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.
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.
“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.
Good Will Sunday School prepares working class children in the Yorkville neighborhood for future membership in Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. When the time comes for Good Will students to make the transition from their home neighborhood to the church on Madison Avenue and 73rd Street one mile away, many do not make it. The psychological distance is even greater than the walking distance. In Richard’s case, Horace Hollister, the devoted choirmaster and youth leader, helps Richard break through the wall of established social cliques at Madison Avenue. Richard makes friends and eventually takes on a leadership role among the young people.
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.
Friendships on New York City streets are made and solidified by the games young Richard plays after school and on Saturdays. Games are played on the numbered side streets where traffic is less intense. The games are mostly street versions of baseball and are played with a “spaldeen”–the street name for Spalding, whose trademark is on a hollow rubber ball. Which game is played depends on how many people show up on the block. The games begin when two are on the street to play handball. When four are present the game is point ball off a tenement stoop or a low building ledge. If eight, the game becomes box ball with a rectangular “diamond” chalked in the street. If ten or more show up, stickball becomes the game of choice. Stickball is not appreciated by the tenants in the apartments along the street nor by the local police officers who are ever on patrol.
Richard’s family lives in a front apartment on the top floor of a five-story “old law” tenement. Shared toilets are in the hall, the kitchen is heated by a coal stove, and clothing is washed in the kitchen tub and dried on the roof. The front apartment windows look out onto First Avenue. The windowsill is the instrument of social interaction between neighbors and the social control of children on the street. On one occasion, Richard sees a delivery truck accident that exposes the presence of an illegal booze still in the neighborhood. A front window also opens onto a fire escape. One night, Richard’s mother wakes him in a panic. Richard is carried by a fireman through the window and over the fire escape to safety.
Richard’s first ten years on First Avenue lay the foundation for life ahead. Within a three block radius of his tenement is a whole world. Eightieth Street and the sidewalk are his playground—where he makes “hot mickeys” with a lump of coal and a purloined potato. The shops on the block provide everything his family needs: a bakery, a grocer, a fruit and vegetable market, an ice cream parlor, and his own optometrist. On 82nd Street there is an elementary school, on 80th Street and Second Avenue a Sunday School for religious education, on 79th Street a public library for exploring the world. For Richard, these were the essential building blocks for integrating life and preparing for the future.