ted Merwin

When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, school field trips meant being schlepped on a bus to the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue, to a multimedia film called the “New York Experience,” in which a kaleidoscopic montage of New Yorkers of different stripes celebrated both past and present life in Gotham. Nowadays, all one needs to do to get a sense of the real New York is to pay a visit to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, where a prickly, pickle-y, briny Yiddish gestalt holds imperious sway in a churning sea of multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers and counter people.

And so “The Ur-Deli,” Jordan Weissman’s recent piece in Slate on how Katz’s stays afloat despite charging $20 for a pastrami sandwich, while it ably limns the economic factors that have raised the price of beef (even beef of the non-kosher variety, which Katz’s retails), only hints at what makes Katz’s emblematic of Jewish life in New York. Katz’s is what the peerless French Jewish scholar Pierre Nora would call a lieu de memoire, a place in which Jewish memory itself is staged and constructed—a place in which every neon sign seems to light up a kind of historic Jewish body electric for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Indeed, there is something Whitmanesque about Katz’s, peopled, often around the clock, by a jostling crowd of cab drivers, tourists, politicians and businesspeople. (Of course, if Whitman had ever been to Katz’s, he would have called his magnum opus “Slices of Pastrami” instead of “Leaves of Grass.”)

We may never know which Jewish delicatessen was the first to open in New York; the deli–from the Latin word delicatus, meaning anything that was alluring, enticing, or voluptuous–morphed in successive stages out of the gourmet take-out stores of Europe, only gradually sprouting tables at the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a particularly relaxed and raucous type of restaurant that brought together Jewish immigrants from different Eastern European nations and enabled them to begin to form a collective American Jewish identity while fressing on smoked and pickled meats, crunchy cucumbers, and spongy, slightly sour, seeded rye bread.

But Katz’s, which opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers (the brothers were bought out by Willy Katz in 1910, at the peak of Jewish immigration), was certainly one of the pioneers. Its survival is remarkable, given how many similar establishments went in and out of business on the Lower East Side in those years, and how challenging the restaurant business remains to this day. It has profited hugely from the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on the Lower East Side each year seeking to experience, or at the very least to imagine, what life was like in New York more than a century ago.

True, what cemented Katz’s in the popular imagination is its role in the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy film, When Harry Met Sally, in which Meg Ryan’s vociferous “orgasm” articulated the whole “let it all hang out” ethos of Jewish culture (one summed up, perhaps, equally well by the pendulous salamis hanging behind the deli counter). It was—as another non-Jew, Henry James, called it in his (admittedly highly prejudiced) 1905 survey of the Lower East Side—a “Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This is what Katz’s sells: the celebration of excess, the drive to overturn limits, the claiming of one’s irrepressible due.

Katz’s may thus be not just the most “New York” restaurant there is, but the most American and most democratic one. A flash mob last year recreated the notorious scene from the Reiner film in Katz’s with dozens of (seemingly) non-Jewish women simultaneously reaching “climax” in unison, thrusting the deli even more to the pinnacle of American popular culture. As Katz’s has become ever more a destination restaurant, the little carnival ticket that one uses to purchase one’s food gains entry not just to an eatery but to a buoyant, beguiling and boisterous show. For such a bonanza, $20 seems like a true Lower East Side bargain.

Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion & Judaic Studies and Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of Pastrami on Rye: A History of the Jewish Deli (forthcoming in 2015 from NYU Press). For more information, visit his website:

Why NYC must save the South Street Seaport

—James M. Lindgren

Most New Yorkers think of South Street Seaport as only a touristy shopping mall. But the real South Street Seaport is a historic district with three piers and 11 blocks surrounded by Manhattan’s skyscrapers. It’s a treasure we must protect. Its heart is Schermerhorn Row. Built in 1811-12, the Row was “the city’s first world trade center.” It’s the largest survivor of an era when South Street businesses were making New York “the Empire State” and the United States the world’s rising power.

We owe thanks to the preservationists of the South Street Seaport Museum, who saved what we see today. In 1966, as nearby neighborhoods were falling to bulldozers, they wanted New Yorkers to remember the sailors, captains and merchants who made the world’s greatest port. To recreate its fabled “street of ships” on the East River, they assembled the nation’s largest museum fleet of historic ships.

In a 1967 charter, New York state charged the Seaport Museum with the responsibility of telling that story. Mayor John Lindsay designated the museum as the district’s protector — though he provided no public funding. Through a benefactor, the museum was slated to receive 50 buildings, but the deal fell apart in 1972. Those properties ended up in the hands of City Hall, which leased the buildings and piers to the museum. With big expenses on land and water, the museum struggled. Because of its proximity to Wall Street, developers wanted the museum’s lucrative leases. Finally, after NYC’s financial meltdown in 1975, developers got what they wanted.

In 1981, after arm twisting by City Hall, the museum accepted a more challenging lease and a “festival marketplace” development. But the New Fulton Market (1983) and Pier 17 emporium (1985) only opened after their developer, the Rouse Company, made numerous promises to help the museum, promote local business and enhance the community.

The festival marketplace became the city’s No. 1 tourist destination in 1988, but its popularity was brief. As a result, Rouse failed to keep its promises. It never paid a nickel of the millions it had promised annually to the museum. The Koch administration did nothing to either help the museum or enforce the lease’s provisions.

Why? The festival marketplace’s real winner was City Hall, whose economic development office milked the leases. While Rouse’s shopping mall grabbed the spotlight, the museum was pushed so far backstage that it was invisible to most New Yorkers.

Still, the Seaport Museum rose to become NYC’s No. 3 history museum. In 1998, Congress even named it “America’s National Maritime Museum.”

New Yorkers should have been proud, though few knew about it.

Then came the twin blows of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, which devastated tourism and destroyed the mechanical and electrical infrastructure of the Seaport area. New York City refused to repair the museum buildings it managed — because the Bloomberg administration had, in secret negotiations, agreed to evict the museum.

The Howard Hughes Corporation, which inherited the Rouse contract, is building a new mall on Pier 17. Unable to maintain two large square-riggers, the museum is restoring its ship Wavertree, but giving Peking away. It wants to keep the rest of the fleet for all New Yorkers to enjoy, but can it afford them?

Now Howard Hughes plans on finishing the job — asking the city to evict the museum from the last buildings it occupies and for permission to erect a 50-story hotel complex on the publicly owned site of the 1930s fish market, which has moved to The Bronx.

This would be tragic. New Yorkers and the de Blasio administration need to step in and support the Seaport Museum and the district’s public space.

No 50-story hotel should intrude on the Brooklyn Bridge, the eighth wonder of the world. City Hall should also give the seaport’s small businesses the same consideration as the district’s big players. And, lastly, there should be room among the old buildings for the Seaport Museum’s original purpose — to tell the story of the great port that made the city, state and nation.

James M. Lindgren is the author of Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District (NYU Press, 2014), out now.

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Post on April 19, 2014.]

Two NYU Press books honored in 2014 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show

We are very happy to announce that two NYU Press titles have been selected for inclusion in the 2014 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show!  The show recognizes meritorious achievements in the design and production of books, jacket, and covers by members of the university press community.  Here are the honored titles.

Congratulations to designers Charles B. Hames and Adam Bohannon—and to our entire editorial, design and production team!

NYU Press wins two National Jewish Book Awards

NYU Press is thrilled to announce that two of our books are among the winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards, selected by the Jewish Book Council!

Congratulations to Hasia Diner and Gennady Estraikh, editors of 1929, and Melissa R. Klapper, author of Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace!

Book Title

WINNER in the Anthologies & Collections category

1929: Mapping the Jewish World
Hasia R. Diner and Gennady Estraikh, eds.
NYU Press

Book Title

WINNER in the Women’s Studies category

Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940
Melissa R. Klapper
NYU Press

The annual National Jewish Book Awards are presented by the Jewish Book Council. Read the complete list of this year’s winners and finalists here.