Essays on Urban Folklore

Urban Folklore | NYC Places | NYC Ethnic Traditions | NYC Occupational Traditions


Urban Folklore

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1983. The Future of Folklore Studies in America: The Urban Frontier. Folklore Forum. 16(2):175-234. [PDF]
In 1983, noted scholar, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett declared there was a new socio-cultural “frontier” for social scientists to identify and illuminate—megacities. She uses New York City, the “quintessential metropolis” to explore the folk imprint on the built environment and the customizing of mass culture. In this classic essay, she reminds us that “cities and mass culture have not sounded the death knell of folklore. On the contrary, they have offered a new frontier for exploring the indomitable will to make meaning, create value, and develop connoisseurship under the most exhilarating, as well as the most devastating, conditions.

Miska, Maxine and I. Sheldon Posen. 1983. Tradition and Community in the Urban Neighborhood: Making Brooklyn Home.

Brooklyn: Brooklyn Rediscovery/Brooklyn Educational & Cultural Alliance. [PDF]
“On any given day in Brooklyn, people can hear, see or do the following: call a certain phone number and get the latest news on marriages, births, and deaths in Belize; talk with the owner of the last remaining Italian marionette theater in the United States; buy Norwegian salt lamb, Arab bread, Irish oats, Chinese parsley, and German sausage at different shops within ten blocks of each other in one neighborhood; obtain aerosol spray to drive out evil spirits and soap to attract money from a botanica. On the right day of the season, you can take part in a gospel tent meeting, buy a pound of hand-made matzo, choose up sides for games of stickball and skelly….What all these things have in common, besides being located in Brooklyn, is that they are aspects of urban folklife…

Murray, Michael. 2001. B.A. Botkin’s New York Voices 27
“Although Benjamin A. Botkin (1901-1975) referred to himself as a “writer” and “regionalist” more often than as a folklorist, he was one of American folklore scholarship’s most important influences. Botkin recognized that counter to prevailing sentiments in folklore, modernity was not a threat to traditional life; rather, the inhabitants of a modern world drew on their modern experiences to both shape existing traditions and craft new expressions. Although folklorists today may take this for granted, Botkin was one of few proclaiming the folk voices of the modern world to be as important as the “survivals” studied by many of his peers. In 1928 he coined the term folk-say to express his theory that folklore floats through the modern experience, finding a home in different expressions. This broader field of expression freed Botkin to assert that the dialogue spoken on a street corner is equal in value to dialogue heard in a movie or read in an essay.

New York Folklore Society. 2001. “Two Classic Articles by B.A. Botkin: We Called It ‘Living Lore‘” and “The Spiels of New York” Voices 27:16From “We Called it Living Lore”: “In the street anything goes. Slap a word in there. … On the street whatever comes to my mind I say it, if I think it will be good. The main ideas is when I got something I want to put over I just find something to rhyme with it. And the main requirement for that is mood. You gotta be in the mood.” We called it “living lore,” and like the living speech in which it was couched, it was responsive to the mood of the moment, though it had behind it the accumulated mother wit and wisdom of generations. The interviewer had to put his informant in the mood, and to do this successfully the former had to be in the mood. And what was conveyed was the mood, the feeling and attitude of the worker (for we interviewed people in various occupations as well as neighborhoods and ethnic groups) toward his work, his fellow workers, and his boss.From the “Spiels of New York”: For O. Henry the “Voice of the City”—the “composite vocal message of massed humanity”—included such characteristic individual voices as the “shout of the press agent” and the hullabaloo of the strawberry vendor.” Today the musical street cry has largely gone the way of the organ grinder and the German band. The “shout of the press agent” is still heard, louder than ever, not only among the publicity and ad men but among their oral equivalent, the sidewalk salesmen and barkers, whose tub-thumping patter is one of the best free shows in town and the latest thing in radio and TV commercials.

Ragland, Cathy. 2001. New York City on the National Mall: Folklorists Interpret the City for the Smithsonian Voices 27
“For the first time in the 35-year history of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the spotlight will be not on a state or region of the country but on one city: New York….The goal of uncovering and presenting “New York as New Yorkers see it,” as the festival program publicists promise, presented a complex, even unruly challenge to organizers and festival goers alike. “The festival will be a snapshot of New York culture at the turn of the millennium,” said New York folklorist, author, and program curator Nancy Groce. “It will be a chance for people to explore serious aspects of city life and to understand how communities overlap and influence each other”.

Zeitlin, Steve. 2002. From Now OnVoices 28
“For the B, D, F, and N trains, it’s the end of the line. The subway cars snake around the bottom of Brooklyn like a viper around a snake charmer’s neck at Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore, visible through the windows. Trains from the four lines sit side by side in the station, adjoining the Coney Island Yards. A urban oddity of idiosyncratic architecture arches across the lines of track, and atop the unusual bridge stands the Stillwell Avenue Transit Authority Crew Reporting Center. It houses two pool tables and nine orange tables with built-in stools….Tony, a homeless man, travels the distance of the city to watch his sports heroes on that television set from outside, on the bridge. He piles up his belongings and sits on the bags. Barred from entering, the sound all but inaudible, he strains to watch his heroes fight over a basketball.

Zeitlin, Steve and Illana Harlow. 2001. 9/11: Commemorative Art, Ritual, and Story Voices 27
On September 11, New York City filled with such overwhelming sorrow that personal rituals of grief spilled out of private lives and homes into public spaces. Feelings of loss were inscribed on the city itself. People used every available medium to express themselves; some even scrawled messages in the dust from the explosions that coated vehicles and windows. Public surfaces were plastered with “Missing” posters. Parks, firehouses, subway stations, traffic islands, and even curbsides became sites of continually evolving shrines of flowers, candles, poems, and art…”

Zeitlin, Steve. 2001. The Oral History of Our TimeCity Lore Magazine [PDF]
“‘…long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrels, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchmen and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumors, cries from the heart…a vast oral history of our time.’ ….Joe Gould wanted to possess New York, to capture it in a giant single tome that could be neatly placed on a shelf. We too want to possess New York—only to find, as Gould discovered, that it can only possess us.”

Zeitlin, Steve. 1998. Walt Whitman Rides the Trains. City Lore Magazine [PDF]
“I have seen you all, New Yorkers, a hundred at a time on crowded subways, fifty at a time on the buses, in twos making out on the platforms, or hopping over the turnstile to avoid a fare. Yes, riding the trains, I periodically find myself peering at New York through Walt Whitman’s eyes, with his undying sense of the city as erotic urban pageant. In his inimitable style, I devise my paltry imitations—I have seen your drag queens promenading in the Halloween parade, immigrant cabbies at the wheel. I have squeezed between garlic eaters on the train, smelled the cuisines of seven continents sweated through New York pores…”
back to top

NYC Places

Corbett, Theodore. 2002. The Alley: A Backstreet History of New York’s Communities Voices 28
Three cities illustrate different patterns of development in urban alleys. New York City’s alleys were created as amenities for aristocratic and bourgeois residents. In Waterford, the alleys and the brick step-gabled carriage houses of the mid-nineteenth century were signs of the community’s business acumen and determination to succeed after the fire of 1841. At Saratoga Springs, alleys were conceived as amenities but took on a working class aspect, serving as low-income housing and commercial enclaves. In the twentieth century, alleys survived the age of the automobile and the decline of central cities; they have been gentrified and protected for their contributions to the quality of life in our cities. Now they are waiting to be studied as microcosms of vernacular architecture and social history.

Green, Mick. 2002. Alley Cats Voices 28:
New York City has maintained an interesting and playful association with its alleyways. Few places have produced more joyful sounds than Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley, named for the raucous musical bustle of songwriters hard at work. The same general area was recently redubbed Silicon Alley to help promote the image of the city as an emerging Internet center. Neither strip was a true alley, of course, but the use of the allegorical alleyway immediately associated these areas and the activities of their inhabitants with New York’s tightly packed, intensely cosmopolitan character.

Sciorra, Joseph. 2001. The Lisanti Family Chapel in Williamsbridge, The BronxVoices 27
“In 1905 Francesco Lisanti, an Italian baker in the Bronx, built a private family chapel, which today reveals much about the challenges turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants faced and the creative solutions they devised to meet their spiritual needs. This place of worship served the Lisanti family as well as community members until the 1970s. Although many Roman Catholic churches in the United States were altered after the Second Vatican Council, the Lisanti chapel remains unchanged—and an unparalleled example of sacred vernacular architecture decorated with examples of once-popular Catholic iconography.”

Zeitlin, Steve and Marci Reaven. 2003. On the Bowery Voices 29
“Come! Walk with us the length of New York’s famed Bowery, past the statue of Confucius on Chatham Square, the great old Bowery Savings Bank at Grand Street (now home to the glitzy Capitale Restaurant), past Delancey, Rivington, Stanton, Houston, and Great Jones streets up to Cooper Square. The distance is only a mile, twenty minutes at a brisk walk. But our walk is not just an exercise in getting from point A to point B, it’s a journey through urban time and space. Places that resonate have temporal depth, their significance understood if we move not only horizontally across the city, but vertically, through decades and centuries. We feel the weight of time and the texture of experience. Our personal memories, good and bad, are inscribed on the built environment…”

Zeitlin, Steve. 2002. The Human Unit of Time Voices 28
…As folklorists, we often present the work of elders and advocate intergenerational exchange, encouraging young people to interview their grandparents, to stretch the measuring tape of time beyond their own lives—not an easy task for Americans, who continually embrace the new. A boy once told Mead that “long ago was before his grandfather’s grandfather’s time.” It’s occurred to me that we need the human unit of time not only to extend the way we think about families and time, but in some cases, to limit it; to distinguish what happened in living memory from what happened “long ago,” when an individual’s human unit of time fades into the historical record….

Zeitlin, Steve. 2001. The House Under the Roller Coaster Voices 27
“Without warning, in the early morning hours of November 17, 2000, New York City bulldozers staged a surprise attack on one of Coney Island’s few remaining monuments, the long-neglected Thunderbolt roller coaster. In its twists and turns nestled the old Kensington Hotel—the “House under the Roller Coaster” made famous as the home of Alvie Singer in Annie Hall. The small hotel was also home to May Timpano and Fred Moran, who owned the Thunderbolt and lived there for more than 40 years, the coaster rattling their living room with every ride. The house and coaster were both slated for a secret demolition by the mayor, whose waterfront development plans for a new, more profitable Coney Island will sever all ties to its glamorous past. The demolition orders asserted that the structure was unsafe (although it was completely fenced), and that the City owned the property (maps show it did not). At 10 a.m. I learned of the bulldozers’ assault on the site from Dick Zigun…”

Zeitlin, Steve. 1998. The Portal of Paradise: Stone Carving at The Cathedral of St. John the DivineCity Lore Magazine [PDF]
So often when we pass a house of worship, we appreciate the beauty of the carvings and adornments, but forget the human hands that crafted them. In this essay, Steve Zeitlin shares the work of City Lore’s Director of Photography, Martha Cooper, who has documented the stone carvers at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This documentation project is part of City Lore’s ongoing effort to recognize the artistry and the artists who enrich our city and beautify the world.back to top

NYC Ethnic Traditions

Allen, Ray. 2001. J’Ouvert!: Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions in Brooklyn CarnivalCity Lore Magazine [PDF]
“For more than a century J’Ouvert “break of day” processions have marked the opening of Carnival in Trinidad. Held in the predawn hours of Carnival Monday, J’Ouvert evolved from 19th century Canboulay festivals—nighttime celebrations where ex-slaves gathered to masquerade, sing, and dance in commemoration of their emancipation….In Brooklyn, home to the largest West Indian community outside the Caribbean and host to a labor Day Carnival that draws close to two million participants each year, J’Ouvert is a relatively new phenomenon. Over the past decade, Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert has grown from a small groups of Dimanche Gras (fat Sunday) revelers to a massive predawn celebration attracting nearly 200,00 steelband and old mas enthusiasts…”

Groce, Nancy. 2001. Broadway’s Gypsy Robe. City Lore Magazine [PDF]
“Luck is a fickle thing. For the past 40 years, no musical has opened on Broadway without the blessings of a magical garment called the Gypsy Robe. It brings with it luck, tradition, and a sense of community. In 1959, Bill Bradley, a dancer in the musical 
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, borrowed a tacky dressing robe from a chorus girl or “gypsy”— as the singers and/or dancers in Broadway choruses call themselves….

Hutchinson, Sydney. 2000. Pinto Güira and His Magic Bullet: A Dominican Instrument Maker in Corona, Queens Voices 26
“Francisco Javier Durán García just turned thirty-three and is already at the top of his trade. He is well known among Dominican musicians not only for his showy performance style but also as one of the few instrument makers who still produce güiras entirely by hand—from start to finish. These metal idiophones are occasionally also known as guayos, or graters, because of their resemblance to the kitchen tool. Durán set up shop in Corona, Queens, in 1997. Although most of his business is done on a person-to-person basis and he gets new customers through word of mouth, he has also sold wholesale through New York Latin music chains Rincón Musical and Disco Mundo….”

Martinez, Elena. 2003. The Queen of Mundillo Voices 29
In English it is known as bobbin lace. In Puerto Rico this delicate handwork, used to embellish collars and handkerchiefs, bridal veils and baby bonnets, is encaje de bolillos but more commonly known as mundillo—”little world,” for the cylinder on which the lace maker weaves her intricate designs.

Raglan, Cathy. 2000. Mediating Between Two Worlds: The Sonideros of Mexican Youth Dances Voices 26
” The New York metropolitan area’s young Mexican immigrants are a community living in transition, continually shifting between their memory of Mexico and the reality of life here in the United States. Their weekend social events, called bailes, feature light shows, sound manipulations, and loud cumbia dance music played by deejays known as sonideros. The theme of being transported to another place runs through the evening, and in fact, in reading the poetic dedications and salutations composed by the young dancers, the sonidero takes them from Queens to Oaxaca, from Puebla to Paterson….”

Wilcken, Lois. 2001. The Gods Speak English in New York: Haitian Spirits Adjust to Urban LifeCity Lore Magazine [PDF]
“It was winter in New York, but a crowded roomful of people from Haiti were warmly celebrating the deities of their African ancestors. Sparked by song, dance, and drumming, the priestess in charge allowed the spirit to take possession of her, and all consciousness dissolved. What a surprise when, what seemed a moment later, she found herself knee deep in snow!…”

back to top

NYC Occupational Traditions

Gargulinski, Ryn. 2001. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors! Occupational Folklore of New York City Subway Workers Voices 27
“What I found amid all the debris, rats, and grime in the subways was a community of close-knit workers who share, besides their jobs in the bowels of the most diverse city on the planet, a number of stories that adhere them. Many of the tales that bind fall into the accident and cautionary genre and can be broken down into five major categories: accounts of death, near-death (and close-call) stories, tales highlighting the unstable environment, hero narratives, and tales that deal with humor, pranks and the absurd. For this article, I focus on a single category: tales of death. . . . 

Turner, Kay with Kathleen Condon. 2003. Happy Birthday Willy B! Voices 29
“A hallmark of industry, the Williamsburg Bridge symbolized New York City’s early twentieth-century desires for expansion, productivity, and democracy. Instrumental in creating the cultural diversity of New York, this “immigrant bridge,” known locally as the Willy B, has long served diverse working-class populations moving out of Manhattan to seek a better life in Brooklyn. In the 1980s it was threatened with demolition but instead is being restored. A birthday party in 2003 celebrated the history, occupational labor, and community arts that distinguish the culture of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Willy B was—and is—the people’s bridge, and it remains a symbol of the city….”

back to top


Street Vendors []
City Lore supports grassroots cultural activities and tries to support New York’s street culture in its many manifestations. This is a link for a site that supports NYC street vendors. Coney Island History []

EarSay []
Co-directed by Judith Sloan and Warren Lehrer, EarSay is an artist driven non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated. Projects bridge the divide between documentary and expressive forms in books, exhibitions, on stage, in sound and electronic media. EarSay is committed to fostering understanding and dialogue across cultures, generations, gender, and class through artistic productions and education.

Folklore Society []
The Folklore Society, founded in London in 1878, is a registered charity devoted to the academic study of all aspects of folk traditions.

Forgotten NY [ ]
Documents what creator Kevin Walsh describes as the “forgotten, overlooked and ancient sites of New York City.”

History Matters []
A compilation of primary documents and educational curricula which explore the history of the everyday. For more information, click on the “To Browse” link from their homepage. A project of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning of the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Labor Arts [http://www.laborarts.orgis a virtual museum designed to gather, identify and display examples of the cultural and artistic history of working people and to celebrate the trade union movement’s contributions to that history. Labor Arts is building a collection of these items for the viewer’s enjoyment, education and research.

Municipal Art Society []
A non-profit organization founded in 1893 that is committed to enriching the culture, neighborhoods and physical design of New York City. Co-sponsor with City Lore of the Place Matters project.

National Endowment for the Arts []
For information about Folk and Traditional Arts and other programs of this national funding agency for the arts.

New York: A Documentary Film []
Web companion to the 10-part documentary on New York City directed by Ric Burns. City Lore served as a series sponsor.

New York Folklore Society []
A statewide, non-profit organization that offers a wide range of programs and services designed to nurture traditional arts and culture in the communities where they originate.

New York Pinewoods Folk Music Club/Folk Music Society of New York, Inc. []
The New York Pinewoods Folk Music Club runs concerts, weekends, classes, singing parties, and get-togethers, all with an emphasis on traditional folk music of all flavors. “We make music the old-fashioned way. . . We play it…We sing it . . . Sometimes we even dance to it. Traditional Music is Alive and Well in New York.” Call FolkFone, (212) 563-4099 for a weekly listing of folk music concerts and events in and around New York City. If you live in the tri-state area, and would like to receive a free copy of our monthly newsletter, with information on becoming a member, email us your name and postal address or call our office, (212) 563-4099, and leave your name and postal address.

New York State Council on the Arts []
For information about Folk Arts and other programs of this premiere state funding agency for the arts. The Folk Arts Program is devoted to perpetuating New York State’s living cultural heritage of folk arts, and especially to support traditions practiced within communities.

Philadelphia Folklore Project []
A multi-disciplinary folk arts agency committed to identifying, documenting, presenting and supporting local folk arts and culture.

Poets House []
A literary center and archive whose resources and events document the wealth and diversity of modern poetry, and stimulate public dialogue on issues of poetry in culture. Co-sponsor with City Lore of the People’s Poetry Gathering.

September 11 Digital Archive [
The Digital Archive collects, preserves, and presents the history of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and the public responses to them. The Digital Archives is organized by the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Sound Portraits []
MacArthur award-winning producer Dave Isay produces radio documentaries about great New York City characters and places. Information and gift purchases available on the site. Co-producer with City Lore of the American Talkers radio series. []
Unique, interactive website about urban play, historic and contemporary, with a focus on stickball.

Teachers and Writers []
One of New York City’s principal resource organizations for teachers and writers, offering workshops, school programs, mail order catalog, library resources, and much more.

Western Folklife Center []
Sponsors of the famous Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, the Center is dedicated to presenting and preserving the contemporary traditions of the American West. Partners with City Lore and Poets House on the People’s Poetry Gathering.

Back to Top | Articles | Webography

Upcoming Events

View calendar


Would love your thoughts, please comment.x