To The Bronx with Love
I'm a born and bred city dweller. I was raised, lived and worked in the Bronx. That's uptown. It was a unique experience, which I shared with millions of other fellow residents. It's a common tale of fond memories from childhood through my adult years. I look back on those years from my birth in 1947 through the many events that shaped my life, molded me in a profound way, until I left the borough in 1979. It is a journey I was fortunate to have experienced and I look back on those years with a nostalgic melancholy. A sadness, yes, because those years are gone forever.
Both sides of my family emigrated from Italy around the turn of the century. My grandfather came from Tuscany, my mother's side from Naples. Both families happened to settle in the Belmont section of the Bronx. Belmont is that quaint wedged-shaped section of the Bronx bordered by Southern Boulevard (The Bronx Zoo) to the East, north along East Fordham Road around Third Avenue south including St Barnabas Hospital to 182nd Street. My mother Olympia was born and raised on 187th Street and Bathgate Avenue (b. 1914). My father Ulderico, nicknamed 'Chick', resided at 188th and Belmont Avenue (b. 1909). Both my parents were born in the Bronx. Their families were large. There were seven aunts and six uncles all living in this small, compact area. My grandfather Nicholas Christiano lived on 182nd and Crescent. Many uncles lived on Cambreleng, Lorillard, Hughes. My uncle Nickie had a private home adjacent to P.S. 45. He had a pigeon coop on the roof.
Belmont came to be known as the Little Italy of the Bronx, with Arthur Avenue as the focal point of so many quality shops and stores. There were a number of grocery stores with hand-roped cheeses hanging from the ceiling, black waxed cheese wheels, barrels of pickles and olives, crates of dried fish. There was a mixture of fragrant and sharp aromas. There were wooden stalls of imported coffee, herbs, shelves of imported extra virgin olive oil, tomato paste, home made pasta (pappardelle cutter for noodles). The sawdust on the floor gave it the final touch. Mr. Colatruglia, a relative of mine, ran one of the vegetable stores along Arthur Avenue.
Although I lived in Tremont, right next door, my grandmother and mother frequently did their serious food shopping on Arthur Avenue. As a young boy I would accompany them and help carry the shopping bags back to our apartment on 184th Street (Between Washington and Park Ave.). My grandmother lived on 182nd. One of the highlights of these shopping treks was going to the Chicken Market around 188th and Arthur, where we could select a live chicken. It would be slaughtered, plucked, cleaned and wrapped in a few moments. I watched with fascination. Now that was fresh meat indeed. One of our final stops was DeLillo's Bakery where we'd buy the best of Italian pastries. We'd go from store to store buying fresh fish, produce and meats. Not many supermarkets in the 1950's.
Much of Belmont is still unchanged. However there were some features that have disappeared, like the indoor push-cart market. The local theatre was The Savoy, known as The Dumps. We saw all the grade-B movies here, films like The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Savoy was a filthy, disheveled run down movie house, which deserved to be called The Dumps. We had great fun there at a reasonable price of fifty cents a show.
Subsequently, over the years, my relatives married and raised their families in other sections of the Bronx. My mother and father married in 1941 and moved to 450 East 184th Street, where my sister Janice was born in 1943 and I arrived four years later. My school was a stone's throw around the corner on Washington Avenue between 183rd and 184th street. A Roman Catholic Church (School of Our Savior) was where I received my elementary education from 1952-1960.
My block, 184th street, was a typical neighborhood. It had four massive apartment buildings, a row of private house and a sandlot smack in the middle. My building was a stylish six story gray structure with a two level courtyard, separating two wings. This is where I spent my formative years. I had many friends and played the usual street games, ringoleavio, stickball, Johnny-on -The- Pony, Punch Ball, Ace-King-Queen, Running Bases, and Fly's-Are-Up. You name it we played it... all the games, including skully, which we called Skullsie. The girls played Hopscotch, Jump Rope. Marbles was another popular pastime. There was constant activity especially through the long summer days.
When we weren't playing games with each other, we roller-skated round and round the block. Remember the adjustable steel roller skates? It had that unique clamp up front to secure a sneaker or shoe. The skate key was indispensable. Many kids wore the key on a string around their necks so they wouldn't lose it. The scooter, was another popular contraption. Hand made from a four-foot long two-by-four piece of lumber with a milk crate nailed at one end. For wheels we'd take apart one of our roller-skates and nail it to the bottom of the plank. With two wooden handlebars attached, some soda cans, bottle caps and a couple of flags; we created a beautiful substitute for a bicycle.
Baseball card flipping was all the rage back then. We flipped every day. One variation was to hold the card against the apartment building wall and let it flutter to the sidewalk. I'd like to be 'larry' which meant I got last licks. On rainy days, what do you think we did? Play with Lionel Trains, or have marathon sessions of Monopoly, Clue or Risk. Go to the Head of the Class was another popular board game. Card games such as War or Canasta were also frequently played, not to mention pinochle and poker for the adults.
During the course of a lazy Saturday afternoon there came a parade of vendors. It began with the Watermelon Man in his long wagon leaded with watermelons. He'd shout at the top of his lungs at 6amwaking up the entire neighborhood. Pretty soon there followed the vegetable man, also with a horse-drawn wagon. Next the filthy junk man slowly made his way up the block. We'd love to harass him. He never got mad at us; he'd simply spit at us when we got too close. There was, of course, the knife-sharpening truck, the Good Humor Man, the seltzer and iceman. Between these vendors came the amusement rides like the half-moon, the whip and pony rides. It was a terrific day. Every trade came to your door. The streets were a buzz with activity and motion. The Johnny-pump served to cool things off on a hot muggy day. It became our local 'beach.' We'd even spray a car or two and hoped they forget to roll up the side window! On really hot nights, with no air-conditioning available, I'd sleep out on the fire escape, or go to the roof to cool off among the clotheslines and dozens of TV antennas bolted to the outside roof wall. This was a way of life unique to the city.
The stores were all in walking distance. Barneys, the local luncheonette on Bassford and 183rd Street, Joe Baker's Hardware on the corner of Bassford Aveune, opposite the Pizza Parlor on the other corner. Glands was our favorite candy store on 183rd near Park Avenue. Here you could buy all the necessary candies, toys and comic books. Remember the wax coke bottles, after biting off the top and drinking the juice inside, I'd chew the wax and spit it out later. The phony chocolate Lucky Strikes, the Dots (those round candies pasted to a strip of white paper), jaw breakers were just a few other treats. The local grocery store was run by Danny, a congenial fellow who kept a ledger for customers who owed him money. He would tally the bill on the shopping bag. A real lost art. Remember those long poles with a claw at the end to pull goods off of the high shelves? Our barber Sal (Webster and 180th street) gave us the usual slick haircuts.
But the real entertainment and was on Fordham near the Grand Concourse. Here you had the ritzy Lowe's Paradise movie theatre. It was certainly a grand and spectacular place. We saw all the epic films here, The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben Hur, and many others. The ceiling of the Paradise replicated a night sky with moving clouds and twinkling stars. It was a beautiful place, ornate, with a balcony and smartly clad ushers. Many other events were held there as well, like High School Commencement exercises, and school plays for instance. The RKO Fordham and the Valentine were the rival theatres.
Alexander's was the major department store on the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse. Sears Roebuck on Webster, Bickfords on the opposite corner, Krums and Jahn's (on Kingsbridge) also graced the neighborhood. Hundreds of other stores, restaurants and service shops lined the streets.
THE THIRD AVENUE EL
Right through the center of the neighborhood ran the matron of transportation. Here was the grand old lady known as the Third Avenue El. Now a faded memory it serviced the area with dependable and vital transportation. It was a true el, not like the branches of The "Dual Contracts" lines, sych as the Jerome Avenue line. These contracts provided for the expansion of the subway and elevated networks to open up areas of the city without transit service ... that's why I mention Dual Contracts ... even though parts of Dual Contract routes are elevated they are NOT true elevated lines like the Third, Second, Ninth and Sixth avenue els.
Here we had the remnant of the once proud Third Avenue el which ran from South ferry through Manhattan up to Gun Hill Road. All that remained after demolition of the line in 1956 was the route from 149th street in the South Bronx, which connected to the subway line uptown through Tremont, Fordham and finally connecting at Gun Hill Road to the White Plains Road line.
I took many a ride on this vestige of the past. I usually boarded at the 183rd Street Station and positioned myself right at the head car staring intently out the front door window. I still take those nostalgic trips in my minds eye. I see the next station far down the tracks, transfixed, electrified by rumbling above the streets, swaying back and forth, screeching and rattling to a station stop which seemed to be every-other block. The el set the mood, it's skeletal structure cast an eerie pattern to the cobblestone street below. It was a criss-cross, spider web of shadows and light, complimented with Bishop Crook's lampposts, the brick and steel of the buildings along the route. I was absorbed and fascinated with the sights.
Then on April 29th 1973, the last train made a final run and the Third Avenue El came to an ignominious end. For almost a hundred years from it's opening August 26th, 1878 in Manhattan, the Third Avenue Line was the workhorse of rapid transit. Toward the end it creaked and groaned with old age and finally past into the mists of time. Now it's only a memory. But it was the lifeblood of the neighborhood, my neighborhood.
After graduating grammar school in 1960, it was only a year later my family moved out of the Fordham area to Throggs Neck. It was a distinct change from urban life to almost a bedroom community. Most of the residences were private homes, very few apartment buildings and there were The Projects on Schley Avenue. A bus was necessary to get to the Subway station at Westchester Square, or my high school bus stop at Bruckner Boulevard, also the Interboro Theatre on East Tremont. There was a drive-in movie house on the Hutchinson River Parkway (The Bronx-Whitestone Drive In). Long shut down.
However, there were stores still in walking distance, on Miles Avenue and East Tremont. Jim and Ellies' Luncheonette was a popular soda fountain joint where you could still get the best egg creams and ice cream sodas. Dominic's Bakery had the best Italian bread and pastries, and then there was the butcher and deli, clothing stores and other restaurants nearby. Service stations were plentiful and the church wasn't far either. Another row of stores had the Pharmacy and local barber whom we called Scamatch, a real sleazy character.
My teenage years were spent here, learning to smoke, going on many dates, getting my first car (a 1949 Green colored Dodge 4-door Coronet). It was a beauty. I bought it in 1967 for one hundred dollars during the gas wars. If I recall correctly, gas went down to nineteen cents a gallon! Imagine that! This was all part of city life, the Bronx Experience.
Murray the "K" and the Swingin' Soiree was my favorite disc jockey in those early years of the 1960's. Music was all part of growing up. Every song had a special memory and feeling attached to it. I did go back to the old neighborhood for dances at Saint Nicholas of Tolentine on University Avenue. Transistor radios were in their heyday and I brought them to Bronx Beach, Orchard Beach. It was at Orchard Beach where I got my first summer job.
These years were precious, to be cherished like a treasure. It was an era from the 1950's through the 1960's that is gone forever. The sights, sounds and smells will always be a part of my character, my connection to the past. Think of all that has past into memory, Jahn's, Alexander's, The Lowe's Paradise, the drive-in theatres, egg creams, pushcarts and horse-drawn wagons. Think of the dumb waiter, the coal shoot, the scooter, and you see another age long past. Like the Third Avenue El it's been dismantled, demolished and gone from us forever. But it is our heritage to keep the past alive in print, film, song and photography. The memories may be the only link to the past, but like old, familiar faces, they come alive again to be relished and remembered and passed on to our children.
Appendix: My addresses in the Bronx:
450 East 184th Street (Between Washington & Park Avenues) 1947-1961
256 Logan Avenue (Between Miles and Lawton Avenues) 1961-1968
Lived in New Rochelle/Larchmont (1968-1971)
222nd Street and White Plains Road (1971-1977)
526 Logan Avenue (Between Dewey and Schley Avenue) 1977-1979
©2002 MyRecollection.com. and Gregory J. Christiano
Friday, May 17, 2002