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Voices Spring-Summer 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “Cities within the City: B. A. Botkin’s New York” by Michael L. Murray here.
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Volume 29

Cities within the City:  B. A. Botkin's New York

Though born in Boston, Benjamin A. Botkin was sometimes more comfortable with his New York identity than with his New England roots. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he confronted and overcame his childhood struggles against anti-Semitism and Brahmin attitudes, and he remained proud of this experience throughout his life (Hirsch 1996). Yet New York City represented his cosmopolitan ideal, and it would become both a rich inspiration for his scholarship and his home. Botkin first came to New York in 1920 to earn a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University, and he returned to the city in 1923 to spend two more years teaching "Americanization" and English to immigrants. In 1938, he traveled to New York as the national folklore editor for the Federal Writers’ Project. And later, when he decided to pursue a career as a freelance writer, Botkin returned again to the city (Botkin 1946). Settling in Croton-on-Hudson, a northern suburb, he routinely traveled into the city, writing about it, collecting its lore, and considering its role in the folk culture of the Middle Atlantic region.
Photo of a Russian dancer in lower Manhattan
A Russian dancer in lower Manhattan celebrates the American Bicentennial in 1976. Photo: Katrina Thomas.

As a scholar, Botkin allied himself with regionalism and its efforts to explore the local character of American culture. This interest, including his appreciation for Lewis Mumford and his understanding of the role of the metropolis in regional culture, deeply influenced Botkin’s own studies of the folklore of his adopted urban place, New York City (Botkin 1935). Many years before academic folklorists began to consider the folk culture of urban spaces (Dorson et al. 1970), Botkin looked to the unique character of life in New York City and saw the ways in which the urban experience both provided a place of union between the indigenous and the metropolitan and inspired the emergence of new traditions that expressed the reality of modern life. With his regionalist’s attention to the relationship between art and place, Botkin turned many times in his scholarship to the nature of life in New York City. He considered all aspects of urban and suburban life in his attempt to uncover the personality of New York and to characterize the folklore of what, for him, became the quintessential urban place.

As Jerrold Hirsch notes, Botkin never attached to New York City the same "symbolic importance" he afforded his tenure at Harvard. Nevertheless, the city had a deep impact on his understanding of folklore and modernity in the urban world (Hirsch 1996: 315). New York was the city where the intellectual richness of modern life became a reality. It was home to new works of literature composed and published within the city, as well as Old World tales brought directly from Old World nations.
Photo from greased pole climb at San Gennaro Day feast
The San Gennaro Day feast on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy is New York’s largest and longest "street party," usually lasting about ten days. The greased pole climb is no longer performed because of liability issues; this image was taken in 1978. Photo: Katrina Thomas
Botkin, far before others in the discipline, understood that modernity was not a threat to traditional culture, but rather an important influence on existing and emerging folk expressions. As Bruce Jackson wrote, he "refused to distinguish between what people wrote, what happened in a movie, and what was said on a street corner. For him, the stuff and process of folklore were truly protean" (Jackson 1986: 29). Botkin’s theory of folklore was ideally suited to the protean nature of New York City’s streets. He often wrote about the character of urban life in his New York Folklore Quarterly column, "Downstate, Upstate," explaining in 1953 the difference between the state’s folklorists as typified by the diverse and ever-growing qualities of urban culture.

"The real difference between Downstate and Upstate folklore and folklorists," he wrote, "is the difference between the 'sounds of our times' and those of other times..." (Botkin and Tyrrell 1953: 232). The folklore of urban and suburban New York City was something emerging in time, realized in the daily lives of a cosmopolitan folk; rural folklore echoed traditions that emerged from a historical landscape.

In this contrast, the metropolis becomes a unique place that requires attention to the forces of change defining its folklore. The specific character of life in the metropolis shapes and colors the lives of its inhabitants in all the forms and places of that expression. Carrying this concept into practice, Botkin saw the exploration of New York City’s folk culture as a natural extension of his research into America’s regional culture. He would break up the metropolitan regions—the various neighborhoods and quarters of the boroughs and the metropolitan area—and consider how the culture in each was shaped by occupational, neighborhood, and ethnic affiliations.

In the introduction to New York City Folklore (1956), his collection of folklore and folk-say from the city, Botkin illustrates this process by mapping New York City as a "circle or wheel whose center or hub is Manhattan and whose radii or spokes are the boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond radiating into the metropolitan hinterland" (1956: xvi). In his visualization, he translates the city’s geographic reality into a figurative image. The rigid right angles of the urban grid are transformed into the circles and spokes that make up the wheel. Botkin saw the neighborhoods as cities within the city and was fascinated by the ways in which New York’s streets, buildings, and people were known and navigated in terms of a sense of urban space...

Photographing New York’s Neighborhoods

When Congress passed new immigration laws in 1965, admitting many nationalities that had been excluded, freelance photographer Katrina Thomas, whose photographs accompany this article, sensing that the United States was not truly a "melting pot," decided to document the traditions that immigrant groups were celebrating in their new country.

Her photographs capture the full range of New York City’s rich diversity, from Chinese New Year and nationality days and parades in the five boroughs to Italian, Greek Orthodox, Russian, and Ukrainian feast days. Less well known are celebrations of Buddha’s birthday, the Eid (Muslim), Diwali (Hindu), and Baisahki (Sikh).

Secular festivals Thomas has photographed include the parade of Caribbean cultures on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway in September, in which West Indians wearing elaborate costumes proceed on roller skates to the accompaniment of steel bands; Irish hurling in Gaelic Park in Manhattan; and Puerto Rican teams playing softball and baseball in Central Park.

Her project coincided with a surge of interest in ethnic identity. No longer ashamed of speaking imperfect English, newcomers were demonstrating pride in their culture. By 1976, the melting pot had given way to a "cultural mosaic." On the Fourth of July of the Bicentennial, New York City, like many cities across the country, celebrated its ethnic heritage by building platforms and stages for performers and folk dance groups. Public festivals were soon being held in parks and plazas around the year.

Katrina Thomas has contributed her collection of images to City Lore, 72 East First Street, New York City 10003, 212 529-1955.


Michael L. Murray is a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Folklore and Folklife, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.Photo of Michael L. Murray
Photo: Peggy Yocom.

“Al Smith made the sidewalks of New York popular,” said a Sawkill poultry farmer to me, “but we sent them in from here.” He was referring to the Ulster County [New York] bluestone, quarried by Irish workers toward the middle of the last century, and worn by the feet of immigrants who came here expecting instead to find streets paved with gold.

—B. A. Botkin, New York City Folklore (1956: xv)


Basso, Keith. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape. In Senses of Place, eds. Steven Feld and Keith Basso. pp. 53-89. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Botkin, B.A., and William G. Tyrrell. 1953. Upstate, Downstate: Folklore News and Notes. New York Folklore Quarterly 9(3): 231-38.

Botkin, B.A. 1935. We Talk about Regionalism: North, East, South, and West. The Frontier: A Magazine of the Northwest. 13(May): 286-96.

_____. 1939. WPA and Folklore Research: "Bread and Song." Southern Folklore Quarterly 3(1): 7-14.

_____. 1946. Living Lore of the New York City Writers’ Project. New York Folklore Quarterly. 2(3): 252-63.

_____. 1954. Sidewalks of America: Folklore, Legends, Sagas, Traditions, Customs, Songs, Stories, and Sayings of City Folk. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co.

_____. 1956. New York City Folklore: Legends, Tall Tales, Anecdotes, Stories, Sagas, Heroes and Characters, Customs, Traditions and Sayings. New York: Random House.

_____. 1958. We Called It "Living Lore." New York Folklore Quarterly 14(3): 189-201.

_____. 1965. Postscript to "Love in the City." New York Folklore Quarterly 21(3): 231-33.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press (original: Arts de Faire).

del Bourgo, Fanya. 1965. Love in the City. New York Folklore Quarterly 21(3): 165-78.

Dorson, Richard M., Linda Degh, and Leonard W. Moss. 1970. Is There a Folk in the City? Journal of American Folklore 83: 185-228.

Hirsch, Jerrold. 1996. My Harvard Accent and "Indifference": Notes Toward a Biography of B.A. Botkin. Journal of American Folklore 109(433): 308-19.

Jackson, Bruce. 1986. Ben Botkin. New York Folklore. 12(3-4): 23-32.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1983. The Future of Folklore Studies in America: the Urban Frontier. Folklore Forum 16(2): 175-233.

Lippard, Lucy R. 1997. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York: New Press.

Mangione, Jerre. 1983. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writer’s Project, 1935-1943. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Still, Bayrd. 1958. The Personality of New York City. New York Folklore Quarterly 14(2): 83-92.

Williams, Raymond. 1973. The Country and the City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The full article, that is excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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