Seventy-five years ago on December 7th the United States entered into a global conflict which shaped history for the 20th century. There are dates you remember which were events in a major historical happening. In my memory such an event occurred in New York in the Winter of 1944 on January 29th. We were in the middle of war on two fronts – in Europe and in the South Pacific. My close friend Jerry Pospisil had been inducted into the 66th Infantry Division and was on his way to Europe. Before he was to leave, he wanted to see the launching of the U.S.S. Missouri at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The U.S.S. Missouri was to be one of our major naval additions to the war in the Pacific.
We headed downtown from our eastside Yorkville neighborhood to a spot across the East River from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was close to the Brooklyn Bridge with a clear view of the U.S.S. Missouri from the Manhattan side of the East River. The January day was cold and cloud filled. The overcast skies set the tone for the day and the event. We could see the battleship U.S.S. Missouri waiting for its launching from the Brooklyn Navy Yard into the East River. We waited for a half hour until the Christening by Margaret Truman, the daughter of the President. As the Missouri slid down the long incline and hit the East River, there was a sudden break in the clouds. The Sun broke through for a brief moment on the battleship, as an omen.
Friend Jerry Pospisil sailed for England in the Fall. His 66th Infantry Division landed in England in early November 1944. The D Day invasion of France had taken place in June 1944. Following the invasion of Normandy, the battle for Europe was intense. The 66th Infantry Division would be in the struggle to overcome the Germans in France. Belgium and Germany. In England, the 66th Division boarded the Leopoldville, a Belgian troopship which was to land U.S. forces in France. On Christmas Eve, the Leopoldville was torpedoed in the English Channel on Christmas Eve just off the coast of France with major losses in the 66th Infantry Division.
Jerry was one of the survivors. He later told me the story of that Christmas Eve night. “The ship sank slowly. More lives would have been saved if the Captain had steered the ship closer to the coast of France. The Captain thought the ship had hit a mine and he was afraid there more mines around the ship. He dropped anchor miles from the French coast. A British destroyer had pulled alongside us. Someone threw me a rope and I swung myself onto the deck of the destroyer. Others in my platoon took a different route. They took off to the other side of the ship. I never saw them again.”
On August 29th, 1945, after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S.S. Missouri arrived in Tokyo Harbor. On the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri representatives of the Imperial Government of Japan signed the instrument of surrender of the Japanese forces in the Pacific to end hostilities. When I read of the signing of the surrender by the Imperial Government of Japan aboard the U.S.S. Missouri my mind flashed back to the launching of the Missouri on the 29th of January in 1944 and the Sun which broke through on her through a clouded sky.
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 gets together with old New York friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) convention. His recent co-op farm experience in Saskatchewan wins him connections among the CCUF delegates. He turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster with the recognition of the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development.
During the summer of 1947, Richard works for the Dress Joint Board in New York City’s Garment District. The experience heightens his liberal sensitivities toward the issues of working people. His fellow student summer workers clue him in on the ideological struggles within the union, including the affiliation between some garment manufacturers and the mob in an effort to control the union. Richard listens to the stories of hardship of the garment workers applying for unemployment benefits. The stream of people he interviews resembles the cast of characters in Leo Rosten’s The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, with their unique accents and their creative and amusing way of speaking the English language. Richard also learns more about the the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) from his co-workers. The summer experience affirms his growing support for organizing a liberal student movement.
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.
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.
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.
Rooftops were part of the everyday life of tenement dwellers of New York City. For those tenants who lived on the upper floors of a tenement, rooftops were as important as the sidewalks and the streets below. Summer heat added high temperatures to the tight living in tenement apartments. The rooftops became a respite after the sun went down. Blankets and newspapers on rooftops provided places to sit and enjoy the early evening breezes. During Spring, Summer, and Fall the rooftop played its role as a place for drying the laundry or for the newborn’s bassinet. For those who could find the time, the rooftop, or tar beach as it became known, provided the place for a summer tan. The rooftop also provided the space for tenant gatherings for conversation and partying.
Richard, his father, and baby sister, Erna, on the tar roof of their tenement in 1934.
Time has changed the function of New York rooftops. Urban growth, high-rise architecture and a diet conscious populace have provoked the greening of New York rooftops. Urban agriculture and gardening have changed the scenery of the roofs of New York. A more imaginative and civic-minded generation have created a multitude of happier uses for older structures.
Photo of roof garden in Manhattan from The Daily Mail Reporter.
The High Line on Manhattan’s West Side has opened the door to developing a refreshing approach to the use of an abandoned railway line.
High Line Park on Manhattan's West Side.
The photos above are from an article in The Daily Mail Reporter about green roofs in Manhattan: Green Roofs.
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.