In Honor of Jim Torain
By Caitlin Hawke
From the vaults of our September 2001 newsletter comes the piece at the bottom of this post by Jock Davenport hinting at the origins of the group we all know and love today as the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group (then known as the Park West Village Neighborhood History Group, a old pamphlet for which you'll find here). The group's antecedents, of course, hark back to the Old Community -- which refers to the neighbors who lived in the two blocks of 98th and 99th Streets between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West from 1905-1951.
To explicate two cycles of racist real estate history, below (and here for those of you reading this in an email subscription) are excellent videos by Jim Epstein that tell stories about these blocks. The first video focuses on Philip Payton, Jr., a savvy investor who bought prime properties which he marketed to African Americans in the spirit of desegregation (and profit). It was Payton who, in 1905, bought up these two blocks and began renting to black families, leading whites to move away.
For 50 years, an African American community including many known musicians and writers flourished until the houses on those blocks were razed as part of the NYC's Manhattantown project which took them by eminent domain to catalyze the so-called "urban renewal" of the 1950s sought by Robert Moses. This then paved the way to develop Park West Village while ravaging the well-knit 50-year old community of African Americans.
It's not the first time I've posted the second video below by Jim Epstein (again here for email subscribers), but it's well worth sharing again.
Sadly, Jim Torain died on December 29th. He would have been about 75 years old, I am guessing. Jim worked long and hard for the preservation of the memory of the Old Community. He was featured in this New York Times article. Dan Wakin also wrote a piece that attests to Jim Torain's deep knowledge of the many cultural figures, such as the black dance historian Joe Nash, who lived there. Each fall with Marietta Bussey, Jim organized regular reunions for the former neighbors.
When she entered the fight at an improbably late hour to save Grand Central Terminal, Jackie Kennedy said: "I think that if we don't care about our past, we can't have very much hope for our future."
Clearly, Jim Torain would agree. My friend and one of our neighborhood's leading history preservationists, Win Armstrong, reminded me that the NYPL Schomburg Center houses a photo collection of the Old Community that Jim donated.
I am grateful that the story of 98th and 99th Street is not lost. There is much to be learned from the racist response to the arrival of the neighbors who would become the Old Community and from the racist events that brutally forced them out. Lessons about human nature. About market forces. About displacement and inhumanity. About persistence and memory. The Torain legacy to our neighborhood is unquantifiable, and this post is dedicated to him and to the efforts of all neighbors who value the act of preserving and sharing history.
With sympathies to Jim Torain's sister and daughter and with thanks eternal to Jim himself -- for bearing the torch of the Great Before.