Image: Two Bridges Neighborhood Council website homepage.

Two Bridges is an unassuming section of New York’s Lower East Side located, as its name suggests, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Bordered by the East River, this neighborhood grew out of the seventeenth-century shipping industry and later became home to immigrant families as they established themselves in the United States. Molly Garfinkel, director of the Place Matters program at City Lore, gave an illuminating tour of this historically rich and often over-looked portion of the city as part of the Vernacular New York class being offered by the Bard Graduate Center this semester.

While Molly’s tour focused on history, she also placed a strong emphasis on the present relevance of neighborhoods like Two Bridges. Molly incorporated recent stories of despair and triumph to put the continuing importance of community agency and actions into perspective. Amid social struggles and political reforms, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council has found a way to preserve their community’s heritage, while also instituting changes that will move their neighborhood into a positive future.

Many of the buildings we saw played significant roles in the history of housing in New York. In fact, Molly claimed that within the neighborhood of Two Bridges it was possible to trace the social history of New York and social reform. Although those stories are there, effort is required to find them. Simply walking around Two Bridges, most people might not automatically label it as an historically significant district. While it does have its share of old churches, large mid-century residential buildings dominate the landscape. Funeral homes, delis, candy shops and restaurants fill in the remaining space, creating a fairly typically urban scene. This is why Molly’s work with this neighborhood through Place Matters is so important. Through her project, in collaboration with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, Molly is in the process of researching the history of the neighborhood and perhaps more importantly, taking the time to interview and learn from the current residents of Two Bridges, some of who have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives.

Image: Victor Papa drawing a map of his childhood Two Bridges neighborhood for the students.

One such life-long resident is Victor Papa, the current president and director of the Council. Our class had the good fortune to meet with Victor and some of the other staff members. The first thing Victor did during our visit was draw a map of Two Bridges as he remembers it during his youth. With pride and nostalgia in his voice he explained how the block beginning at the corner of James Street and Madison Street contained a microcosm of life from the church to the school to the undertaker. He fondly remembers how you could find every generation on that street. This strong sense of community seems to have brought Two Bridges through more difficult times of low-income stigmas, gang violence and most recently a prolonged recovery from the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

The self-formed community leadership of Two Bridges has played a large role in the success of the neighborhood and is currently on the forefront of innovation in regards to neighborhood development programs. According to Victor this community focus developed out of angst in a diverse neighborhood being pushed to assimilate into a generic American culture, and from concerns over top-down development of the physical landscape. The Council arose to combat that idea and out of their frustration found a platform for organization around community preservation. From local food maps to inform residents of the affordable options for groceries to the Marco Polo festival held every year, Two Bridges continues to find ways to support cultural differences through commonality of place. By focusing on the people, both past and present, Molly and the staff of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council provided amazing insight into the possibility and power of communities to inspire positive change and improvement in neighborhoods without erasing their collective past, whatever it may be.