Remembering Oliver Allen

“Longtime Tribeca resident Oliver E. Allen, the author of two books and nearly 150 articles on the history of Tribeca, died on Saturday,” reports the Tribeca Trib. The paper, which was the home to those 150 articles, has reminiscences from Lynn Elsworth, Karie Parker Davidson, and Jane Freeman, and here’s the text from a profile of Allen that I ran in 2010.

“There are three great blocks in Tribeca,” says Oliver Allen as we sit in Duane Park. “This one, White between Broadway and Church, and Franklin between Varick and Hudson.” If anyone has a right to say, it’s Allen: He has written about local history for the Tribeca Trib since 1994 (his columns were collected in the 1999 book Tales of Old Tribeca), he used to lead an architectural tour during Taste of Tribeca, and he has kept an eye on Duane Park since co-founding Friends of Duane Park 16 years ago.

On May 6, Friends of Duane Park will hold a benefit honoring him; the proceeds go toward replacing a tree that was recently lost. (Ticket info is at the end of this article.) The event seemed like a good reason to find out more about the man who wrote the book on Tribeca.

After growing up in Scarsdale, Allen moved to the city. In 1946, he was at a cocktail party when he met the woman he would marry, Deborah. “I spied her at the other side of the room and I said, ‘She’s the one.’” The Allens were living on Beekman Place (“of all things”) when they had one child, and then another. “I insisted we move to the suburbs,” he says. “It seemed like such a hassle to raise kids in the city. It might’ve been worth it, though.”

Allen had known he wanted to be a writer, but he also knew he didn’t want to work for his father, Frederick Lewis Allen, who was the editor of Harper’s. In 1947, a friend at Life was relocated to the magazine’s Chicago bureau, and Allen landed his friend’s old job. He stayed at Life until 1960, as editor of the Life Goes to a Party section, religion editor, education editor, and a text editor. He left Life to join Time-Life Books, where he edited book series for 15 years. When Time-Life Books moved to Washington D.C., Allen took early retirement and wrote Time-Life books on topics as varied as gardening, airlines, medicine, and seafaring history.

Once their kids left the nest, Oliver and Deborah decided to return to New York. “Our friends thought we were crazy—it’s dirty, noisy, and crime-ridden, they said. But it’s where the action is.” This was 1982, and they had just heard about a commercial area that had become semi-residential. “We drove into the city, came down Greenwich, and turned left on Duane. The park was in terrible shape, but it was still beautiful.” Two months later, they bought a loft on Hudson Street, overlooking Duane Park.

Allen got interested in New York history when a man at a party buttonholed him about how there was no good one-volume history of the city. “The book I wrote didn’t sell that well, but it got me going on New York.” He also wrote a history of Tammany Hall. “In 1994, when Carl [Glassman] and April [Koral] were starting the Trib, they asked if I’d write for the paper. I said I’d like to write about the history of Tribeca. The first column was on Staple Street.” (At this point I asked him to explain how the Staple Street bridge came to be. The answer is too complicated to go into here, but four vintage copies of Tales of Old Tribeca are available on Amazon starting at $115, or you can wait for Allen’s follow-up, a pictorial history of Tribeca, that the Trib hopes to publish in the fall.) [Note: Amazon has more copies now, as well as of the follow-up, Tribeca: A Pictorial History.]

It was also in 1994 that a neighbor, Lynn Ellsworth, slipped under their door a letter suggesting that they do something about the park. “She knew I’d been involved in historic preservation,” says Allen. The two couples formed Friends of Duane Park, and the results of their efforts—and the efforts of many subsequent members—are obvious today: Duane Park is the loveliest spot in Tribeca (and it’s having a heck of a spring). “Friends of Duane Park has been fortunate to have had strong leadership,” says Allen. “I’ve never been the leader—I’ve always been happy just helping out. One advantage I had was that I knew a lot about gardening from writing all those gardening books.” He claims he’s been trying to shed some of his duties, but he’s clearly still invested in the park, bemoaning how people insist on feeding the pigeons and explaining the new watering system, which will be paid for by proceeds from the annual Tribeca Loft Tour in October.

“I hope they don’t overdo my role,” he says of the benefit’s organizers. “I’m not the reason Friends of Duane Park has been successful. I didn’t have the idea for the loft tour, for instance.” He pauses, trying to find a way to describe his role. “I’ve been present,” he says. Not only is that a tremendous understatement, it’s far more than most of us can say.

1 Comment

  1. Oliver and Deborah were role models in so many ways. But having met them later in life, they have always been particular models for how I want to live in retirement: sharp, engaged, and always making a difference in their community. To me, moving into TriBeCa in retirement says it all. I miss them both.

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