Immediate Disclaimer: Katharine Greider, the author of this book, is my niece. She is the daughter of journalist William Greider, and William Greider is my brother. I don’t think I can be detached about this book.
The subtitle of The Archaeology of Home is An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side. An epic, maybe, with lots of characters and some important themes related to an actual but not completely knowable history. I prefer, however, to see it as a tapestry of three different threads: the history of the house at 239 7th Street in the East Village; Katherine’s experiences before, during and after living in the house; reflections on the meaning of home. My tapestry is not exactly a wall hanging, but has more the shape of a scarf, as the threads weave in and out but also move forward in time.
Katherine and David, expecting their first child, bought portions of an 1840-era town house and lived there for five years until a nighttime call:
The situation, he told me, was more serious than we had supposed. Indeed, the foundation of the building in which my children and I were even now settling down for another night’s rest was in what professionals call a failed condition, its crushed and rotted wooden beams propped up by crumbling brick piles and …. Ralph said he would wait until Monday morning before reporting this hazard to the City of New York, at which time city officials would almost certainly seal the building. And he left no doubt as to what we should do over the weekend: Get the hell out.
They got out, and spent the next two years trying to clean up the mess. But mostly this is not a story about the mess. It is the story — going back to the Lenape Indians — of those who used the land, owned the land, built on the land, and lived in the house they built. It is a history of this particular slice of the lower east side, and it’s not an architectural history: it’s a history of the people. In the true spirit of archaeology, Greider digs down through the layers of occupation, dusting off and examining and marveling as she goes.
As a family member I was interested in her account of their attempts to deal with the financial problems resulting from the buildings almost-collapse. In Chapter Eight she documents the swings in their personal fortunes, sometimes accompanying the ups and downs of the value of 239 7th St. I’ve been there myself and discovered, as she did, that you do what you have to do. What you have to do only includes what can be done. And, as she said to herself at the time in a list of precepts:
7. Don’t give up on your own happiness.
Sounds corny, but it worked. So, although they admitted to self pity at times, they came out about even at the end, plus, of course, the experience.
Several times Greider looks at the question of what is home. Is is any place where you can take your shoes off and rummage in the refrigerator? Or is it a particular place, to which one is attached by strong associations? Both, apparently, and when the attachments have to go, you start over and build new ones. When David blew his nose at the closing on the new apartment, purchased with the proceeds from the sale of 239, Katharine saw it as
…the mystical sequel to that moment when he stomped the crystal glass at our wedding, acknowledging in our joy the destruction of the Temple, etc., etc.
The “etc., etc.” is telling because Katharine has not previously used that expression, generally preferring to give us specifics. Yes the Temple was destroyed and, while we can’t forget that, we recognize the joy possible in all the et ceteras.
And here is a quibble. Please. More maps, and bigger maps with color; more pictures; maybe some family trees of those multi-generational families like the DeLanceys and the Weiders. You could link to them at your Facebook page.