Finding The Real

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In last year’s travel issue we published an article on places in the Netherlands of special interest to Americans, among them Leiden, which holds a few precious remnants of the Pilgrims’ stay there. Soon, according to a story that was picked up by papers across America, none of that may be left in Leiden. The moss-covered brick wall of a church where Pilgrims worshiped and a hospital building where Miles Standish recovered from wounds he suffered campaigning in the Dutch Army are slated to make way for the kind of commercial strip Americans know all too well: a shopping mall, a parking garage, and, as a grace note, a disco. Among those protesting this action is Jeremy Bangs, an American scholar of the Pilgrim era who lives in Leiden. “The council has suggested putting up signs where the landmarks once stood,” he said, “but what’s the point if nothing is left?”

That brings us to this year’s issue, with its many living signposts of the American past. None of them are historic sites by the classic définition, but all of them are flourishing because someone or other had the sense to know that simply replacing them with plaques wouldn’t be good enough. Take New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, for instance. It’s located on the Lower East Side, where so many immigrants of the late nineteenth century settled and which remains a refuge for newcomers right down to the present. The original dank, cramped, odorous tenement buildings here were certainly not the stuff of museum installations, and it’s doubtful that many immigrants would have thought to memorialize their first homes.

If the Lower East Side had not, until hit by a very recent wave of gentrification, remained one of the city’s poorer sections, no doubt its slums, shops, and settlement houses and especially its energy would have gone the way of Leiden’s Pilgrim area. But the neighborhood stayed much as it was in the 1890s because over the years it never attracted the kind of development that can obliterate a city’s memory. Instead, as Dara Horn explains in her article, it took a social worker named Ruth Abram to convert the abandoned 97 Orchard Street from a derelict state to an extraordinarily vivid look at an American experience all of us can share. “I expected the worst,” writes Horn. “Instead I found the real.”

Throughout this issue you’ll find the real—from the gritty jazz clubs of Paris that have managed to outlive New York’s Jazz Row on Fifty-second Street to the 101-year-old Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, final home of the stars. The latter fell on such hard times that it seemed destined to turn to dust itself—until a couple of years ago, that is, when a young entrepreneur, inspired by a love of Hollywood history, bought the place and launched its turnaround.

For the traveler a plaque just isn’t the same as the chance to enter a place furnished not only with tables and chairs but with all the explosive, discordant, and joyful noise of real life.

Carla Davidson
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