Today we profile Untapped Cities contributor Peggy Gavan, aka, The Hatching Cat NYC who specializes in New York City history with an animal twist. She has written pieces on a cow that designed a $250,000 driveway, New York City’s Lost Cat Alley, and more about forgotten New York.
What’s your favorite Untapped spot in your city?
There are so many wonderful Untapped spots in New York City, but the place with which I feel the strongest connection is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Whenever I visit or pass by the museum, I get the feeling that I was here in a past life, in the late 1800s. I think this is because some of my Irish and German ancestors settled in the Lower East Side after arriving at Ellis Island, and probably lived in similar conditions represented in the museum’s apartments. I believe that people’s memories are passed on through the generations, and it is these memories that draw me to the Lower East Side and to the Tenement Museum.
Favorite piece you’ve written for Untapped:
I love exploring and sharing the history of New York City through animal stories – it’s truly amazing how so many animals played a role in the city’s history, or were associated with some of New York’s most iconic buildings and famous people. For example, many of the streets that run through New York City started out as trails created by deer, wolves, and other wild animals that once lived on the island. The Native Americans in turn used these trails to traverse Manhattan, and then Dutch settlers used the paths to lead their cows to pasture or to travel from their farms to the city limits of New Amsterdam. That’s why I love the story about the cow that designed C.K.G. Billings’ $250,000 driveway in Fort Tryon Park, and why it’s my favorite piece (so far).
What’s your favorite Untapped place you’ve visited while traveling? Where do you want to visit next?
My husband and I recently took a river tour of the cities along the Rhine. We began our trip with a three-day stay in Amsterdam, which included a tour of the Jordaan neighborhood along the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal). Since I’m a huge fan of New York City and 17th and 18th century architecture, this neighborhood was one of my favorite stops on the tour. I felt as if I were finally “seeing” Old New York in color for the first time, rather than through dark and gloomy black-and-white illustrations and photos.
Now that I’ve visited some of the castles of Germany – the land of my maternal ancestors – I hope to someday visit some of the grand castles of Ireland, especially those near County Cork, where my father’s relatives once lived.
What’s your favorite obscure fact about your city?
Again, I’m going to have to revert to animals and say that my favorite obscure fact about New York City is that so many brawny men of Old New York – mayors, cops, firemen, hoteliers, sailors – adored the stray cats they adopted to serve as mascots and rat-catchers. Many of these men mourned when their cats passed away, and many a story about man and cat was published in newspapers such as The New York Times and Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1800s and early 1900s. I’ve collected a few dozen of such tales, which I share in a presentation I call “The Brawny Men of Old New York and the Alley Cats They Adored.” When I tell these obscure cat stories, I say to my audience, “You just can’t make this stuff up.”
Craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done is become a volunteer firefighter. This was about 20 years ago, and I was the first woman to join my town’s fire department (the department had about 125 men). Over the years, more women have joined, and today we have about 15 women in the department. I still volunteer, albeit now I provide scene support with the fire police rather than go into burning buildings.
Best celebrity sighting?
I guess my best celebrity sighting took place around 1980, when I saw Dudley Moore on the street (this was just after he had appeared in the movie 10 with Bo Derek). I was sitting in the car with my parents. I think we were parked somewhere uptown on Broadway or perhaps Fifth Avenue. I looked out the window just as Dudley passed by, and he gave me a wink and nod as if to say, yep, it’s me. That was exciting because it was the first celebrity I had ever seen while in the city.
Follow Peggy Gavan on Twitter @HatchingCatNYC. Become an Untapped Cities contributor.