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  • Susan Russo Anderson

Columbus Park, Lower East Side

Updated: Aug 21

One of New York City’s oldest greens, Columbus Park gave immigrant children of the 1900s their own special place. Then it was located in “The Bend,” one of The Lower East Side’s notorious slums. If you look at it on a map, it’s easy to see the curve that gave the area its name.

Today Columbus Park is a gathering place for the Asian community. It remains a green space where children can play. If you go on a warm spring Saturday morning, you’ll be treated to a real slice of the neighborhood. Women exercise to blaring Chinese hip-hop. Tai-Chi enthusiasts move with silence and measured grace. Mothers rock their babies, children play in the park, others catch up on the news. Pocket crowds watch the locals in a heated game of mahjong. A swordsman in red cloak and plumed hat makes whooshing moves in the air. It is an immigrant place, lively, happy and many-tongued.

On the corner of Mosco and Mulberry Streets is a building that has served as a funeral parlor since the nineteenth century when Italian immigrants waked their dead. Their stone carving remains around doorways and windows, a reminder of former days, earlier immigrant groups, and counterpoint to the large plastic sign with Chinese lettering.

A Funeral Procession

One Saturday morning I heard firecrackers and saw a large group coming out of Ng Fook’s. The widow, or so I took her to be, was a small Asian woman dressed in black silk and flanked by two men in suits and sunglasses. They moved slowly, silently behind two cars, a black convertible filled with flowers and an open-air hearse carrying the casket. Silent mourners, loud firecrackers, snarled traffic.

In front of the hearse were four large men who looked and sounded like a band in a Fellini movie, One played trumpet, the other, a trombone; two others played saxophone and bass drum. The leader, I could tell, liked his pasta. He wore a black tight-fitting suit and a captain’s hat pulled way down over his forehead, emphasizing his cheeks as they rhythmically inflated and deflated like fleshy balloons. He huffed, he puffed, he sweated.

The band played Dixieland to a funereal beat, played it earnestly, played it badly, played it to wing a Chinese soul to heaven, played it, these Italian-American funeral makers, as their fathers had before them and their father’s fathers, too. The silent mourners walked behind. And the firecrackers raked the air until the procession rounded a corner, labored up a steep hill and disappeared.

Two Palimpsests

Take a look at New Jeannie’s Restaurant down the block. If you get close enough you will see traces of the former Italian restaurant’s name below its present-day sign.

The funeral homes and New Jeannie’s are favorite palimpsests — the same spot serving the same purpose, changed to fit the needs of a different ethnic group, but retaining a vestigial tang from yesterday’s crowd.

On the east side of the park is Mosco Street, narrow and steep. Climb up a few yards and on the left-hand side you’ll find a tiny restaurant noted for its inexpensive but delicious Chinese takeaway: dumplings, five for $1.

Directions

From Penn Station take the A, J, M or Z trains downtown. Exit at Canal. Walk east and south on Canal to Mulberry. Turn south. Columbus Park is on the west side of Mulberry Street between Bayard and Worth Streets.

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