By Matthew Spady
In 1998, when I began the twenty-two-year journey that culminated in The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It, the readily available primary sources consisted of two articles a nostalgic George Bird Grinnell had written about his memories of life in that mid-nineteenth-century suburban enclave, a booklet on the same topic that he composed for the Hispanic Society of America, which sits on land that was part of the park, and an unfinished and unpublished memoir that Dr. John F. Rieger discovered and edited into The Passing of the Great West. Grinnell’s colorful and detailed writing outlined the neighborhood’s journey as it evolved from John James Audubon’s farm Minnie’s Land in the 1850s and disappeared a half century later beneath the cityscape that defines the neighborhood today, but its gaps in information and occasional inconsistencies raised quite a few questions that begged for further research.
Primary sources ranging from deeds and wills to census and tax records began filling in some of those gaps, as did searches through church records and occasional wanderings through cemeteries to gather data from tombstones. In the early years of my study, a large part of the search required travel to libraries, courthouses, and other institutions, but at the beginning of the millennium, as the Internet began its expansion and eventual information explosion, suddenly hundreds of documents, newspaper articles, maps, public records, and images were only a Google search away—as were obscure connections between people and places that I might never have made on my own.
Around 2003, when my research dovetailed with the initiative to gain historic district status for the Audubon Park neighborhood, my partner, Scott Robinson, suggested that I develop a website to generate support for the historic district effort and to stake a claim to my subject area. Unexpectedly, the resulting virtual walking tour through Audubon Park worked in both directions, bringing the neighborhood’s unique history to a much wider audience, but also bringing researchers and their findings to me. Some were biographers and historians whose research crossed mine, but others were family genealogists whose ancestors had recorded memories of living in Audubon Park.
Besides adding to my knowledge of the park, several of those researchers and genealogists also expanded the narrative with women’s voices. For example, Lucy Audubon’s voluminous correspondence opened a window into her character and added nuance to the family dysfunction and discord that had preceded the transition from the farm Minnie’s Land to the railroad suburb Audubon Park. Her granddaughter Hattie Audubon, in late-life correspondence and written memories, recorded descriptions of the homestead’s interior, as well as the minutiae of daily life, down to who slept in which room, how the dining room chairs were upholstered (horsehair), and what plants were in the garden (two kinds of trumpet vine). Another park resident, Minnie Stone Martin, writing a memoir for her grandchildren in the 1960s, left humorous observations and anecdotes about her late nineteenth-century childhood there, along with a hand-drawn map that clarified who lived in each house during those years, who had fences and who didn’t, and where the families pastured their cows. Although most of these observations only merited passing references in my book, they helped create a sense of time and place that informed the entire project.
Perhaps most telling of these sources were the journals that George Bird Grinnell’s mother, Helen Alvord Lansing Grinnell, wrote for her children between 1859 and 1868. My first knowledge of the two surviving journals came from quotes in studies excerpted on the Internet; from there I tracked one to the New York Public Library and the other to a mid-western university. Helen Grinnell’s private musings are fluidly, often humorously written and cover every aspect of life in Audubon Park during a decade that included the American Civil War, from her children’s antics and illnesses to family excursions and social gatherings to comments on local and national events.
Helen Grinnell’s journals are also an important check on her son’s memory. Whereas he was writing more than a half century after the fact and filtering his narrative through a nostalgic lens, she was writing about events as they happened, glossing them with her thoughts and observations. As one small example, while George Bird Grinnell remembered spending several years in Lucy Audubon’s classroom—a useful relationship to cite when he began the first Audubon Society—his mother’s journals, with their details about the various arrangements she made for her children’s education, make clear that he was there only a matter of months.
Women’s voices in historical narrative are not a new phenomenon, but they were an unexpected and welcome addition to the Audubon Park story, an opportunity to move beyond the white patriarchal viewpoint that has long dominated our national narrative to create a more nuanced, accurate representation of a vanished time and place.
Last month, The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It was recently featured in the Real Estate/Streetscapes section of The New York Times in the article by John Freeman Gill, Audubon Park, From Hinterlands to Urban Density
Matthew Spady is the creator of the virtual walking tour AudubonParkNY.com and curator for AudubonParkPerspectives.org, a news site that reflects on the constant intersection of past and present in a vibrant and historic neighborhood. He was a leader in the decade-long community effort that culminated in the Audubon Park Historic District.