Mementos of previous tenants.
Published: April 8, 2011
FOR New Yorkers drawn to old houses and apartments, the reminders that they are hardly the first to inhabit their rooms can be thrilling. If those people had their way, no one would ever empty a cellar or clear out an attic.
“It’s the dream of someone who buys an old house to find things other owners had left behind,” said Chris Kreussling, a computer programmer who, in the basement of his Victorian home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, unearthed a trove of brochures, tickets and newspaper clippings from the 1939 World’s Fair.
From the tenements of the Bronx to the prewar apartments of Manhattan and the frame cottages of Staten Island, signs of earlier generations lurk in unexpected corners, “like cave drawings providing traces of previous habitations,” said Richard Rabinowitz, president of the American History Workshop. “And these finds are especially meaningful in a city like New York, where we always have the sense that we’re walking in the footsteps of those who came before us.”
New York City, home to a disproportionately large number of people living in buildings constructed decades ago, is especially rich in reminders of those who occupied our houses and apartments long before we did. According to the 2008 Census housing survey, 85 percent of New Yorkers live in buildings erected before 1970, compared with 42 percent of Americans generally. More remarkably, 39 percent of New Yorkers live in buildings predating 1930 and 17 percent in buildings predating 1920. Luckily for New Yorkers with a taste for past lives, many of these dwellings function as palimpsests of the city’s history.
As a place where the friendly ghosts of the past refuse to depart, it would be hard to top the blue frame house on City Island in the Bronx where John and Linda Nealon Woods have lived for 33 years.