Home is Where the 7 Train Sings
ART BY ANNICA GROTE
I like to remember my grandmother in Queens. Even though I spent most of my precious August afternoons the summer before sixth grade wrapping up her porcelain dishes in layers of brown butcher paper, even though I rode in the back of the Manhattan-bound U-haul alongside all her furniture, clinging on tight to my brother’s arm each time we hit a pothole, and even though I was the one to help her thread her shiny new key onto her blue plastic keychain, what I remember most about her is her accented voice behind the shaking rhythm of the seven train above.
On the weekends of my childhood, my parents dropped my brother and me off at my grandma’s house in Flushing, Queens, for slow walks through Corona Park and bowls of vegetarian split pea soup around the oval mahogany table in the center of her living room. On nights like those, I found my mind drifting to her choice of wallpaper, which peeled at the molding. The light that managed to fight its way through the layers of dust and rayon that made up her curtains was swallowed by the dark brown hue of her walls. The tan floral overlay on top bore no resemblance to the salmon hydrangeas that patterned her sunken cream sofa and matching recliner. The velvet leaf accents, which made up the top layer, shed fuzz that found a home between the fibers of her green shag carpet. Nothing in her house matched, and nothing made sense.
Even though the same family photos lined the walls, the same crystal judaica laid dusty on her wooden bureau shelves, the same long black linen skirts hung neatly folded over hangers in her closet, and the same mismatched furniture made it over the Queensboro Bridge—her collection of things never looked quite right against the white walls of her new Manhattan home. Although she was able to physically replicate her Flushing home in Manhattan, I could not figure out why her new house never seemed to embody her spirit.
Six years after her move, starting in January of last year, I worked at the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End as a museum interpreter. While I was in this position, I answered three main questions from visitors about the structure of the home.
When was this house built, and who built it?
It was built in 1680 for a wealthy Puritan merchant. If you look up, you might be able to make out some of the builders’ marks from the original construction. When the Reveres moved in in 1770, they built an extension onto the house, including the kitchen you entered through.
What type of wood did they use to build it?
It would have been a mixture of oak and pine. The pine probably would have come from the Virginia colony, and the oak would have been brought over from Europe.
I heard he had 16 kids. How could they have fit in this house?
Of his 16 children, only 11 survived into adulthood. They were also born over a fairly long period of time, so we estimate that only five to nine children would be living in this home at one time. That being said, several of Paul Revere’s 51 grandchildren did live here at various points. But, we think anywhere from three to five children would share any given bed.
Aside from these three questions and the nervous giggles that accompanied the loud creaks of footsteps upstairs, visitors were largely uninterested in the house outside of Revere. Located on Boston’s Freedom Trail, American flag-clad tourists and talkative amateur history buffs liked to get their money’s worth hearing about the heroics of the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere. Although I spent hundreds of hours standing in, talking about, and pointing at the Paul Revere House, I was not able to pinpoint why his home, specifically, was such a resonant site of his memory and legacy.
In one of my final weeks at the Revere House, a visitor asked me a question that I had been asked hundreds of times before—who built this house? I started to give my typical response, describing the original owner of the house, a wealthy slave-owning British shipping merchant named Robert Howard before I was interrupted. Well, he didn’t build it himself, did he? I thought back to the binders full of information that I read over the course of my training, and after a long pause, I admitted to the visitor with an embarrassed laugh that I didn’t know. I knew the name and address of the wallpaper manufacturer, the shapes of pegs that held the floorboards together, and the chemical composition of the stained glass windows, but I did not know the identity of the hands that created the home.
After some independent research, I found that an English architect named John Jeffs likely built the home after the Boston fire of 1676. What struck me more in my investigation, however, was what happened after the Reveres left. In 1800, Paul Revere sold the home, and it was converted into a boarding house. Hundreds of sailors would have called this place their home—whether for a night, a week, or months. Later into the 19th century, while the top floor was still used for housing, the bottom became a cigar store run by Italian immigrants until its purchase by a Revere descendant in 1902. The Revere House, as a structure, houses the memories and legacies of thousands of people and is in line with the North End’s tradition of housing working class and immigrant communities. While the names of many of its inhabitants have been lost to time, their legacies have shaped our collective memory, conscious or not, of the symbolism of this site and its place in the narrative of American history.
Those who are close to me know that I would do anything for an anecdote, and this job came as part of a larger pattern of holding odd gigs in recent years, like optical shop employee or podcast-making intern. Often when I tell friends, family, and acquaintances about my seven months at the Paul Revere house (which I affectionately call Paul’s House), I do it with a laugh—at least I didn’t have to wear a corset! While experiences like sanding down the sharp edges of 74 pieces of sheet copper so a group of fifth graders could safely make engravings like Paul Revere did at his copper rolling mill makes for great party small-talk, my time at the Paul Revere House opened my eyes to how the stories we tell are inseparable from the spaces we inhabit. We live in connection and in constant communication with the legacies of those who occupied our spaces before us.
So what can Paul Revere tell me about my grandmother?
It was always my grandmother’s dream to live in an apartment with a view of Central Park. While her new apartment in Manhattan overlooked a liquor store and a highway, it only took her 15 minutes to walk to the Harlem Meer at the northern end of Central Park, where she liked to feed the ducks slices of rye bread from her purse. On one of our walks to the park, she turned to me and said I didn’t realize how nice Corona Park was until I moved here. Even though she lived and breathed in her Manhattan apartment and died in it three years later, and even though her friends and family mourned her there, her memory doesn’t reside there. It is impossible to separate my grandmother’s memory from the place she, as an immigrant, worked tirelessly to create a life for herself. Her spirit cannot be removed from the place where she developed her community, fell in love, and had her children and eventual grandchildren. Her legacy is intertwined with Queens, and so long as the Flushing Express stays running, she lives on with me.