As I sat in the long sunny-windowed waiting room of the Hospital for Special Surgery perched on the very edge of the swirling ice-gorged East river, I thought how my life—all in New York, I was born on 103rd street and 3rd Avenue—had been measured by the apartments our family has lived in.
The very first apartment I can remember was in Long Island City within walking distance of the same turbulent rushing East River that the Dutch called Spiten Dyval, Spitting Devil. I can’t remember the street number in Queens, but on the Manhattan side it corresponded roughly to 59th street.
That first Queens apartment was in a newly built two family house (we were on the first floor) and I can remember looking from the kitchen window to the River.
Just up the block was a new public school where I started Kindergarten, and I can remember my fear at being caught on the front stairs as a racing avalanche of kids exited.
Right in front of our row was a modest park with a round concert wading pool for little kids in which I pretended for my mother that I was swimming with a foot hitting the bottom from time to time. And a little further on was a massive concrete block with a sign on it that it was to become the Triborough Bridge.
On the second floor was a family with a little girl just my age and I found myself being paired off with her and the word “girlfriend” being used. But this idyllic era in Sunnyside ended because my father could not make the rent, and we moved to a 5th floor walk-up on 135th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive.
The nearest public school was PS 192, which was inside the massive Victorian that also housed the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the HOA, between 137th and 138th street. The main entrance was on Amsterdam Avenue, but the grounds ran all the way to Broadway.
On the Hudson River from 135th Street down to 125th Street and Tieman Place ran a viaduct 75 feet above a rough busy road on which trucks moved cargo in and out of riverside warehouses. At 134th street there was a short right angle extension of the Viaduct creating a sheltered, steep embankment on which destitute men lived in cardboard and tin shacks (this was the depression)—I took it as normal that some people lived in the streets. I see that same viaduct now in commercials offered as an exotic vista.
We then moved to 138th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam with an entrance to the HOA grounds and PS 192 just opposite the door.
To my child’s mind, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum was enormous. Kindergarten was on the 137th Street side and on occasion I was sent to take a note to the diminutive principal Dr. Goldberger, who always wore a three-piece tweed suit with his Phi Beta Kappa key showing. The passage to his office was via the high ceilinged corridor called “Dr. Goldberg’s Hall” and lined on both sides with posters lauding the right way to adulthood and decrying the evil paths like smoking.
The Warner brothers had been orphans at the HOA so they donated a big gym, which on Friday nights was converted into a movie house to view (guess what) Warner Brother films, which were all about gangsters and prisons with Jimmy Cagney. Us local kids would sneak in, but it was difficult to blend in with the HOA kids in their kaki institutional uniforms and heavy shoes (Gristedes owner John Catsimatidis lived in the neighborhood and went to PS 192 but much, much later).
Just up the street on Amsterdam Avenue was the Lewison Stadium, which was designed as a Greek Amphitheater. In its curving rows of concrete seating, I heard a very young Jascha Heifetz play.
City College was nearby. Since we were in the depths of the depression it was very Red; I can remember some big demonstrations with signs, chants and riot police on horseback.
On summer evenings, us kids distributed communist literature to crowds streaming up to the stadium from the 137th Street subway station and being given the amazing sum of fifty cents for our efforts by a kindly female party member. (We retrieved and redistributed discarded but clean leaflets.)
Roosevelt was running against Alf Landon and we gave out his button, but I regretted that the Landon button was so much better—it was in the shape of a sunflower and made of felt.
Part Two will continue to chart a lifetime’s worth of apartments and conclude with a discussion of the impetus for this walk down memory lane—a lack of affordable housing that is sending young folks out to Brooklyn and beyond.