South Street, Chinatown and the Rain January 14, 2006


South Street, Chinatown and the Rain


Richard J. Garfunkel

January 14, 2006



It is not unusual to experience precipitation of one sort or another in January, but it is uncommon to experience 58-degree weather. The rain started the night before and by the dawn one could here in the twilight of half-sleep the driving splatters against the roof and windows. By mid-morning and our departure for New York the gray skies remained and the showers still threatened. We had tickets for the “Bodies” Exhibit at the South Street Seaport Exhibition Center at 11 Fulton Street.


There wasn’t much traffic at 10:30 am as we worked our way from Tarrytown, to the Bronx River Parkway and the Bruckner Expressway. Luck held out for us as we cruised southward on the FDR Drive to exit three where one leaves the Drive and continues on the service road south of the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. The South Street Seaport, if you have never been there before, is one of the original harbor restorations that dot the east coast. It sits in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and is just south of the old and famous Fulton Fish Market, which has been closed and relocated to the Bronx. But as one passes the old marketplace the lingering aroma of the old fishmonger grounds still permeates one’s nostrils.


We were able to park on Pearl Street, which is perpendicular to Fulton Street and a short walk from the Exhibition Hall. Thankfully we were constantly able to dodge the intermittent showers as we walked the along the old drab street until the cobblestones of Fulton Street and the South Seaport. Quickly we found 11 Fulton Street, and entered in to the macabre world of “Bodies.” We hopped on a long escalator to a series of black painted rooms.  Immediately one comes in contact with the first of the remarkably preserved “Bodies.”  These are real remains of cadavers that have been remarkably preserved and displayed in almost every type of position. Just imagine the statue of the discus thrower, stripped of his skin to his bones, tendons, muscles, ligaments, and organs (interior and exterior). In one sense it was incredibly fascinating to see this once live being, and in another sense it was macabre.


Probably no one has ever seen people this way. They are frozen in time, with their bodies preserved in a most remarkable way. After our initial shock, we moved from “Body” to “Body” and looked in awe at each new effort to reflect a different perspective. It just seemed like being at an autopsy or a dissection class in college biology 101. From dissected brains, to open skeletons to the nervous and venal systems, the creators of this exhibit created an amazing work. Towards the end of the exhibit we entered a room that displayed fetuses that were from the age of one week to 32 weeks. There was even preserved Siamese twin fetuses attached at their abdomen. One could say the show wasn’t for the squeamish, but there were adults and children of all ages, and I discerned from listening to many of their comments that they were doctors, nurses, students and scientists. Too many it was just clinical, but to me I had seen enough. It was remarkable but in retrospect I could have done without the experience. So we gladly left, a bit speechless, but sure we had now seen everything.


After strolling around the rest of the shops that make up the Seaport we headed for Chinatown. It isn’t a long drive up Pearl Street to Catherine Street and the heart of Chinatown, which is bustling beyond all description. The traffic is impossible, parking is non-existent, and the sidewalks are teeming with life. Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime. We go from dark passages highlighted by the magic of modern science in restoring the dead to permanency to the bigger then life humanity of the crammed streets Chinatown. Various estimates range the population of Chinatown to between 70-150 thousand people. There were always Chinese in New York from the early 1850’s. Immigrants coming to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and workers brought in to work on the transcontinental railroad eventually migrated eastward. The population in New York City was estimated at being between 200 and 1000 people, but in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act started to severely limit immigration. The Act was lifted in 1943, and when the quota changed in 1968 the area experienced explosive population growth.


 We were looking to find a section where we could do some shopping. Not only cannot one find a space to park, but one cannot even find a space to “stand.” The streets are jammed and with all the new legal and illegal immigrants. So we headed up Pearl Street from the South Street Seaport and passed the Kim Lau Memorial Arch at Chatham Square (named after William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham).


Neighborhoods in this part of town rub up against each other. Not far from Chatham Square is the oldest surviving Jewish Cemetery, First Shearith Israel, which dates back to 1683. Of course when I used to go down to the Lower East Side, first with my wife and her family in 1969 and later to visit some customers, there was still a great Jewish presence there. Stores like Eldridge, Shoreland, and Penchina Textile were our customers and it often my father –in-law visited that area to pick up household items and “cash.” In those days I often heard the complaint that the Chinese businesses were encroaching on the Lower East Side and it wouldn’t be long before their area was absorbed. Of course they were right, and one of the reasons was that their progeny had abandoned that way of life. The college educated next generation did not want to be retailers, plain and simple!


So we backtracked our way in and around Grand Street, and finally located a Chinese shopping mall that specialized in artifacts for the coming Chinese New year, 2006 the Year of the Dog, or more specifically the Year of the Chinese Red Fire Dog. I was able to slide into a no parking area and Linda went in to look for lanterns, plates and anything else that would catch her eye. After she was finished and had returned, we worked our way up West Broadway and swung east on Spring Street in Soho. Parking wasn’t that bad there, we found a space on Spring near Mercer, and we walked over to Broadway where at 477 Broadway we discovered the Pearl River Chinese Emporium, a department store that had started in Chinatown, but had moved north to Soho. Pearl River has everything Chinese from food, to lamps, to clothing to chop sticks. There is something for everyone and we found a number of things that would help us out for our coming Chinese New Year Party.


Though the skies remained gray, and the rain threatened, we were able to make our way back to the car and stay relatively dry. We had decided to cap off our day with a late afternoon dinner at Ollie’s Noodle House on 116th and Broadway, right across from Columbia University and one block south of Barnard College. We have been there many, many times, and the food is always good, plentiful and reasonable. That’s usually the best combination. We parked on Broadway, only 1.5 blocks south of Ollie’s and within a few moments of our arrival and seating, the heavens and Jupiter Pluvius, the G-d who relieves droughts, struck with a vengeance and the inundated the area. But we were snug, and warmed with our won-ton soup, shrimp roll, scallion pancakes and moo shoo pork.


It was a long day, but as Lao-tzu said “ A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”



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