Volume 17 • Issue 27 | Nov. 26 - Dec. 02, 2004

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Filmmaker Joanne Medvecky, a Battery Park City resident, has a new documentary about the East European community that lived near Wall St.

When E. European tenements were near the Battery

By Divya Watal

Today, the musk of money permeates every nook and corner of Manhattan’s Financial District, with its plush towers, swanky restaurants and clean gray streets. It is hard to imagine that tenements, with the requisite dirt, stench and poverty, were once an integral part of the area’s environment.

“Legacy of Faith,” a new documentary made by longtime Battery Park City resident Joanne Medvecky, delves into the history of an Eastern European community, placing it in the context of early 20th century Lower Manhattan, which was a mélange of tenement-dwelling ethnic groups, including Greeks, Syrians, Irish, Carpatho-Russians and Slovaks.

The documentary, which opens Nov. 26 in City Cinemas Village East Theater, centers on the struggles and triumphs of Carpatho-Russian immigrants, who survived deprivation and isolation in the new world by forming a tight-knit church community. The striking images, gathered from archival films and personal photographs, transport the viewer to a Financial District rendered almost unrecognizable by its lack of color – both figurative and literal.

“Downtown Manhattan was a poorer neighborhood than you could associate with Harlem, say,” Joseph Kindya, one of the many old-time tenement residents that Medvecky interviewed for her documentary, said in the film. “Later on, when I went to Harlem and compared it to what we had in Downtown Manhattan, I thought Harlem was the lap of luxury.” The Carpatho-Russians, who emigrated from a region that encapsulates parts of Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Ukraine, are an ethnic community with a distinct language, faith and way of life that stretches across political borders of Eastern Europe.

Members of the community migrated to America in the 1800s, like millions of others, in search of jobs, particularly in the Pennsylvania coalmines. In the early 1900s, they filtered into Lower Manhattan, where families lived under the shadows of skyscrapers near the Battery, recreating the atmosphere of their European villages to alleviate the darkness of the tenements.

“There were all these different ethnic groups living together in the tenements, and everybody got along. It was really a testament to what people think of the U.S. – that it’s a melting pot,” Medvecky said in an interview.

The Carpatho-Russian community, like other immigrant communities struggling to eke out a living, found solace in their religious institution, which they founded in 1925 in the East Village. The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, tucked into the corner of E. 10th St. and Avenue A, has been a “second home” for many of them ever since its inception. Community members, who worked as porters and cleaners or ran small stores in Lower Manhattan, set aside every dollar they could spare to buy the little red brick church, which remains at the heart of the community still today.

“It’s about the importance of family, friendship and religion – things that give strength to immigrants who have no money, speak a different language, come from a different culture,” Medvecky said of her documentary. “Anyone who has been through the immigrant experience can relate to it; you could be Jewish, Muslim, Christian – it doesn’t matter.”

Medvecky’s grandparents were founders of the church, which makes the story an especially personal
and poignant one for her. The documentary, which she funded herself, was first screened in the church last November. Close to 300 people came to see it, Medvecky said, and many had to be turned away because of the lack of space.

“A lot of people were crying during the screening. I had invited people who didn’t belong to the church and even they had tears in their eyes – that’s what I wanted. I wanted to move people,” she said.

Medvecky hopes that her documentary will appeal to a wide audience of New Yorkers, but particularly
Downtown residents, who might take away a slice or two from the rich pie of their area’s history. She plans to donate the proceeds of ticket and DVD/VHS sales to the St. Nicholas Church.

“Legacy of Faith” runs from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2 at City Cinemas Village East Theater, located at 181 Second Ave., at the corner of E. 12th Street. For VHS/DVD versions of the documentary, please contact jmedvecky@yahoo.com.

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