A walk through Manhattan’s Financial District and even the district’s name identifies what is central to this neighborhood: the skyscrapers, construction in and around the site of the former World Trade Center, people in suits hurrying down Wall St.
Not without reason did Martin Rizek come up with the title “The Financial District’s Lost Neighborhood 1900–1970” for the book he co-wrote with his wife, Barbara Rizek, and writer and researcher Joanne Medvecky.
“The story of the neighborhood is how unique it was,” said Barbara.
The book, published in 2004 by Arcadia Publishing, consists of about 100 pages of black-and-white photos – culled from the authors’ personal collections, from former residents of the “lost” neighborhood and from the city’s historical societies and museums – and accompanying text explaining the neighborhood’s history.
While the Financial District might be known more as a place of commerce, residents once thrived in an area bounded by Liberty St. to the north, Battery Pl. to the south, the West Side Highway and Broadway – an area that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. is considering redeveloping into a more pedestrian-friendly place through its Greenwich Street South initiative.
The book’s photos show a time when residents took family photos on brightly lit tenement rooftops, played stickball in streets vacated on the weekends and lined up in Battery Park to go swimming in the Hudson River.
Unlike city neighborhoods where one ethnicity predominated, the Financial District neighborhood, which residents referred to as Downtown, was made up of Slovakian, Syrian, Irish, Greek and Lebanese immigrants living together, for the most part amicably.
There are photos of the funeral of Michael Yanoscik, the first soldier from Downtown to die in World War II. His funeral, which was sponsored by the Lebanese church though Yanoscik was Czechoslovakian, brought out residents en masse to pay tribute.
Every weekend, people held parties where there was music and dancing and the women might dress up in costumes from their native country. On Sundays, residents might attend one of the many churches in the neighborhood.
As a past president of Trinity Episcopal Church’s St. Stephen’s Guild, Martin oversaw Trinity Seaside Home, a camp on Long Island that children and young adults from Downtown attended. The guild also held parties, staged plays and organized basketball teams for young adults from the neighborhood.
“When I was a young girl living down here, I took it for granted,” said Barbara in an interview that took place Downtown. “I didn’t think about it. But as you get older, you see some people live in beautiful apartments in like Battery Park City, and they don’t even know who their neighbor is. Not here. Everyone knew each other.”
Barbara’s grandmother, who lived at 21 Morris St., spoke little English but could rely on her upstairs neighbor, an Irish woman, for help.
Although the word tenement might conjure up images of poverty and filth, Downtown residents took pride in maintaining their tenement apartments, which consisted of two or three rooms and a shared bathroom, the Rizeks said.
Many people found their way to the neighborhood because of its proximity to Ellis Island or because they had relatives living there.
“Also, it was very easy to get jobs as dishwashers, porters, window washers, cleaning ladies. Someone knew someone who could get them some type of work,” said Barbara. Some women worked two or three jobs to put their children through college, taking advantage of the fact that they could walk to work to socialize in Battery Park between jobs.
“Most of them went to college, the second generation,” said Barbara. “A lot of them did very, very well.”
Barbara’s parents and Martin’s mother were born in the neighborhood. Barbara’s great-grandmother, who immigrated from the Ukraine, lived at 3 Washington St.
Barbara spent her childhood on Pearl St. Martin, whose ancestors came from Slovakia, was born and raised on Greenwich St.. Barbara and Martin, who have been married for 45 years, raised their three children at 106 Greenwich St while working Downtown.
Construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the ’40s and the World Trade Center in the late ’60s, however, signaled an end to the neighborhood. Residents were pushed out and their buildings torn down to make way for those projects.
The Rizeks moved to Staten Island in 1968. Other Downtown residents dispersed to the city’s other boroughs and to New Jersey.
Like the Rizeks, though, many of the neighborhood’s former residents did not lose their fondness for the place or a sense of connection with their former neighbors. That sentiment is probably encouraged in part by the fact that the neighborhood, instead of falling into decay, merely ceased to be, according to Barbara. The Rizeks held annual reunion dances for about 38 years. A few dances were held at the former Hudson Terminal. Because attendance at the dances grew into the hundreds, the dances were moved to larger accommodations, among them the Bohemian Hall in Astoria.
“There will never be another neighborhood like this at all,” said Martin. “Even at this age, I think about it every day. I’m sad about that, that I couldn’t stay here for the rest of my life.”