Some people visit New York. Eva Silverman has made a ritual of it: One that’s now so central to her being that it’s almost unconscious.
She passes by what was once a garment factory at the corner of Spring and Broadway in SoHo, where her grandmother worked at the age of fifteen. She wanders through the Lower East Side, through the streets in which she and her grandmother both came of age, decades apart: one going to punk rock shows, the other as an immigrant teenager in the 1920s. She’ll sometimes take the train to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, where her parents grew up. On walks through the city, she’ll pass by the places where CBGB and Coney Island High once stood, and where she first saw The Ramones play, and Meow Mix, where she first performed onstage. Often, she’ll stay at the Carlton Arms Hotel, or otherwise stop in to say hello to the guys who work there and its resident cats.
Eva lost her mom to breast cancer when she was ten. Her dad died in a car accident when she was 19. But of course, as with all of our stories, Eva’s doesn’t begin with her parents’ deaths. In fact, it begins long before she was born.
Jerry Silverman was a mathematician and an amateur photographer: a hobby he began as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn. When he died, he left behind thousands of slides and negatives.
In the winter of 2012, Eva served as the resident-artist of the Carlton Arms. She created a visual history of New York, through the lens of the three generations of her family that called it home. Calling the project “Mapping Roots: NYC,” she mapped out the places in time that had been important to three generations of her family, beginning with her grandmother’s arrival in 1920 from Poland. Using some of her dad’s photography from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, she paired each dot on the map with a photo from “now” and “then”. Guests staying in Room 7C can still see it. Sure beats wallpaper.
She makes a point to drop in on her native New Jersey. She crosses the George Washington Bridge, and takes the Wyckoff, NJ exit off the highway. It’s at that moment that she’s struck by a “visceral feeling of familiarity, of ‘This is where I belong.’” She recalls long car rides as a kid with her dad at the wheel, and how she’d always jerk awake at that exact spot as they approached home. She drives past the last farm in her hometown, taking note of whatever new developments weren’t there the time before.
“There’s something about holding onto those roots and feeling them that’s essential to being able to create a home somewhere else,” she says.
For the last thirteen years, that “somewhere else” has been Oakland, CA.
Eva moved to her apartment sight unseen: Her best friend and her partner were living in the city, and they picked the place.
Stepping through her front door is like stepping back in time, or better yet, through time. Everything, it seems, has a story: On her walls are two saws of her grandfather’s, a carpenter by trade. There’s the card from the hospital with the date and time in which she was born, with the words, “Baby Girl: Eva, Mother: Mona.” There’s the concert ticket from her first concert, and her first guitar. A photo of her parents taken in their early 20s hangs above her bedroom door. There’s a postcard from her dad, and a small painting that always hung in his office.
In the kitchen hangs a framed collection of her mother’s recipes. A prolific baker, Eva is quick to point out that it’s an inherited trait.
“There is something about seeing her handwriting and the care that went into each recipe card that makes me feel close to my mom,” she says.
The granddaughter of immigrants, Eva has found a way to do what most of us struggle with: To integrate past and present through a smattering of objects, to discern what’s meaningful and what’s just stuff.
“My family was really good at collecting,” she explains: A skill necessitated by having to pick and move, and months, sometimes years, spent in limbo as refugees.
Eva's grandmother was ten when she, joined by her mom and baby sister and thousands of immigrants, arrived on the shores of Manhattan in 1920. Her father left Poland when she was just over a year old, and had been living in the country for nine years. The family settled in a three-room apartment in the Lower East Side. The front room was off limits to anyone but guests, and she and her sister slept on a foldout cot in the kitchen.
Her grandfather also grew up in Poland, and first came to New York as a visitor in the mid-30s. It was during that visit that the two met. He returned to Poland, just as Hitler and the Third Reich were gaining steam. Eva's grandmother went back to Poland to see him, and there they married. They returned to the US, narrowly escaping the fate of most of his family members, who later died in concentration camps.
The couple settled in Brooklyn, and gave birth to two sons. The younger of the two grew up to be Eva's father.
Eva's mother was born in a displaced person's camp in Austria in 1947, also to Jewish parents from Poland. Her grandmother jumped off a moving train on its way to a concentration camp. She lost her two young daughters to the hands of the Nazis, and spent 14 months hiding in a small coffin-sized bunker in the woods. She reunited with Eva's grandfather, who had been captured by the Russian army, in the camp. The family made it out in 1951, and they, too, settled in Brooklyn.
Eva still has their naturalization papers, and her grandmother's Shabbat candle sticks: One of the only things she was able to take with her.
“They’re all these reminders of the people who are a part of my past, and who are with me in some ways.”
To Eva, home is people, living and dead. It is a collection of things and the stories behind them. It is not a place, but places.
For those of us who are lucky enough to associate “home” with safety, it is a cradle we carry with us, a series of intertwining roots that explain where we came from and hence where we are today. It’s a place we can return to, even if Memory Lane is the only street still standing.
To be welcomed is one-directional. To belong is a two-way relationship: alchemical and unpredictable, demanding our own exertion, and a satisfaction with our own skin.
Ours is a nation of immigrants, for whom “home” has always been a creation story. When one home crumbles, or ceases to exist in physical form, it is up to us to be creators.