Big Onions


What better way to achieve the first sunburn of the “summer” than to wander downtown with an Art Historian learning all about the immigrant past of New York City.

Decked in ski jacket and cashmere jumper with added cardigan I was totally unprepared for the burnt skin I would suffer at the end of this epic trek from City Hall through sprawling Chinatown, via Little Italy (little being the operative word) and ending up at Doughnut Plant (the queue was too extreme to tackle on an empty stomach. This time.), in the Jewish Quarter of the East Village.

Armed with my new NYC moleskin I was ready to take down notes and helpful foodie hints lest I forget the recommendations of such establishments as “Cafe La Bella” on Mulberry Street: a Mecca for cannolis. In fact, I am newly inspired by the words of Aldous Huxley, printed on the inside cover of my barren notebook (complete with maps and blank pages),

“For every traveller who has any taste of his own,

the only useful guidebook will be

the one which he himself has written”

with the aim of creating a resident/tourist guide to this city myself by cataloging my every adventure.

Today’s adventure: the Big Onion Walking Tours.

Stood at the cross roads of Broadway and Chambers Street we begin our lesson on the immigrant characters of this city’s past. A certain Mr “Boss” Tweed, an Irish immigrant, began his story selling dry goods and ready to wear clothing. We marvel at his marble fronted “shop” as we imagine this astute individual making a name and money for himself in this busy port centuries before. Later he rose to prominence in local and city politics, becoming a wealthy man, only to die in Ludlow Jail after a career of corruption and money laundering. Amusingly, although I guess not for him, after successfully escaping his cage and fleeing to Spain, his eventual demise was at the hands of the cartoonist Thomas Nast, the artistic mastermind behind the jovial, white bearded, round bellied image of Kris Kringle. Having depicted the now infamous Tweed standing ruthlessly over the ballot boxes, this image was enough to reveal the Irish villain in his exile and bring him back to justice.

Next we marched on to the African Burial Ground to see the monument for African immigrants: a reminder of the role New Amsterdam/York played in the slave trade. We stood on the site of Collect Pond, where wealthy New Yorkers would retreat in the 18th Century to enjoy some leisure time away from the city. However, by 1811 it was completely filled in after the polluting tanning industries ruined the spot making it a veritable sewer. The rich downtown crowd then moved in/on however, it was not long before the mud began to rise and roll their newly built residences at which time they quickly moved out. Thus leaving the Five Points area to the poor immigrants.

The infamous slum Five Points: the intersection of Anthony (now Worth St.), Cross (now Mosco), and Orange (now Baxter) St.

Poor immigrants like the Irish, fleeing the Potato Famine, and the African American population who had been freed from slavery.

Legend has it that this site was a hive of violence and murderous activities and housed one particular tenement building renowned for having a murder “every night for 15 years!” A delightful claim to fame I think you’ll agree? It was also the influence for the Scorsese film “Gangs of New York”. Depicting most gruesomely Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played by Daniel Day Lewis. Who doesn’t love Daniel Day Lewis regardless of how many people he slices up?

[A brief but necessary aside. A quote from ‘Last of the Mohicans’:

“I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.”

Yes you will Daniel Day. Yes you will.]

Anyway, happy to be strolling in the sun we continued on to Chinatown. This growing area is overcrowded to say the least. A play area is not only surprising to see in this packed street-living, but the sunshine had brought out the masses and so playgrounds were full to brimming. Although I doubt one more infant would have squeezed on that slide.

Our final advance took us to the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Eerily peaceful on this Sabbath day, Seward Park, only steps from the bustling playground we had left moments before, was all but empty. Quiet and exhausted, the Big Onion crowd was all but walked out. Luckily however, this was our final lesson. Gathered in front of The Forward Building on East Broadway we heard about the The Jewish Daily Forward and its founder’s project to achieve social justice for Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. In its day this newspaper spoke to a readership of over 200,000 people. Founder Abraham Cahan was breaking records with his wide reaching circulation, a huge feat for the day, and despite now having removed the term daily for a weekly publication, The Forward is still going strong today.

What a day. But note to self. I must get new shoes that are more amenable to long walks. These boots ain’t made for walking!


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