Recollections of the Old Neighborhood

By Miriam Medina
I was very young back then, to remember in detail the old neighborhood, so I asked my oldest brother Barney,  to help me fill in some of those details for this memoir. We'll start with my building which was located at 1791 Lexington Avenue between 111th and 112th street in Harlem, known to many as El Barrio. I was born and raised there. It was a 5 story tenement building which had four railroad type apartments to each floor. Our apartment faced the backyard, where the only scenery we would look at on a daily basis were the fire-escapes of the other buildings, the courtyard and clotheslines hanging from one building to the other. (view period photo )  There was always the Irish man who entertained us, singing up a storm from the courtyard, and the people would throw money to him from their windows. He had a nice voice.

It was a two bedroom apartment, where I lived, quite small for 9 people, my parents and us seven kids, of which I am the youngest and a German Shepherd by the name of Brownie. Papa was much older than mama, at least by 20 years. The neighborhood we lived in was predominantly Italian and Puerto Rican. It was a safe building, we always had our front door to the hallway open, to let the fresh air in, when it was hot. Outside the building, the neighborhood was always in a turmoil of fights between the Italians and the Puerto Ricans over their turfs. Each block had its own name, our block was called the Red Wing. Sometime in the forties, between 1943-1947, Harlem was in a riot. There were gang wars between the blacks and the whites. The Puerto Ricans sided with the blacks against the Italians. One day Mayor LaGuardia , brought with him Frank Sinatra, Josh White and Paul Robeson, to the Benjamin Franklin High School (where my brother Barney was attending) which was located on Pleasant Avenue between 115th street and 116th street, to bring harmony to the neighborhood.

Some of the neighbors at 1791 Lexington Avenue, were nice, and others were interesting. Across the hall from us, lived an Italian family by the name of Giovanellos. The aromas of Italian cooking coming from their apartment was so overwhelming. Probably we all had our heads out the door, drooling and hoping for a little portion. Mrs. Giovanello, was a real sweetheart, she helped us through many emergencies. They had two children, Marie and Otto. Mr. Giovanello, was the neighborhood ice man. In those days, we had the ice box, which we used in the summer and spring. Then in the winter, the food would be placed on the outside window sill. Mr. Giovanello must have been a very strong man, to walk two or three blocks from Park Avenue, with the block of ice on his shoulders, and up three flights of stairs. He was such a nice man.

The Fitzgerald's had two sons, one who became a priest and the other suffered a nervous breakdown from World War II. He was so handsome. Every so often, you would hear him screaming from the apartment, as if he was at that moment in the war. Since I was so young, I became nervous. Poor Mrs. Fitzgerald, it must have been very difficult for her. Next door to the Fitzgerald's lived a couple, who every so often were involved in domestic violence. She was an Italian war bride, and he an alcoholic and a wife beater. She was always screaming at her kids.  Downstairs on the ground floor, was an Italian lady by the name of Mary Calabra. She was the nosy body and instigator of the building. Every time we would go past her apartment up the stairs, she would open her door, and give us such a look that made us feel uneasy..

On the floor below our apartment , was an elderly Irish lady, who I loved very dearly, as a child. That was Mrs. McDonald. She was 90 years old, and lived by herself. Whenever she would hear me run up the steps, she would open the door, and call out "Marian, would you like a cup of tea and a donut". Now how could a kid refuse a donut. I was so sad, when Mrs. McDonald fell and broke her hip, and had to be moved to a nursing home by her children. She was my friend. She would tell me stories, and we would listen to the radio. I wasn't allowed to go outside and play, unless my sister or one of my brothers would keep an eye on me.  Mama was over protective with me,  always warning me about talking to strangers. Since our apartment did not face the street, Mama couldn't look out the window to see where I was, so most of the time, I had to remain indoors. Not having toys at my disposal, or having any friends to play with, I had to resort to being creative. Mama's clothespins became my playmates. I would dress them up with fabric, and act out my stories with them and even scold them in a thunderous voice, just like Mama would do. How I loved my clothespin dolls. I could still remember how I used to sing to them. They were so much a part of my childhood life. The boys were always downstairs playing stick ball with the neighborhood kids. The kids on the block that were my brother Arnold's friends were Nelson and Frankie, they were Puerto Rican; Dino and Tony, were Italian, Fludy Singleton, he was black, and some others that I can't remember. Fludy's family lived on the corner of 111th street and Lexington Avenue. The kids were not a gang, they just hung out together and had fun. Oh, I almost forget Mr. Morris, one of the neighbors, he was on the ground floor. Mr. Morris did car repairs and was the local bookie, a lot of traffic went to his apartment to place their bets. I think Papa was one of his regular customers.

The bathroom of our apartment was very small. Just a bathtub and the toilet, with the box and chain above the toilet. (view period photo) The kitchen also was very small. There was no counter space, as far as I could remember.. The only things that fit, were the ice box, the old fashioned stove, which had the oven on the side, and a double sink. The deep sink was for giving baths to the small
ones, like me. (view period photo)  Mama, was always bent over the deep sink or the bathtub washing clothes, it seemed like she was always washing clothes.  In the good weather, the clothes would be hung out on the clothesline. Many a times the clothesline would break with the weight of the clothes, and mama would get mad, because the clothes would get dirty, when they fell to the ground below and she would have to wash them all over again. Mama didn't have a nice temperament, she would always be cranky, complaining and yelling at us. I think she welcomed when my brothers took to the street to play. Whenever it rained, or it was winter things were worse, because the clothesline was in the kitchen, and when you came into the apartment, you had to go under it, to get inside. (view period photo)

 Since we were so many to sit down at the table, Papa would put planks between the chairs so we could all fit. No one spoke at the table. That was a rule. Papa would give a look, and we knew what that meant. Every morning we had a ritual in our house, a tablespoon of cod liver oil and a slice of orange, to follow it. Yuk! It had such a horrible taste. None of us ever got sick, except for Michael, he seemed to catch the colds. We all had chubby faces and rosy cheeks. The people would always love to pinch our cheeks. I guess we looked so healthy.

Barney said, that during World War II, we had to put blankets on the window, so the light from inside wouldn't show. Barney was a junior air raid warden during the World War II, period.

In the summertime, when it was very hot, and we couldn't sleep, the kids would pull the mattress out to the fire escape, to get the fresh air. We didn't have fans then. We had steam radiators, and when it was cold in the winter, many times the landlord didn't buy the coal on time or was too cheap to give heat. All the tenants would bang against the radiator until he would give heat. During the forties, the building was clean and well kept. We even had a dumb waiter to put the garbage on. About the 1950's the building began to deteriorate. The dumb waiter didn't work anymore. Some people threw their garbage out the window to the courtyard instead of going downstairs and putting it in the garbage cans.  We then began to have a serious problem with the rats. The rats would get into the dumb waiter and climb the wall to get into the apartments. The alley cats were always howling and fighting with each other, when they weren't chasing the rats.  The Irish man didn't come around to sing anymore. Maybe he died, or the courtyard wasn't so clean anymore, he was afraid to. I don't know how much rent papa paid in the 40's, but I do know that when mama moved out in 1962, she was paying $30.00 a month.

Our favorite place to go in the summer, was the roof. It was safe back then. All of us would go up there and have a picnic par-beach and get sunned down. (view period photo) We had fun. Some of our neighbors would go also. You had a real glimpse of the apartments facing the backyard. (view period photo)

When it was so hot in the summer, everyone took to the streets and turned the fire hydrants on, boy was that fun. We went a lot to the Jefferson Pool which was on first avenue. It was free to the people of the neighborhood. (view period photo) The best part of the summer in the old neighborhood, was the Italian Feast of Mount Carmel, on First avenue. We always looked forward to that feast.
The Boy's club was on 111th street between First and Second avenue. My brother Michael, went there a lot. He liked to box and was very good at it. There was also a parking lot that was owned by the Salerno brothers, next to the Boy's Club across from the big Gas Tanks on 111th street. One of the brothers married my sister Rosie.  Sometimes we would go to the Pizza place that was on Third avenue between 111th and 110th street. Joey Rao, was the mob man in the area across from the Benjamin Franklin High School. The Faranga Funeral Parlor was located at 116th street between Second and Third avenue. Congressman Vito Marc Antonio was known in the area of 116th street.

I attended the elementary school P.S. 57 which was on 115th street, between Lexington and Third avenue. One day I decided to play hooky from school. It was after we had a big snow storm. I was playing in the snow, I don't know how mama knew I was there, but she gave me such a pulling of my braids and a spanking and then took me to school. That was the last time I played hooky from P.S. 57. I attended the Junior High School P.S. 101 which was located at 111th street between Lexington Avenue and Park avenue.

The police precinct for our area, was the 23rd Precinct, which was at 104th street between Lexington and Third Avenue. On 108th street , between Lexington and Park avenue was a Spanish club, it was the youth center of the catholic church. St. Ann's Church was located on 110th street between Second and Third avenue.

Mama would make us chicken soup often. She would buy the chicken from the Poultry place that was on 112th street between Park and Lexington. They would kill the chickens and the turkeys there. It wasn't too far from La Marqueta, (The Marketplace) which ran from 112th-116th street on Park avenue. The elevated train was right over it. There were many Jewish vendors in La Marqueta. Mama always did her shopping there. Everything was so cheap...the dollar went a long way. The food was always fresh. Mama even bought my dark blue dress for papa's funeral there.

We used to go a lot to the library which was on 110th street between Lexington and Third avenue. My brothers attended P.S. 83, which was not too far from the house.

After the war, the projects were built around the corner from our building. The projects were between 112th -115th street and between Lexington and Third avenue. The neighborhood started to look different with the cluster of tall buildings. More kids came into the neighborhood. On Lexington Avenue between 102 and 103rd street, there was a big hill. It was known as the steepest hill on Lexington Avenue during 1939-1950. My brothers would go sled riding in the winter on that hill .

Papa worked at Finkenburgs, as a refinisher. It was a furniture store that was located at 123rd street on Third avenue. The trains from the Third avenue El, would rumble by, and the building felt like it was shaking. Papa would come home so tired from his day's work  and the long walk he had to take from 123rd street to 112th street and Lexington avenue. After soaking his feet , he welcomed the comfort of his slippers, which I ran to get for him. Papa would always pick me up and give me a big hug, calling me his "little munchkin", and rub the stubble of his beard against my face. Ouch........that really hurt, but I loved every moment of it.

 Saturday and Sunday was a good day for us. Papa had his paycheck, and every Saturday he would buy an ice cream cone for each of us from the candy store that was located at the corner of 110th street and Lexington Avenue. In front of the store was the subway exit for 110th street from the Lexington line. It was a whole block and a half from there to our building. We had to all line up from the oldest to the youngest, and in order to get our ice cream, we had to kiss Papa on the lips. Yuk! This was not a pleasant thing to do, since Papa smoked a lot of cigars, and he had that cigar taste constantly on his lips. Oh well, such a small sacrifice for that delicious ice cream treat.

Sundays were for visiting, we would either go to my Aunt Louisa's house who lived on 102nd Street and Columbus Avenue, my God-mother's house in Far Rockaway, My Uncle Frank in the Bronx, or go to City Island and dig clams, or to Orchard Beach in the summer, Pelham Bay or have a picnic in Central Park. We would go to my Aunt Louisa (mama's sister) many times. They had a four bedroom apartment, for themselves and their five children. Uncle Pepe had a moving truck, and a store. My Aunt had 3 girls and two boys. Their apartment seemed so much bigger than the apartments in my building. I guess the apartments on the west side, were set up differently. So when Papa would visit, it would be a total of our family, which were 9 and Aunt Louisa's family counting 7, giving a total of 16 people, eating and having a wonderful time. God bless my aunt Louisa, she was such a sweet person, I loved her so much, she was always making such wonderful tasting foods, and in abundance too, especially when she knew that my family might just happen to come by. We didn't own a telephone, we would just arrive. Every Christmas eve and New Year's eve, we would go there and stay over. Uncle Frank and Aunt Angelica would come too with my two cousins, Elsa and Angie. We always had a good time with our cousins.

It was such a sight to see, Papa , a tall man with his chest out, proud as ever, walking with his seven children, from Lexington avenue, through Central Park to 102nd street and Columbus Avenue. We would spend the day at my aunt Louisa, then take the cross town bus at 116th street back to the house. Papa was very patriotic, every time the National Anthem was played over the radio, he would make us all stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag.

Everyone from the neighborhood loved Papa, he was such a charmer...He always had a habit of inviting his friends over to our tiny overcrowded apartment and stay for a meal. Mama would hit the roof each time." With planks between the chairs and nine mouths to feed, there is just not enough space or food for frequent free-loaders, "she would say. Her fiery personality seemed to overshadow Papa's, as she vocalized her annoyance. He was so used to her outbursts by now, that he just didn't care. He was the bread-winner and they were his invited guests. He would look at her, shrug his shoulders and then walk away. That was the kind of person my papa was. He loved to socialize, mama didn't, especially with those of the neighborhood. The amazing thing about this was that after Papa's funeral we never saw hide nor hair of these friends ever again. I guess they were afraid that mama would ask for a hand out, or they would have the burden of a widow and seven children upon their hands.

In the forties, the people from El Barrio, were friendly, despite the conflicts in the street, everyone knew who belonged there and who didn't. Something like a street watch. Jack, an Irishman was the patrolman in our area. In those days, they walked the beat. He always had his pockets stuffed with free passes to the movies for the kids of the neighborhood, who couldn't afford to go. The only time we ever went to the movies, which was the "Cosmo," located at 116th street between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue, was when papa wanted to be alone with mama.

Next door to our building, on the corner of 111th street and Lexington Avenue, was a Methodist church, and the minister's name was Rev. Wilson. He was the most compassionate human being ever there was in the neighborhood. He cared about the social problems that existed in the neighborhood. My brother Arnold, was a rebel by nature. He was always disobeying papa . He got into trouble vandalizing the church, and patrolman Jack brought Arnold home. Papa was so furious...I don't know if Arnold learned a lesson from Papa or not, that day. Rev. Wilson and members of his church, were very kind to mama, when papa died. They gave us a lot of food . Rev. Wilson's church, even paid for my brothers Arnold, Michael and Daniel to go to Port Monmouth, New Jersey for two weeks after papa died. He also sent the other kids from the neighborhood.

Every Sunday morning, we had buns for breakfast. Papa would buy the most delicious buns from a German Bakery on Third avenue, between 115th and 116th street. There was also a Cushman Bakery on Lexington Avenue at the corner of 115th Street. Papa always got the newspaper from the newspaper stand down by the Third Avenue El at 111th street.

Everyday in the morning you would see on Lexington Avenue, the laundry horse and wagon who would pick up the laundry from the neighborhood. My brother Barney worked there at 50 cents a day, from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. after the depression. On the corner of 112th Street and Lexington Avenue, was an Italian Delicatessen. Mary and her family owned it. The Italian bread was so crispy, and the cold cuts were in such abundance on a sandwich, I believe you could feed a whole family with it. Everyone in the neighborhood loved Mary. Mama , every so often would send one of my brothers to pick up a sandwich. Next to Mary's Deli, on Lexington Avenue was Santos the Furrier, then next to Santos was a Butcher Shop.

While we were growing up, papa would attend the synagogue that was around the corner from our building at 162 East 112th street between Lexington and Third Avenue, while we went to the Catholic church "Our Lady Queen of Angels" which was located at 113th street between second and third avenue, this was where I made my communion and confirmation. 

Papa would take the boys to Howard's Clothier on 125th street between Lexington and Third avenue, to get their clothes. When the oldest would outgrow his clothes it would be passed down from one to another. Since mama didn't bother to shorten the hems of the pants, my brothers would roll them up at the waist with a belt. My two oldest brothers were very tall. My sister Rosemarie was tall and bigger in shape. I was a little peanut, so I couldn't fit into any of her clothes. The only time we would get a present would be on our birthday, or Christmas. Mama would say we were too many, to be celebrating. Be thankful for what we got.

Papa was doing the best he could to provide for us, and we were growing so tall. Papa was diabetic, and becoming very ill. His job at Finkenburg's  was tiring him. He finally had to stop working because of his health. Mama then had to find work , which she did , cleaning offices at Rockefeller Center. If she was always short fused before, it was worst now. We all had to get out of her way, or suffer the consequences. Mama by nature was not an affectionate person. As much as I try, I can't remember her ever giving me a hug or a kiss as a child or even as an adult. I grew up feeling rejected. Mama controlled me but didn't love me, if she loved me she didn't know how to show it. Sometimes I felt like she was venting her anger only on me. How I remember her pulling my braids, sometimes followed by a stinging slap across the face or scolding me in a terrible harsh way, which always brought tears to my eyes. Actually, come to think of it, none of us were Mama's favorite except for my brother Daniel. Mama, always had adoring eyes for him. I found myself resenting this.  I sometimes felt like an unwanted pregnancy, since I was the last one to be born. Maybe this is why my clothespin dolls became so precious to me. Mama was 29 years old , married to papa who was 20 years older than she was, when she gave birth to me. I think this was the final straw for her. She had her fill of the life she was living as well as bearing children, in a crowded apartment, with nothing to look forward to, but more of the same.  The only time I ever remember Mama laughing or apparently happy, was when we visited friends and relatives. Mama was the life of the party.  This was what I loved about her, what I wished she was all the time. Naturally when Mama, or should I say " Cinderella"  returned to 1791 Lexington avenue, to the hum drum of her daily life, she was back to her usual acid tongue self; complaining,  yelling and scolding. Papa was sick, and she worked all day in the house, washing, cleaning, cooking, then went to work at night. This was more than she had bargained for.

Things were not the same anymore. Before papa got sick, he always had a twinkle in his eyes, as if his eyes were laughing. Not anymore. Things were economically tight. We couldn't visit relatives like before, or go to the places we used to go. Papa's health was deteriorating quickly. A remarkable change from one of active life to a state of lethargy was evident. Not realizing the temperature of the water in which he soaked his feet, he awoke the next day with both feet badly blistered. Mama insisted that he should go to the local hospital and have it checked out. Being the stubborn person that he was, Papa refused to go. The blistering became badly infected spreading to the right leg. Both the leg and the foot were turning black and began to smell of rotted flesh. The leg had to be amputated. Mama finally called the police to take him to the hospital. By that time it was too late to do anything about it. Papa died  from gangrene , a complication from the diabetes.   He was laid out at the St. Lawrence Funeral Home at 1985 Third avenue.  It was very traumatic for the whole family. It felt so strange seeing papa in his coffin. So still and not moving. How I missed papa, I was the baby, his baby. Everything was changing in our lives, the building, the old neighborhood. Papa was the center of our world and he was gone and with him went the good times. You know what, as crazy as it may seem, in that overcrowded apartment at 1791 Lexington avenue, we were a family, in the good times as well as the bad times. We struggled, we fought and we survived.

 Whenever the family would get together, whether it be the holidays, a wedding of one of the children, or a funeral of a loved one, we would always reminisce and relive the old days, of when we were young. Everyone would talk at once, laughing so hard, at stupid things each one did in the old neighborhood. They were the same stories told over and over each time we met, but when they were told they were as vivid as the day it happened. The laughter was contagious. We were such a rowdy bunch. We didn't care who was overhearing us. We just hoped that our children would hear and cherish the stories, so they could pass it on to the next generation. But then how does someone remember what they didn't live through? Memories are only vivid to those who experience them.

Everything is so silent now. The laughter has ceased. Barney lives in Pennsylvania and I live in New Jersey. We communicate by phone. Nostalgia and loneliness for those times of the family 's get together brings a flow of tears to my eyes. Its quite traumatic. I guess that's what happens when you become sentimental.

I know I can not bring back the past by the longing for it, but at least just for these few moments, as I try to finish typing these thoughts, I can relive those strong cherished memories of my dear papa  and the old neighborhood.


Website: The History
Article Name: Recollections of the Old Neighborhood
Author Miriam Medina


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