Write About it Wednesday: Winifred Bodkin and New York’s Most Unusual Address

“It’s a grand old building. In the old days, this building was New York.”

Life at the Dakota by Stephen Birmingham is a lovely guide to New York’s Most Unusual Address: The Dakota. I had never heard of this building until receiving a copy of The Address by Fiona Davis. Architecture and building design fascinate me. I think the buildings themselves embody history and allow us insight into life in a previous time. There have been so many celebrities, guests, and workers in and out of this building that if only the old saying were true, “if walls could talk…”

I chose to focus on Winifred Bodkin in my research. She came to the Dakota in 1930 not long after her arrival in America. She started as an elevator girl and promoted to the front desk where she remained for the rest of her working years. She was loyal to the Dakota far beyond a regular employee. During the strike of 1976, she chose not to participate (the only worker to do so) and continued her regular duties. She packed her bag the night before so she would not have to cross the picket line but would still be available to the occupants. I thought it was very interesting that during this strike, all of the occupants chipped in and compared the event to an adventure at summer camp. The women loved sorting the mail, the men volunteered to take out the garbage, and everyone learned how to run and staff the building. Winifred left memories of this event along with other tales of occupants working out of their apartments, announcing callers, and helping famous people avoid the paparazzi such as John Lennon. She noted the security changes through the decades and the renovations that pained her to watch. Some of the residents described Winifred as more than the building’s concierge, she was the heart and soul of the operation. Her scrapbook of the time she spent at the Dakota is one of the only remaining documents of the building’s history. Most of the building’s eighty year history was destroyed in one single day by a porter “throwing all this old stuff out.”

It is hard to imagine a person working decades in the same job. We bounce around and change careers more than any generation before us. I think that is what drew me to Winifred. Can you imagine what you could see and document if you spent your entire working career at one company? My parents both had this luxury (that might be a stretch) of working for the same company and watching it evolve, seeing the highs and the lows and all the in between. I think this is a new way to look at history. We all hear the stories of the John Lennons, Joe Namaths, and Judy Garlands of the world, but what about the workers that watch them pass through each day? How would the Dakota compare today from let’s say 1960, 1970, 1980? One woman can tell us that story. We just have to look in the right places. 

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