Greenwich Village's Old Home Week

Old Home Week

In May 1913, New York City saw its first ever Old Home Week hosted in Greenwich Village, which was also known at the time as the old Ninth Ward. Created by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, director of the Greenwich House settlement and President of the Greenwich Village Improvement Society, Old Home Week had a two-fold purpose. First, Simkhovitch sought to create a neighborly spirit in the midst of a changing neighborhood by bringing back former residents to reminisce about the Village. Secondly, she wanted the immigrants living in the Village to feel connected to a certain American past. In this essay, I look at two generational poles, the “old timer” ex-Villagers and the children in the Hiawatha pageant, to interpret the meaning of Old Home Week.

In its parades and other activities, Old Home Week included the area south of 14th Steet and west of 6th Avenue. The multi-day celebration brought together both the older citizens of the area as well as its more recently settled inhabitants.The festivities began on Monday the 19th, with a meeting in Public School 95 and continued throughout the week: Tuesday, May 20th was Merchant’s Day, and included a parade; Wednesday’s “Social Service Day” offered tea with public personas at various settlement houses; Thursday was “Church Day,” and Friday was “School Day.” Saturday, the final day, was capped off with a large dinner followed by a children’s pageant.

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A History in Brief

In the mid-nineteenth century, Greenwich Village housed many wealthy residents, and large Federalist-style homes dotted the rural landscape. Beginning in the 1860s, however, wealthy residents started moving up to areas around 5th avenue. In their place, many industries, such as the Triangle shirtwaist factory, were established. Many German, Italian and Irish immigrants flocked to Greenwich Village in order to work and live. What had been large one-family homes turned into apartments for many families.1

At the turn of the century and up through World War I, low rent in Greenwich Village attracted many artists and other Bohemians, in addition to the immigrant population. Known for art and political radicalism, the Village became an eclectic space with a lively nightlife. This combination of immigrants and Bohemians created the densest population in all of New York City, with high rates of infant mortality and malnutrition. It was in this context that Simkhovitch set out to create Old Home Week.

Welcoming Back the Old-Timers

Before the celebratory week kicked off, the local School Board went to great lengths to locate former Greenwich Village residents and prominent citizens connected to the area. The Board also made a “special reservation” for people who had lived in the Village for more than fifty years. Two of the oldest successfully located were Joseph Finker, a resident of more than 70 years, and Sanford J. Cable, of Vannest Place. Former residents, some of whom were in their eighties and nineties, had many common memories of their old home, which they were happy to share with the current residents.

In their attempts to recreate the Village of a half-century prior, what stood out in the minds of the ex-Villagers were the long lines that stretched around the old water pump at Jefferson Market, the gas lamplighters, the big fires and the famous “Harry Howard’s 34 engine” that fought them. Also vivid in their memories were the old Federal mansions with their pineapple decorations, which by 1913 had largely been torn down.

Many “ex-Villagers” also spoke of the rural aspect of the Village fifty years earlier. For example, Everett P. Wheeler, formerly of Grove Street, reminisced that the street truly was a grove of grapes and apricots back in the 1840s. Euphemia M. Olcott, a resident of West 12th St. since 1844, recalled the many farmhouses and the pigs that used to run along the dirt streets. When her family moved to the Village, Olcott’s mother received a letter from a friend that read, “‘Helen has a cosy little home, but she is so far outside the city limits that we cannot expect to see much of her.’”2 Public officials who spoke at Old Home Week gatherings linked these shared, public memories to neighborhood unity and a sense of American character. Edward M. Lauterbach said that it was, “‘Through such typically American celebrations [that] the spirit of American liberty and patriotism was taught to the immigrants who now form a large part of the population of the lower west side.’”3 It is to the immigrants, specifically to the immigrant youth, that I now turn.

The Hiawatha Pageant

If the older residents of Greenwich Village were considered “typically American,” the newer immigrants, from countries such as Italy and Ireland, were considered less so. Americanization, an ideology that became important in social settlement work and US politics at the beginning of World War I, was seen as a means of preparing immigrants for citizenship by assimilating them into American culture.4 The Children's Pageant, held outdoors at Hudson Park on the final day of Old Home Week, was seen as a way of connecting immigrant children to America’s storied past. On Saturday May 24, three hundred children performed the play Hiawatha, a rendition of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem. Children as young as three years old danced in the performance —the entire cast comprised of youngsters from Greenwich Village. The play began with the “‘Spirits of the Past,’ represented by a score of tots”5 costumed as Indians, Dutch settlers, British soldiers, and American Colonial troops.

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They were soon joined by the representations of Irish and Italian immigrants, and all settled in to watch the romanticized story of Hiawatha, a fictionalized American Indian. The play, which traced Hiawatha's birth, marriage, and eventual death, featured a “primeval” set including a birch canoe, wigwams, and a stuffed deer. As he departed to “the Land of the Hereafter, [he told] his people his work was done and bid them farewell, with the injunction to obey the priest, a missionary who had come among them from the white men.”6 Thus, the children were left with the impression that the death of the American Indian and the birth of American Christianity combined to create “American progress” amidst a group of varied, and varying, immigrants into the present and future.

On the opening day of Old Home Week, Village native and Columbia University Professor Charles Sears Baldwin had noted, “‘Today it is better. In [the past] the watchword was ‘We must keep the Village American.’ Today the watchword is, ‘We must make them all Americans.’ It is a better watchword.’”7 The Italian children of Greenwich House learned a specific history of America, and through that narrative were taught a certain vision of the Village future.

A New Sense of Patriotism?

In the past, Greenwich Village had been a quaint, rural village isolated from the rest of the city, but by 1913 it was on the cusp of change. Plans for a subway that would travel down Varick Street meant modernization, to the fear of some. But when borough president McAneny brought up the coming “invasion” of workers with picks and axes, “the heartiest applause” of both young and old rang through the crowd. A journalist for The New York Times wrote that the villagers, “seemed resigned to the fact that many a dormer window and gabled roof, many a

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fanlight and fluted column would have to give way.”8 In this context, then, Old Home Week becomes a means of creating an idealized version of Village (and American) history and community. Reformers and politicians alike hoped this sense of community, rooted in shared memory and cultural performance, would create a unified American identity at a time when the physical space of Greenwich Village was set to undergo major change.

Sources:
"Hiawatha" in Pageant." New - York Tribune (1911-1922): 4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Tribune (1841-1922). May 25 1913.

"Article 10 — no Title." New York Times (1857-1922): SM5. ProQuest. May 18 1913.

"Find Moral Lessons in Old Greenwich." New York Times (1857-1922): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007) with Index (1851-1993). May 19 1913.

"Greenwich Village." New York Times (1857-1922): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007) with Index (1851-1993). May 12 1913.

"Greenwich Village Goes Back 50 Years." New York Times (1857-1922): 3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007) with Index (1851-1993). May 20 1913.

"Greenwich Village has Tea and Dances." New - York Tribune (1911-1922): 7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Tribune (1841-1922). May 22 1913.

"Greenwich Villagers Parade Roundabout." New - York Tribune (1911-1922): 16. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Tribune (1841-1922). May 21 1913.

"Old Greenwich Village Welcomes Home Folks." New - York Tribune (1911-1922): 16. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Tribune (1841-1922). May 20 1913.

"Old Home Week in Greenwich Village." The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Christian Science Monitor (1908-1997). Sep 19 1938.

"Old Homers March Around Greenwich." New York Times (1857-1922): 11. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007) with Index (1851-1993). May 21 1913.

"Old-Timers Plan to Stir Greenwich." New York Times (1857-1922): C6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007) with Index (1851-1993). May 11 1913.

"Pack Hudson Park for Child Pageant." New York Times (1857-1922): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007) with Index (1851-1993). May 25 1913.

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