Secret Escape Routes of Chinatown…

From the Library Journal interview of David Freeland, author (and tour guide) of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville

The Atlantic Garden backed onto Elizabeth Street, from which at first it seemed to Freeland that only the commercial offerings of today’s Chinatown could now be seen. He ventured into the Elizabeth Street police station, and—after persuading the cops as to his intentions (which took a while, he says)—he was able to find a vantage point there from which an old peaked roof, the structure of the Atlantic Garden itself, could be seen. Behind the clamorous facades shielding it from the street, it looks stoic and peaceful.

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When Freeland conducts me next to Doyers Street, called in previous centuries “a forbidding cow-path,” and, more famously, “the bloody angle,” for the Tong gang warfare that was centered there 100 years ago, is it any wonder that, grid-oriented as I am, I feel a touch of vertigo? Doyers bends between Pell Street and the Bowery; Freeland shows me its secrets. We go through a doorway east of the yellow Co Co Fashion sign and descend through successive staircases and along hallways. Just as Freeland has said in his book, it’s a more circuitous version of Doyers Street itself, now revealing the underground storefronts of podiatrists, feng shui specialists, and other commercial offices.

What do today’s residents of Chinatown who frequent these businesses make of the hallway’s eccentric dips and turns before other stairs take them up and out onto where the Bowery meets Chatham Square? Do they know that it’s a pattern in exact echo of the old underground passageway from Doyers Street’s Chinese Theater to the Chinese Theatrical Boarding House on the Bowery? The popular Chinese comedic actor, Ah Foon, took this route one evening in 1909, seeking to stay hidden from the Hip Sing Tong. Accompanied by policemen—from that same station house that still stands—he made it back to his boarding-house room.

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