Marie's Memories: An Oral History of Life and Death in Early 1900s Tribeca

Marie Millar, 88, in her apartment at 49 Beach Street in May 1995. Soon after this picture was taken she moved to a nursing home in the Bronx. She died the next year. Photo: Carl Glassman/Trbeca Trib

Feb. 28, 2024

 In May 1995 and again a year later, shortly before she died, the Trib interviewed Marie Millar who had lived nearly her entire life in what today is Tribeca. Marie was born in 1906 at 435 Washington Street and last lived at 49 Beach Street. But her roots in the neighborhood went back even further. Her mother was born at 27 Desbrosses Street, a building that her grandmother, an immigrant from Ireland, moved to as a young bride. Following are Marie’s early recollections of life in the neighborhood, as told to reporter Claire Demers. This is the first publication of Marie’s remarkable oral history since it appeared in the Trib 29 years ago.

I was born at home and Dr. Hayunga, a Canadian, delivered me. In those days you were born at home and when you died, you were waked at home. There was no such thing as rushing them off to the undertaker’s. You loved them in life and you loved them in death.

My father died of pneumonia before I was born and my mother and I lived with my grandparents and four uncles in a large six-room apartment on the third floor at 435 Washington Street. My mother died of uterine cancer when I was eight years old and I was raised by my grandparents.

My grandmother and grandfather were from Ireland. He was a foreman for the Fitzgerald Troy Ale Company on the corner of Washington and Desbrosses Streets where the delivery trucks loaded large barrels of beer that came from Troy, New York, where it was brewed.

I can remember my grandmother taking me by the hand to show me a sign on a factory building on Lispenard Street that said: “Help Wanted—No Irish Need Apply.” She wanted me to see for myself what discrimination meant.

All of my uncles had steady jobs so I was considered a rich kid. Most of the other children's fathers were longshoremen who worked on the docks unloading the ships whenever they came in. 

Freight trains on Canal Street

The neighborhood hasn’t changed much except for the Holland Tunnel.  [Where the Holland Tunnel rotary is today] When I was a child there was a freight depot [where the Holland Tunnel rotary is today] and the freight trains came down West Street from 11th Avenue and turned onto Canal Street. Then they continued down Hudson Street to the terminal on North Moore and Beach Streets where they unloaded the freight. There was a young boy on a horse with a lantern who rode ahead of the train to warn people that it was coming.


The vendors would come to the terminal in their trucks and wagons to buy meat and produce. One day there was a knock on the door of our apartment and when my grandmother opened it, two boys were standing there with a frozen lamb slung across their shoulders which they had stolen from one of the freezers at the terminal. “Glory be to God, go away!” she said, and slammed the door. They were from Renwick Street, which was notorious for tough Irish kids who used to roam in gangs beating up the neighborhood children. They had us buffaloed. They’d break into the trains at night and steal what they could to bring something home to eat or to sell on the street.

The neighborhood was mostly Irish and German families who lived in four- and five-story apartment buildings next to the factories and warehouses. There were also some Croatians who lived in the buildings on Desbrosses Street. A typical building had a first-floor parlor room and a basement and a tall stoop out front with steps and an iron railing where the people sat at night and talked while the children played in the street.

There were three-story houses on Hudson and on Canal Streets and two big tenements on Laight between Washington and West. There were also poorer tenements along the lower end of Beach Street and a couple of houses with outside toilets between Washington and West Streets.

Desbrosses, a thriving street

It was a wonderful neighborhood. We had everything we needed here. On Desbrosses Street there was a candy store and an ice cream parlor with a large soda fountain that was owned by Kate and Dick Weinberg. They made delicious chocolate candy. Once a year on May Pole Day they would hire three trucks, fill them with wooden benches and chairs and take all the neighborhood children up to Central Park where we spent the whole day. They provided a picnic lunch with sandwiches, potato salad, cole slaw and ice cream.

Desbrosses was a thriving street. There was a large bar and grill on Greenwich and Desbrosses and a German factory called Nabolish Cigar Factory. In those days there was good money in cigars. There was also the Danbury Hat Company and on the corner of Washington and Desbrosses was a ticket office with a small hotel on the top floor where people [who had just come over] stayed overnight until their relatives came to claim them. We’d laugh at them because they wore babushkas. And they’d laugh back, not knowing that we were making fun of them.

There were Austrians living at 27 Desbrosses. The mothers were office cleaners and would get up at 4 a.m. to go to work. Even my grandmother worked after my grandfather died of pneumonia. She was in her 50s by then and she went out and got a job on Pier A down at the Battery, as a supervisor of the charwomen who cleaned the offices of the big shots.

We had two wonderful Jewish tailors in the neighborhood. There was Sam Bock on Desbrosses near Hudson. We adored him. He made beautiful tailored suits, but if you only wanted a hem, he would do it for 50 cents. He discovered that one of the neighborhood children had scoliosis. "Stand up straight, Mary." he said, while hemming her dress. "I am standing up straight, Sam," she replied. She was operated on and she came out just fine.

An explosion, and rumors of Mafia revenge

We lived between Desbrosses and Vestry on Washington Street. Across the street was a lumber yard and to the right of it was McGowan Trucking Company. To the left was a fish packing plant, and next door to it was the American Produce Company with a stable where they kept horses. One night there was a big explosion and fire and all the horses were burned to death. I remember seeing them being led out with their stomachs wide open. It was a terrible sight. Some of them had to be shot and the carcasses lay there on the sidewalk for two days before they were taken away. It was rumored that the Mafia had planted a bomb for revenge against the owner.

A man who owned a trucking company bought the building we lived in and converted the downstairs parlor room and basement into a parking garage for his trucks. He ruined the beautiful building. The original owner was a friend of my grandmother’s. They were brides together, but she had to sell that house to keep her son, who was a food inspector, out of jail for permitting the sale of oysters out of season.

There were also German chemical companies. On the northwest corner of Desbrosses and Washington was Sicke & Cardi, a chemical packing plant and on the corner of Watts and Washington was a building that looked just like a German church [451 Washington, the landmark known as the Fleming Smith Warehouse]. On hot days they would let us play in the vestibule if we were quiet. I sewed many of my doll’s clothes on that cool platform.

Trucks were just coming out then, although they were still using horses for transportation. On Watts Street there were horse cars that went from the west to the east side. I used to feel sorry for the horse dragging that big car. I could cry when I think how hard they had to work.

Then came trolley cars and The Belt Line on West Street which went from the Battery to 42nd Street. The 9th Avenue Elevated ran along Greenwich Street from the Battery to 125th Street for a nickel carfare.

All the streets were made of cobblestones and the sidewalks had gutters. The garbage was picked up by a horse-drawn truck that came by every day. We had a very good sanitation department in those days.

Skating down Washington Street to the Battery

Here was a typical day in the summertime when I was a child: We went to the Hudson Street Park which was a recreation center with instructors for the children. We'd have our lunch there, sandwiches and milk, and then we'd go home at 5 p.m. The family always gathered together to talk before and after dinner. Then I’d go out again to play until dusk. We played jump rope, double Dutch and hopscotch in the street and the boys played stick ball. There was a recreation pier at Houston and West Streets where they had dances a couple of nights a week with a live orchestra.

But the best fun I ever had as a child was skating down Washington Street to the Battery to see the seals in the New York Aquarium. The Aquarium was the joy of my life. When Robert Moses moved it to Brooklyn, I never forgave him for that. It was the only thing we had at the Battery.

On the way down we skated past the Washington Street Market, which ran from North Moore Street to the Battery and was filled with vendors who sold produce and vegetables to the merchants. We would each take a carrot or an apple from one of the stalls to feed the seals. The seals were in a large outdoor pool on the ground floor and they could almost reach out to kiss us. Upstairs there were all kinds of beautiful fish in glass tanks. We would spend over an hour there and then skate back home.

On Halloween we filled socks with flour and looked for anybody in a dark suit to bat them with the socks. We were mean kids, weren’t we? At Christmas, the neighborhood children came up to play with my toys because they didn’t have any of their own. I had three or four dolls with long hair.

We lived between Piers 29 and 30. I could see it from the parlor window. It was a busy place with the tug boats and the excursion boats. I can still hear the whistles as they were leaving the pier. As a child, I knew by the sound of the whistle which ship on the Hudson River was coming in. I could tell an ocean liner from a steamer by the smoke stack. The Henry Hudson, the Washington Irving and the Albany were all steamers. And I knew the difference between the sound of a diesel and a steam engine. There was a fire on the Robert Fulton, one of the Hudson Day Line ferries. I could see it from the street. A couple of the seamen were taken to the hospital with burns.

Gathering for wakes in the home

The first wake I remember going to was a friend from the neighborhood whose father had died. They didn’t embalm people back then. They were laid out on thick slabs of ice and you could hear the water dripping into the pan. The ice always melted, whether it was winter or summer. The undertaker supplied everything—the chairs, the coffin, the pans for the dripping water and the candles. [He would put] a candle at the foot of the body and one at the head and hang a black crepe on the front door so you always knew somebody was dead in the house.

The children in the neighborhood always went to the wakes together, but we never stayed long because there was no room in the small apartments and they needed the seats for the grownups. Whenever we saw a black crepe on the door we would run in to pay our respects and then run out again. There were fresh corn cobb pipes for the older men and cigars and cigarettes for the younger ones. The men usually stayed in the kitchen talking about sports and world politics and having a drink or two, while the women sat in the parlor with the corpse.

But before they did anything else, they would kneel together in front of the body and say the rosary which was led by the Society of The Holy Family. They were a group of parishioners who attended every wake to pray for the souls of the dead. My grandmother died on Dec. 23rd and we had Christmas dinner while she was lying in the casket. At her wake they served turkey sandwiches and people made their own, slicing it as thick as they wished. Everybody in the neighborhood came and, from far beyond, because she knew a lot of people and they all loved her.

Caring for four uncles

The first day of school my mother took me to P.S. 44 on the corner of Hubert and Collister Streets. When I saw that there were no nuns, I ran back home as fast as I could. So I went to St. Alphonsus Grade School and Commercial High on West Broadway between Grand and Canal Streets. They tore St. Alphonsus Church down because the foundation was sinking. They couldn't save the church, but now they're putting a hotel in the same spot. [This became the Soho Grand Hotel.]

In high school I took the commercial course and learned a method of shorthand called Graham. It was a lot harder than Gregg Shorthand because you took dictation on the line, below the line and above the line. But I think the teletype machine was much better. I could have gone to college but I never wanted to. High school was enough for me and, besides, my grandmother needed me at home.

My first job was in a law office on Williams Street doing what they call paralegal work today. I worked for a year, then stayed at home again to help my grandmother who had become ill with Bright’s disease.

There was plenty of work with those four hungry uncles to feed and take care of. My grandmother had spoiled them when they were younger, giving them whatever they wanted for dinner: steaks, chops, or veal, all individually cooked to order. But when they came home from the war, they ate anything you put in front of them. And they never left home to marry until after she died. The Irish are like that you know, very attached to the mother, especially the boys.

They all worked; one was a fireman at Ladder No. 29 on Jane Street, one was a pilot on the Staten Island Ferry, one was a claim agent on the L. I. Railroad and the last was a metallic lather who worked on buildings and made big money.

After my grandmother died I went back out to work, but not until one of my uncles got married. He had a 20-year courtship with an Irish girl. In those days a courtship could go on forever. They both wanted to wait until after their mothers passed away.

My next job was at the Sandsteel Spring Corporation at 145 Hudson Street where they made springs for watches. I worked full time and took care of the house and the uncles for the next six years until the company moved to New Jersey. They wanted me to go with them but I didn’t want to go. By then the uncles were tired of the cooking and cleaning and they wanted me to stay home full-time.

After my uncles all married and moved away, I didn’t want to live in that big apartment on Washington Street by myself, so I moved around the corner to live with a school chum at 29 Desbrosses. Then began the moves into apartment buildings that eventually were torn down. I lived at 220 West Street where I had six rooms and a bath for $30 without heat. When they tore that building down for the Westside Highway, I moved to 576 Broome Street until it was sold by the Protestant Church.

I also lived at 225 Hudson Street where I had three rooms on the top floor of a fourth floor walkup for $40. Then I heard about an apartment opening up here [on Beach Street] and I took it right away. I knew it was a good solid building.

A life of helping others

My next job lasted 25 years. I worked for Catholic Charities on Madison Avenue and 23rd Street until I retired at age 76. I still have the manual typewriter that I used all those years, which they let me keep when I retired.

I think it was terrible the way they treated unwed mothers back then, and I can still remember hearing the heart-wrenching sobs from a young girl at St. Vincent’s Hospital, when her family took the baby from her to be put up for adoption.

I have been godmother to over 60 babies who were waiting to be adopted. I carried them in my arms from Catholic Charities on Madison and 23rd Street to the Epiphany Church on First Avenue to be baptized, until they finally got me a baby carriage.

During this time I became involved with a mission in Marbury, Alabama, that was run by the Holy Ghost Fathers. They took care of the poor black people in the South. It all started when I began sending them clothing for the poor. Then I was invited to go down there for a visit. I worked at the mission with the nuns helping to distribute food and clothing and taking care of the children. I spent all my two-week vacations down there working at the mission. Every year I would take the overnight train to Alabama. They were the happiest times of my life.

From my front window, I see the warehouses on Beach Street that are still there from when I was a child. And from my kitchen window I can see the old American Express stable, a red brick building on the corner of Hubert and Collister Streets where they kept the work horses. They were beautiful animals that looked just like Clydesdales. They pulled trucks loaded with freight.

I’ve been living in this apartment above Otto’s now for the past 30 years. [Otto’s was a restaurant at 49 Beach Street, now Il Mattone.] But I knew Otto from the time I was a small child. Otto's was a store back then and I can remember him vividly. He was tall and handsome with blond hair and blue eyes. And he had the only store that was open on Sunday mornings. He sold soap powder, bread, milk, sugar and made sandwiches and coffee.

I’ve had a good life and I’ve never regretted anything that I’ve done. There were plenty of opportunities to get married but I chose not to. I never wanted children of my own, because I knew I couldn’t handle them. I wanted my freedom to do the things that I needed to do, which was to help other people. When I’m buried it will be in the brown habit of the third order of St. Anthonys, which is a lay order of good works.

Now I have a home aide who comes every day to take care of me and I am surrounded by loving friends and family. My neighbor upstairs comes down every night to put me to bed and Barbara Catsadimas, the owner of Otto’s, comes to visit and makes me a hot meal at lunch time. Where else could one find such love and friendship in the world?