AUGUST 1, 2017
I was born in New York City in 1934 and called it home until 1970. My first 7 years was spent in the north end of Hell’s Kitchen. The next 12 years were spent in an area that is known as Lincoln Center. The final 17 years was spent in Astoria, Queens. In effect, NYC was my home for the first 36 years of my life. This tale is the first of a 2-part series concerned with New York City during that 36 year time period.
This first article is concerned with the 1934-1953 time period. The 1953-1970 period will be addressed in a follow-up article early next year. On to this first article.
I have often written that following World War II, “anything was possible” in New York City. Nothing would compare to NYC around the middle of the 20th Century. The economy was booming. Its population was primarily comprised of first, not second generation Americans of European extraction, but mostly Irish and Italians and to a lesser degree, Germans, Poles and Greeks. The City was primarily white and Catholic. The Hamptons were some rich family living on Park Avenue. The migration from the Caribbean had just begun. The legal drinking age was 18. We had 3 baseball teams. The Garment District was just that. A $0.25 toll had been instituted on the Triboro Bridge . . . for maintenance purposes! McDonalds had arrived on the scene. TV? There was Uncle Miltie, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas, and my all-time favorite, Jackie Gleason. My all-time great entertainer, Louie Prima, would soon arrive on the scene. Movies? Pick one. There was also Otto Graham, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Joe D., Willie Mays, George Mikan, etc. The GI Bill – $110 a month to attend college or $50 a week for 52 weeks. 42nd Street was, well…you know. Rockaway Beach had already been officially renamed the Irish Rivera. The Catskill’s had been reassigned the title “The Jewish Alps” while Astoria, Queens was now a colony of Greeks. Finally, there was The Beatles, Alan Freed, “Sha Boom,” “Earth Angel,” “Eddie, My Love,” “Mr. Sandman,” and, of course, Billy Joel’s frantic attempt to determine who indeed had started the fire.
But, what was life really like in NYC at that time? It would be impossible to squeeze it all into this type of article. But, I do have an earlier unedited 1995 Litmor Publication article titled “On the Stoop” which follows. Hopefully, this is a satisfactory alternative.
“ON THE STOOP”
(Down Memory Lane)
My friend, the writer Costas Anifantakis of Searingtown, had this to say about “the stoop” in his Volume II Issue 26, titled – the View from The Stoop:
“Using the word ‘stoop’ as a noun is probably unique to Old Gotham. The etymological derivative of the word is lost somewhere in the hustle and bustle of the city’s pubertal period. The brownstone exterior of eight to ten steps, known as the Stoop, might have been adopted from the fact that a pedestrian had to do just that (stoop) to negotiate an upward and forward motion simultaneously, the essence of stair ascension. The stoop served and still serves a few functions. Primarily, it is a simple architectural expedient providing access to an upper entrance to a building. It not only constitutes a convenient place to ‘hang-out,’ but also is an excellent collecting point for the latest gossip. The stoop is a cosmos where one can observe the coiling and uncoiling of the street activity, and lastly, it constitutes an athletic playing field and stickball where kids, with the aid of a pink rubber ball (a Spaldeen) can play stoopball. Stoops come in a few shades of sandstone, varying in steepness-and depth and although each has its own distinct character, they all have one thing in common: an unmatched view of the world flowing by endlessly:”
The stoop at 168 West 65th Street (between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway) served as both an observatory tower and conference boardroom for me and the guys – on the south side of 65th Street during the late 1940’s. This area and the area due southwest was once described by Mayor LaGuardia as New York’s worst slum area. That area, just due north of Hell’s Kitchen, was leveled by the nefarious Robert Moses around 1950, to be replaced by what we now call Lincoln Center.
Here is what I remember most of the view from our stoop at 168 West 65th Street.
- We lived at 170 West 65th, Street, on the third floor, next door to the stoop. I had only a 10-12 foot walk from our tenement building to the stoop.
- Directly across the street on the north side of 65th Street was Commerce High School, essentially a non-technical School. It’s still there today.
- Further east diagonally and adjacent to Commerce High School was the Loew’s theater, later.to be converted to a CBS TV studio. It was here that a number of Jackie Gleason’s 8 pm Saturday night shows were staged. Afternoon programs featured a beautiful and slim singer named Rosemary Clooney.
- Due east near Broadway on our side of the block was Joe McGrath ‘s father’s bar. It was here that I would stand by the door and watch Buddy Young, Vic Raschi and Mickey Mantle. At age 17, I moved inside and was introduced to a “7 and 7”, AKA Seagram’s Seven Crown and 7-up.
- Diagonally west across the street (on the northwest corner intersection of 65th and Amsterdam) was one of Con Edison’s generating plants.
- Around the corner – between 64th and 65th on the east side of Amsterdam was the Open Kitchen restaurant, one of New York’s premier eateries. It featured eleven stools along the counter and three small tables squeezed into a tight space at the end of the counter. My father somehow managed to get us through the depression with this small establishment.
- Directly across the Street from the Open Kitchen restaurant on the west side of Amsterdam was the Ederle Bros. meat and pork store. Sister Gertrude achieved fame when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel.
- Further south and west was the “black” neighborhood. This area housed a chicken market (I think it was Kosher) and Ripley’s clothing factory. The bulk of my father’s customers were Ripley employees.
- There was a gym teacher at Commerce High School that lunched daily at the Open Kitchen. A retired colonel, we all addressed him as Colonel Reutershan. One day, he announced in his deep resonating voice: “George, the future is in chemical engineering. Send Louis to school to get a chemical engineering education.” That’s how and why I became a chemical engineer: I really had no say in the matter. My have times changed.
- There was a sign on the front door entrance of the Con Edison generating plant that read: Show Your Pass: Every now and then, I would mischievously meander over there at night and cover the letter “P”. Would this be classified as graffiti?
- The terrors of the neighborhood were the gang from 63rd -Street. They beat me up twice. The first time was real bad. They had asked for my money. I only had 5 cents, but had mistakenly told them I had 15 cents.
- The stoop’s tenement had been converted to single furnished room apartments. It housed Korean War veterans of Japanese-Hawaiian descent who were attending a dental technician school on the G.I. Bill. I remember it as a scam for both the veterans and the school. Despite this, I have nothing but positive memories of those guys. Almost to a person, they were kind, helpful and sincere people.
- It was through the same veterans that I was introduced to prostitution, dope and gambling. I believe nearly all of them smoked the weed. Prostitutes came and went at all hours. Blackjack and dice games occurred on occasions; horse betting was a daily ritual. Fortunately, I only got involved with gambling.
- We often pitched nickels or pennies to a wall or a crack in the sidewalk. One day I won $80, an unheard of sum in those days, pitching quarters to line on the tarred street. This started what I then called the “gambling fund,” and it has somehow managed to survive today.
- Stickball was played without gloves (some used gloves) with one sewer as home plate and the next sewer as second base. Broomsticks served as bats and a pink spaldeen was the ball. Our team matured in my eighteenth year and I believe we won all but one of our games that summer. There was at least $100 bet on each game and our team rarely could raise more than $25. I usually was the big contributor with $5. The rest of the money was put up by the owner of the stoop’s tenement; he turned a nifty profit that summer.
- Late one Saturday afternoon, the back door of the CBS TV studio opened and out came a group led by the great one, none other than Jackie Gleason, and Phil Foster, Jackie’s guest that night. They were all stewed to the gills and wanted to play stickball for a couple of bucks. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. It was 6-0 after 2 innings when they retired to the studio.
- I fell in love with a girl named Patricia Pike; but as the old joke goes, she didn’t know I existed. I still have that effect on people.
- The block was predominately Puerto Rican, but my best friend was a Cuban named Gustavo Carrion. Gus was the janitor/superintendent of our building. One of his responsibilities was feeding coal to the furnace in the basement. He picked up the nickname “Aqua Caliente” because everyone used to yell for more hot water during the winter months.
- During the Depression and World War II years, I would go to the restaurant and ask my father for a nickel to go to the movies. I could never quite figure out why some of the other kids couldn’t go because they didn’t have, or couldn’t get, a nickel. Saturday morning was a must for me because of the weekly serial. The one I remember most was “The Adventures of Naomi.” I fell in love with her too.
- When it came time to level our block, my father’s lawyer couldn’t appear in court to arrange for the settlement from the city for the Open Kitchen restaurant. At my father’s request, I went in his place. The judge awarded my father $750. I started yelling and the judge threatened to throw me in jail. I remember shutting my mouth immediately since I was overcome with fear. Needless to say, the lawyer received a $250 fee, leaving my father with a measly $500 and without his near lifelong business.
It was an eerie feeling when I returned to my earlier home and found nothing but empty space and a newly paved sidewalk. The stoop had departed, never to return – yet not to be forgotten. But times have changed and I now live in East Williston, seven miles due east of New York City, in a house without a stoop.
God Bless America!
Note: Lincoln Center inhabits the area that housed my stoop. Our address–170 W. 65th Street–is the present address of the Lincoln Center Theatre.
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SEPTEMBER 1: On Purely Chaste, Pristine and Random Thoughts XXV
OCTOBER: On Newsday’s June Article
NOVEMBER: On Barack Hussein Obama (Revisited) VI
DECEMBER: On 2017-2018 Hofstra Men’s Basketball
I Subscribe to “back in the bronx”, a quarterly publication for bronx past residents filled with nostalgia.
People can submit articles discussing things of historical interest. Is your wonderful newsletter, considering
publishing articles from others or is it strictly for Theodore to keep us informed
Thanks for the NY history.
As Patricia Pyke is my aunt I can certainly understand how you would fall in love with her – most anyone who knows her would agree, “what’s not to love?!” : )
A fantastic article, start to finish. As my family lived there, too, I adore reading and seeing photos of that neighborhood during the pre-Lincoln Center days.
Kind words are always appreciated. Thanks so much.
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