To start my journey, I set out from where I’m staying, in Manhattan near where Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods meet, bound for the Lower East Side. That’s where newly married Ernestine and William Rose made their first home in New York City, at 484 Grand St near Willett, near the Williamsburg Bridge. The house is no longer standing, nor are any other nearby buildings from their time, except for the synagogue behind where it probably stood.
In fact, as I visited places associated with their lives over the course of four days, I found not a single building still standing that I could be sure Ernestine or Elizabeth set foot in. As I was to learn more throughout the course of my trip, New York has systematically pulled down and rebuilt itself over and over again through the centuries, with its restless culture of self-reinvention, innovation, and progress, until a movement in the 1960’s arose and reminded New York that its history was important too. But that’s another (fascinating) story, which I’ll return to later.
Despite the lack of extant sites, seeking them out led to me to discover not only more about the lives and times of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but more about how they influenced others, more about other people doing great work for the same or related causes, and more about New York City’s history. I also learned more about other movements, not only political and ideological but of people: migrations of those seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children when their homeland had less to offer. In visiting this first site, for example, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of fascinating parallels between the builders and inhabitants of the current structures, and the lives and philosophies of Ernestine and Elizabeth.
The Abron Arts Center, adjacent to the Harry De Jur playhouse now stands near the probable original site of the Roses’ first New York home. The Center is one of the buildings that comprise the Henry Street Settlement, founded by Lillian Wald. She, like Ernestine Rose herself, was a human rights activist of Jewish descent. She was also a dedicated and tireless humanitarian: Henry Street Settlement provides health care and educational and recreational services for underserved communities.
In both Ernestine Rose and Lilian Wald’s days, the Lower East Side was crowded with immigrants who, lacking opportunities in their native countries, flocked to New York City’s factories to seek jobs and a chance at a better life. From the early 1800’s onwards, NYC was an industrial powerhouse, with many of its entrepreneurs and investors amassing great wealth, while the greater number suffered the worst effects of an industrial city before the age of reform and regulation: overcrowding, disease, grinding poverty, and crime. Between the time Ernestine and Lilian arrived in the lower east side, conditions had become quite dire; Henry Street Settlement was founded as a solution to many of these social problems. No doubt, Ernestine, a radical egalitarian and human rights advocate, would have approved of the building that stood on the site of her old home, and of its founder’s mission.
(Note: in visiting another Ernestine Rose site the next day, coincidentally, I had the opportunity to learn more about H.S.S. and its founder, Lilian Wald. Stay tuned!)
Behind the Abron Arts Center and the probable site of the first Rose home, there’s also a synagogue and Jewish education center (the Daniel Potkorony Building). The Bialystoker Synagogue, built as a Christian church in 1826, predates the Rose’s moving there in 1837 by 11 years, so she would have been familiar with the building. Of course, I have no way of knowing one way or the other definitively, but since the Roses, especially Ernestine, were eempahically non-religious, it’s improbable that they would have visited the church much, unless it was the site of social events unrelated to worship.
Bialystoker Synagogue, coincidentally or not, was organized by Polish Jews in 1865, who purchased the former church as its new and permanent home. Ernestine was a Polish Jew by birth, and while she was quite open about the fact that she rejected the religion of her youth, she also very much identified with many aspects of her Jewish heritage. Her excellent education was, at least in large part, a result of her father’s being a rabbi and her consequent desire to learn ancient Hebrew, history, and the arts of theological and textual discussion. She also defended the Jewish community vigorously when they became the target of anti-Semitic attacks in the Boston Investigator newspaper (Dorress-Worters pp 42-44, 311-333). The synagogue also operated as a stop on the Underground Railroad; Ernestine was an ardent and committed abolitionist. Another coincidence, perhaps!
Right across the street, on the same side of Grand as the Rose house would have stood, and across Willett, stands the Cooperative Village. Built by trade unions, the Village and its sister establishments were designed to improve living conditions for its working class, lower income inhabitants by including gardens, sunlight in all apartments, attractive design, good views, and other amenities, as well as being reasonably priced and, best of all, democratically run, with each tenant getting an equal vote regardless of the property value of any given unit.
Rose was a dedicated Owenite, so I suspect she would have heartily approved of such an establishment. Robert Owen, her inspiration and mentor, was a social reformer who believed that shared goals in work, daily life and politics would ennoble the human mind and rid the human race of the hatred, violence and ignorance that results from the selfish pursuit of personal wealth. While Owen’s philosophy may appear, today, to be based on an overly optimistic unrealistic idealism (he believed that human nature was mostly or entirely good, and it was people’s surroundings which could support and inspire them in their good traits, or could cause them to fall into bad habits, become greedy or selfish, commit crimes, etc), he derived it from his personal experiences working in the horrific mill and factory conditions in mills in early Industrial England. (Observations of the miserable living and working conditions of industrial workers would later inspired Engels and Marx.) His New Lanark community was a resounding success for many years: its mill was profitable and its workers and their families comfortably housed and well fed, their children educated, and their surroundings, already in a lovely river valley, clean and beautified by gardens.
Despite my best efforts, I could find no plaque or anything else marking the site of the original Rose home. Yet, I felt I had found something better: in searching for the site, I learned that within just a few city blocks from that site, many others had lived and worked to accomplish the same excellent goals that Ernestine had pursued in her time there: the freedom of enslaved people, the improvement of the lives of working people, community-building for Polish Jews and other immigrant people.
Next, I head over towards Park Row and City Hall Park.
Frankfort Street no longer exists either. It’s located somewhere underneath or alongside the place where the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge now rests, across from Pace University. Ernestine and William Rose owned a perfume and silversmith / jewelry shop there, called ‘Fancy and Perfumery’. Their rooms over the shop was their second home in New York City.
William was an accomplished jewelry maker and fine-metal worker, and while Ernestine had supported herself for many years up to that time and her perfume inventions contributed significantly to the family income, he was happy to help finance her public speaking and human rights work over the next few decades.
Here’s where the Brooklyn Bridge ends, where Frankfort ends and Park Row begins. 9 Frankfort would have been near the intersection of those two streets.
The last site I visit today is 37 Park Row, where, on January 8, 1868, in a room on the fourth floor of 37 Park Row in downtown Manhattan, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published the first issue of Revolution, a newspaper dedicated to advancing the cause of women’s suffrage, among other social reform issues. Although the newspaper survived in its original form for just slightly over two years, it helped gain public exposure for the women’s suffrage movement and for Anthony and Stanton, two of the movement’s most influential leaders.
Elizabeth and Susan established their own feminist newspaper, The Revolution, after the split in the women’s rights movement over the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to men of all races while, for the first time, specifically excluding women as it used the word ‘male’. Because they felt betrayed by the majority of the men, and many of the women, in the movement for giving up the fight for universal suffrage so easily (as they saw it), Elizabeth and Susan felt that the movement must now be run exclusively by women, for women, in order to retain the revolutionary spirit and singleness of purpose necessary to accomplish their key goal. Every contributor to the paper was a woman, as well as every single employee of the paper.
37 Park Row also no longer exists; I write my search notes in the Starbucks at 38 Park Row, across from City Hall Park. The street sign on the corner of the park dedicated to these ladies is directly across the street, and since it’s the corresponding even number across, the sign probably stands near or at the actual site where the newspaper was published. Here’s an illustration from 1868, which shows the original buildings comprising Printing House Square, where so many of New York’s major periodicals were produced:
Thus ends my first day following in Ernestine and Elizabeth’s footsteps in New York City.
To be continued…
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