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.”
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.
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.