The February 4th New York Times issue states that Manhattan’s Upper East Side Yorkville neighborhood is on the rebound. A recent visit to my old haunts at the Heidelberg Restaurant at 86th and Second Avenue was hampered by a hole in the ground, the new Second Avenue subway. Eighty years ago, when I was ten, the Second Avenue Elevated Line provided the means of transportation for the neighborhood. That line along with the Third Avenue El bit the dust in the late 1930s.
The Times article is filled with pictures of high rise rental and co-op towers which now dominate the Yorkville scene. The five story First Avenue old law tenement into which both my mother and I were born passed out of existence in the 1960s. When I returned to First Avenue with members of my family in the 1990s, on the city block on First Avenue between 80th and 81st, now towered a twenty-seven story high rise. The line of five and three story tenements were gone. Rents for the newly constructed high rise co-ops sell for $ 350,000 to $ 500,000 for a studio apartment to $ 600,000 to $1 million for a one bedroom. The remaining rehabilitated tenement two bedroom apartments rent for $ 2,500 to $ 2,800. These are usually shared by the young aspiring urban dwellers. As I reminded my grandson Luke who not lives in such an apartment in Brooklyn, the monthly rent the up and coming millennials now pay would have covered the rents for all the tenement families on my First Avenue block back in the Depression years.
The New York Times lead-off picture showed residents casually strolling along the East River promenade in Carl Schurz Park. The East 84th Street scene in Carl Schurz Park in the 1930s were rocks off which Yorkville boys took their diving and swimming lessons. At 86th Street a large drain pipe poured the affluence of the neighborhood into the East River. In the center of the Carl Schurz Park was the attractive Gracie Mansion. For those of us who played ball in the Park, the Gracie Mansion provided the public toilets from our game breaks.
The Yorkville map which accompanied the article sparked memories of the role that the neighborhood provided for growing up on the East Side. The neighborhood as I characterized it represented the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among my friends there were those of Czech, Slovak, Austrian, Hungarian and German background, and others of Russian, Irish, Scots-Irish and Italian heritage. The languages of the various ethnic groups were still heard on the streets and in the shops. As the New York Times reminds us this ethnic blend is missing from Twenty-first Century Yorkville. But one thing does remain: The public school which provided a lively mix of all these children. I noted on the map on 82nd Street between First and Second Avenues the notation of Public School 290. Back in the 1930s this was P.S. 190. Except for the numerical change the public education of the children of the neighborhood continues on. There were many happy memories of P.S. 190. As the article tells us that even today that families moving into Yorkville are attracted by the quality of the public education in the area. Life in Yorkville says the New York Times “is relatively quiet and family oriented compared with other other Manhattan neighborhoods.”
Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmastime in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society” and trying to tie down a job. An intriguing prospect is a new church development in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the organizing committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish up their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from Eunice’s and Richard’s lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in New England in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. After saying goodbye to his father and sister, Richard and Eunice drive north out of New York City. As Richard watches the skyline change, he has a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life.
As seniors at Union, Richard and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, are responsible for welcoming the incoming students through “round robins” hosted in the homes of faculty. Richard takes notice of an attractive newcomer in Jim’s group. He conspires with Jim (who owns a car) to drive Eunice Blanchard back to her residence at the James Foundation, with a stop on the way at the Gay Vienna, a German restaurant in Richard’s old neighborhood. Over apple strudel, coffee, and dark beer (for the men), a romance begins that in less than a month, on Columbus Day in October, 1951, becomes an engagement.
Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
In September 1945, the war is over and former students, now veterans, return to the dynamics of rebuilding the post-war world. Richard learns the value of a liberal education at the College of Wooster, where the study of science and religion are complementary. He holds down three jobs on campus to cover expenses. In December, his father, Ernest, falls from a ladder at work and fractures his skull; the accident causes epileptic seizures. Henny, Richard’s mother, leaves St. Francis Tuberculosis Hospital to care for Ernie at home. Richard rushes back to New York to help. He takes his mother back to St. Francis, and, believing the situation at home to be stabilized, makes the decision to return to Wooster. During Easter break, Richard is urgently summoned back to New York.
Boarding the Broadway Limited at Penn Station in January 1945, Richard begins a new venture. Descending the train in the gloom of winter in Wooster, Ohio, is a sobering experience. Richard faces the uncertainty of college life and its requirements. There was housing and work to find and the intense pace of academic learning to tackle. Richard’s heavy New York accent marks him as an outsider among the (mostly female) student body at the College of Wooster. In the midst of his anxiety over his mother’s declining health at home, Richard breaks through on the academic frontier. At the same time, history was changing fast: President Franklin Roosevelt dies, the war in Europe comes to an end, and in the fall the campus spirit takes on a new vitality.
Richard’s attempt at working during the day and going to night college at the City College of New York fails. Restless in his effort to further his education, Richard determines to attend college full-time. But he is caught between two philosophies of life: his father’s hard work ethic which saw Richard’s responsibility to help meet the immediate expenses of the family, and his mother’s long view, which saw the need for Richard to prepare himself for the future. An uplifting experience at church points Richard in the direction of the ministry. With the help of mentors and friends at the church, he chooses an exclusive Presbyterian college in Ohio. At the same time, his mother’s health is failing and family tension mounts. Knowing the implications of his decision, Richard chooses to take the turn in the road that leads away from the past and into an unknown future.
“With benevolent good wishes to the Reverend Dick” – Fred Waring
The late 1930s was a period of mounting tension in the world. People in Yorkville were on tenterhooks waiting for the next explosion in Europe. Richard rapidly advances through junior high and into the High School of Commerce in 1939. One Monday in December, 1941, the students are called into the auditorium to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio over the speaker system declare war on Japan. Too young for induction into the army, Richard works at Best & Co. and buys his first Harris Tweed suit. Next he gets a job with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians in the shipping department. Here Richard learns how business gets done and how to be entertained along the way. Upon turning 18, Richard submits himself for the draft but is rejected because of his poor eyesight. Richard resolves to go to college.
Richard’s mother, Henny, pays constant attention to protecting Richard and his younger sister, Erna, from her tuberculosis. One summer, through the help of a tenement neighbor, Henny sends Richard to live with the McCreery family on a farm outside of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the McCreery’s, Richard learns quickly about farm life. Children who grow up on a farm, he discovers, know more about the facts of life than any of his New York street gang. Richard finds the old swimming hole in Cherry Valley a great respite on the hot summer days. It was certainly more inviting than the garbage-filled East River, Richard reflects. During his visit to Cherry Valley, Richard encounters his first rattle snake on the McCreery lawn and takes an unexpected journey to the Stroudsburg hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
Plagued by her tuberculosis, Richard’s mother yearns to raise her children outside the city. On special days, she takes Richard down to Penn Station in the early morning to board a train for Newark, New Jersey, where her Rehling cousins live. In downtown Newark they take the trolley ride to the outer suburbs. Then a short walk to the Rehling house. The warmth of the Rehling family lifts his mother’s spirit and opens Richard’s view to life outside of New York. On the return trip, Richard reflects on what life would be like for his mother to have a place like the Rehlings.