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The South Bronx

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Or, in my case, the Cypress Avenue quadrant, to be more exact... that empty little section in the above satellite photo bordered by yellow legends and the elevated Bruckner Expressway.   St. Luke's Church and School, P.S. 65, St. Mary's park, and the area "down by the river" facing Long Island Sound and La Guardia airport; these were my childhood haunts.

It was a section of five and six-story tenements, four-story brownstones, and a surprisingly small number of small "private" homes whose occupants were generally unknown.  The huge red brick Lincoln Hospital and Nursing School complex dominated a few square blocks off 141st Street and Bruckner/Southern Boulevards (they are an asphalt parking lot today) but aside from St.Luke's, the only other landmarks still recognizeable in the area are P.S. 65 and the ancient (by Bronx standards) but never-visited St. Ann's Episcopal Church.

It was an area of immigrants, usually on their way to something better.  Predominantly Irish, the Italians and European Jews also had sizeable contingents; smaller numbers of Germans, Poles, Danes, Scots, Dutch, American Negroes from the south, and a growing Puerto Rican presence all were part of the neighborhoods we knew - and the friends we grew up with.

Like most immigrant neighborhoods, nearly everyone was poor by today's standards - but none of us would realize that until many years later.  There's a reason for that - we were rich in what really counts: honesty, morality (even though it was sometimes "forced"), humor, self-respect, and just enough larceny to provide a backdrop of humanity.  You wore a uniform to grammar school, and in most cases, attended a Catholic High School.  You married in your early twenties, served your time in the military - but rarely returned there to live.  It was an excellent training ground for life.

Down the River

From Jackson Avenue and 140th Street, there was a long, steep hill down to Bruckner Blvd and the three-block-wide industrial area fronting the "east river" (still called that, even though it was actually LI sound north of the hell gate RR bridge). One of the neat things was riding the free ferry from 135th Street to Riker's and North Brother Islands; kids couldn't get off the boat at these places, but the 15-minute round trip was something neat to do. Even if the ferries were crowded enough to keep kids off, you could watch the big TWA Constellation airliners land at LaGuardia, just 3/4 mile across the bay.

Most of the time, "down the river" was deserted.  It was a great area for playing stickball; no parked cars, and no interruptions.  On weekends - and after 5 - it became important to make lots of noise when walking "down the river": you had to make sure you didn't surprise one of the older guys and his girl, making out in one of the factory recessed doorways.

St Mary's Park

If you travelled two blocks up from 140th Street past P.S. 65 and it's expansive schoolyard, you came to the ballfields and "main drag" north through St. Mary's Park. This "scenic route" for walking to the shopping district (Hearns, Alexander's) of 149th Street brought you past the "parkie"-supervised playground, the Bocci courts, Handball courts, and pits for throwing horseshoes. Kids knew that the path on the other side of the almost-unused handball courts held a mystery: the "Spooky house" - one of those rare private homes sandwiched between apartment buildings on Jackson Ave...and vacant for years after a fire that apparently claimed the front porch and living room wall. It clearly was a forbidden area for play - which made it so irresistable a place.

The playground had good, NYC Parks Dept-issue swings: steel chain and aluminum slab seats suspended above asphalt and concrete from a high (12-15ft.) overhead bar.  They were clearly built for adults, because it took guts for a kid to just casually slip out and fly during a dismount.  If you didn't land exactly right, your skinned knees would never be without scars.  There was another good playground along St. Ann's Ave - but the one closer to Jackson was a favorite of the nuns for that rare, spring day when you could forego the St. Luke's uniform and make a class trip to the park.  Probably the best deal for the kids in the South Bronx came about via the Recreation Center - a large, modern building adjacent to St. Ann's Ave: it held an indoor swimming pool, an almost-unused gym, a wood shop, and some game rooms for ping-pong and knock-hockey.

Hanging out

There came a time when the boys and the girls no longer thought of each other as "yucky".  Though they still congregated in separate groups - particularly at a party or dance - they eventually found that hanging out together was cool.  Most often, it was a group leaning against a parked car near a corner, but in a neighborhood full of courtyards and front steps, the stoop was a preferred spot... at least, during the warmer months.  However - the boys still preferred an exclusively male retreat once in a while; it was the backyards and rooftops for them. (Thinking back... what a dumb idea! As much as I enjoyed the company of the guys I grew up with, the girls were so much more... interesting!!!)  When the weather got cold, there were plenty of apartment hallways/lobbies to accomodate us - and there always was a steaming-hot radiator somewhere near the mailboxes. (Think the Post Office had something to do with that ?)  Of course, the corner candy store (there were two on my block; walk around that block, and you'd see two more), two Kosher Delis, and even a little luncheonette were quite agreeable, warm places for paying customers.

We weren't so averse to walking back then - and the Saturday morning cartoons/monster movie at the Casino theater was just a 20-minute walk down 138th Street to Willis Ave - and still a quarter or so for a ticket, right through to 1960.  First-run movie houses were a different direction: up to 149th street and the Loew's National or RKO Royal, both of which were originally vaudeville houses, and rivaled the much-vaunted Paradise of Fordham Road in size - but without the ornate ceiling decorations.  However, the greatest "escape" was provided by the IRT Pelham line, right there on 138th Street; it was our ticket to anywhere we wanted to go.  Our working-class parents were no dummies: you could be in midtown Manhattan in 20 minutes from the South Bronx.  Though we had the Center's pool nearby in the park, summertime meant a walk across the Triborough (four blocks away) to Astoria's great pool.  We'd take the bus back...  Later in years, boys and girls would make the long trek to Orchard Beach, or, more often, the somewhat longer subway ride all the way to Rockaway, which even had waves and an amusement park.

What they have done to the South Bronx is criminal.  It used to be a very nice place to live.

Photographs and content © 1998,1999 John P. Tomany