A Gas House Epiphany
“For it’s down in the heart of the Gas House District in Old New York…”
So began a ditty my Nana used to play on her grand piano, the piano that dwarfed the rest of her Manhattan living room, the piano that gave her much of what little pleasure she had in life. Nana had made her concert debut in her teens, and could have had a career as a soloist. Instead, she taught music in NYC public schools. She was known and loved for her (very) ambitious productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, starring her tough city junior high students, for many of whom English was their second language.
“Gas House District” was played at Nana’s cocktail parties, not in school auditoriums. Nana would trot it out after her audience had several highballs, and everyone would sing along.
“Where a friend is your friend and he’ll stick to the end, where good fellows they never squawk…”
I always assumed the song was a product of the early 1900’s, a standard that Nana’s circle would have known from childhood. The lyrics captured the feeling of those old-time city streets, where boys in short pants and newsboy caps would play stickball, and the girls would jump rope. At that young age, the beverage of choice was sarsparilla, but eventually there would be shots and beers at Pete’s Tavern. I could picture the scene so clearly.
And of course Nana put a unique spin on the next lines:
“If you want to meet good fellows face to face, just step around to Tom Cunningham’s place…”
Tom Cunningham was her husband, my grandfather, Pop. No clue what the original name in the song had been, but the substitution cemented it as the East 21st Street Cunningham anthem.
Imagine my confusion when, just this past week, I discovered the truth about the Gas House District (song and neighborhood both). Not a vintage tune at all, it was a 1950’s novelty number, very recently composed when I heard it in Nana’s living room. The surprises continued: the district was named for its huge, ugly gas tanks; it was filled with tenements, which were themselves filled with poor Irish immigrants. It even boasted its own thugs, the Gas House Gang, who would roam the streets robbing passersby (you have to wonder about the wisdom of sticking up folks who didn’t have a dime).
Where was it located? Literally under my feet! In the 1940s, the slum was leveled, to make way for the sparkling new mega-development called Stuyvesant Town. That’s where I was born, and raised until age eight. So I LIVED in the Gas House District all that time and hadn’t a clue!
How do I feel, now that I know the real story?
I’m disappointed, actually.
I prefer my version: the Gas House District still exists, somewhere. The song? It’s a genuine golden oldie. And for me, it will ALWAYS include an invitation to “Tom Cunningham’s place.”
And so we construct our own reality.