Hanging out in Tribeca in the 1970s



Neighborhood: Brighton Beach, Tribeca

If you want to call me a cool kid, please do. You see, back in 1975 when I was seven years old ,  I visited Tribeca for the first time…with my mom and dad.

We didn’t go to the Mudd Club or Artists Space or anything like that; instead we went to a factory just south of Canal Street.

One Saturday morning my mom, dad, and I headed out from the ass end of Brooklyn to Tribeca, so my mom could look for work.

The three of us took the train out of Brighton Beach. It was grey and overcast and — since it was a weekend morning — the subway was pretty empty. The train car itself was one of those rickety old metal cars that was corrugated on the side; most likely, it still had the old “TA” (Transit Authority) logo on it.

Like every subway ride for me back then,  the trip was fun. I really liked looking out the windows of the subway as it trudged through Brooklyn, especially the window at the front of the first car. Looking out and holding onto the door handle of the first car, I felt like I was actually driving the train as it sped along.

As the train rolled along, I got excited whenever I saw glimmers of what looked like toys, balls, and other cool junk on the tracks. I even imagined rushing off the train at a nearby stop and running onto the subway tracks to score some free cool stuff.

But all of that was not to be. First, I was too young and would most likely get hit by a train and die — or at least lose a limb — if I did something like that. Second, we — as a family — needed to head into Manhattan to see if my mom could get a job in some kind of schmatta factory.

My dad had, in effect, been laid off from his job at a Williamsburg box factory in 1975 due to disability. He had a heart attack and ,  on doctor’s orders ,  could not do any heavy manual work anymore. And he hadn’t been in the union long enough to get disability. So with no job prospects for my dad, my mom stepped up to the plate to be the new breadwinner of the family. And since,  like my dad ,  she didn’t even have a high school education, the best she could do was manual labor of some sort in the lower rungs of the garment industry.

As we got off subway, we stuck together and absorbed everything around us. This was during the gritty NYC of the 1970s. Abe Beame’s shithole of a city, which was the city I grew up in, was a genuinely dangerous place at the time.

While my parents looked around, hoping to spot threats ,  real and imagined, I soaked in everything that I could, searching for any shred of fun in this dump of a city. Like Dave’s Luncheonette on the corner of Canal Street and Broadway.

To me, the place looked so fancy and cool with it’s neon signs and shiny diner exterior highlights. But we didn’t stop in there at all; not even to use the bathroom.

Instead, we just stepped out of the subway, swung onto Broadway and walked a few blocks south, before we went through a rickety door and up a dingy staircase to a dimly lit  factory floor. Light streamed in from whatever windows were still there, but nobody was working.

There were rows upon rows of sewing machines all lined up; too many to count. Lots of industrial green and bare wood all around. And it was quiet; not even the sound of a radio could be heard in the empty, cavernous space. Nobody seemed to be in the factory, yet we had walked into it as if it were no issue. New York was unsafe back then, but the front door was just open like that? Weird.

After a brief pause to look around, my dad shouted a “Hello!” that echoed throughout the floor. We heard some faint shuffling from the far end of the floor, and a person appeared out of a side room at the very back of the factory, and responded, “What?”

My mom and dad looked at each other and then looked at me, and told me to stay “Right here…” meaning up front. I nodded a humble child-like “Yes,” and with that they walked to the back of the factory.

I stood still for a while, but also meandered around up front; not wandering too far out of sight of my parents. I peered about and to see what was there, hoping there might be some cool stuff to shove in my pocket. But all I saw were screws, nails, sewing machine related items, and old-school tin cans of oil. Nothing worth much of anything to me, or any other kid.

I heard some mumbling and looked back down the aisle to my parents talking to the factory guy. I could hear them speaking to him in Yiddish or Hebrew, or maybe it was a combination of the two, and saw my dad and the guy leaning into each other with lots of gesticulation and “expression” going on. Hand gestures, finger wagging, and arm waving, in the language that many immigrants use to communicate passionately about something. And passionate it was; not angry or hateful. Clearly, some kind of negotiation was going on.

After a while, there was a pause and my mom and dad came up front with the factory guy following close behind. When they came up front, my dad leaned over and said to me, “Okay. It’s time to go home.” The factory guy looked at me, looked at my parents, and shrugged. It wasn’t a judgmental shrug, but my parents had me in their 40s, and at the time of this encounter they were already in their early 50s. I looked like I should be their grandson at the time; not their son. But I was their son and I was there with them.

While it was never explicitly said to me, I’m pretty sure my parents dragged me along to score some sympathy points with the factory guy. I mean, showing off a kid when you are desperate for a job is a way of pushing sympathy buttons, right?

Anyway, the three of us walked back down the stairs of the factory, up Broadway — past Dave’s Luncheonette — and turned onto Canal Street. We briefly paused to look around and see if there was any bargain hunting to be done,   something my parents always did after one of these work-family trips . Since there wasn’t much of anything we could spy past basic junk stores, we headed back into the subway and headed back home to the ass end of Brooklyn.


Jack Szwergold is a skilled web developer who has worked for Artforum and the Guggenheim Museum. He founded the Onion’s website in 1996 and currently works for the New School.

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§ 5 Responses to “Hanging out in Tribeca in the 1970s”

  • TSB says:

    This the part that got me:

    “Hand gestures, finger wagging, and arm waving, in the language that many immigrants use to communicate passionately about something. And passionate it was; not angry or hateful. Clearly, some kind of negotiation was going on.”

    Something about city life, immigrants, maybe Jews in particular but I don’t think so, is captured here. A vehemence.

    The bit towards the end about the old parents who are leveraging their kid, the sense of being an outsider but as a group, a family. And the the scurrying feeling of being in Manhattan but soon to return to Brooklyn– all so vivid and good.

    I never grasped if she got the job. I can’t decide if it would be better. You survived, as this piece attests.

  • Steven Goldleaf says:

    Around that time, I was living in Brooklyn Heights, and I was trying to be an oil painter, so I would run across the Brooklyn Bridge for exercise, walk up to Canal Street, buy some painting supplies at Pearl Paint, just down the street from Dave’s, where I would stop for an egg cream, and then take the subway back to the Heights. I didn’t appreciate how these would be among the happiest days of my life, but it was. I thought I was struggling, and I was, but it was a cool struggle.

    My dad owned (or operated) a luncheonette on the east side of Broadway just south of Canal Street for a short time in the 1960s.

  • David Hausen says:

    Just wondering if it was Commercial Corrugated in Williamsburg that your dad worked for, my dad Sid Hausen was a salesman there in the 60/70’s.

  • Jack Szwergold says:

    He worked for U.S. Box.

  • this is terrific.. i loved the subway ride, the visual nods to old Canal Street with all its fabulous junk and i also love that you mentioned the ass end of Brooklyn not once but twice. bravo!

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