As a boy in the 1960s, I walked to school, knew my neighbors, could point out the building where my father was born and, a few blocks away, the place my mother grew up (they met at a parish social). I ran in parks with friends, hung out in the local boys’ club after school, played ball, and once risked entering the abandoned home known as “the haunted house.”
I grew up in a small town, except for the consistent rumble of the crosstown bus.
I am 51 years old, and the East 50s of New York that I knew as a neighborhood exist now in numbered street names only. The boys’ club, the parish school, A-B’s candy store, most of the six-story walk-up “railroad” flats, the haunted house, were all demolished to make way for the massive commercial projects that are now parts of the skyline. The area is a mix of old and new, with condo towers needle-pointed among rows of century-old flats that still support zig-zagging cast-iron fire escapes out front. Realtors would call the mix “quaint,” but you have to be very rich, or a savvy rent-controlled homesteader, to live in the area now.
I watched from our fifth-story, pigeon-sooted windows the wrecking ball crush the brick facades of the tenements that once housed the dreams and dramas of countless immigrant families. I saw skyscraper cranes lay girder upon girder of the skeletons of shiny new glass and steel office buildings. The Chinese laundry became an exclusive doorman condo. Where the world sees the Citicorp and “Lipstick” buildings, I remember small storefronts, creaking front doors, and strange, inviting alleyways.
I recall quiet Saturday mornings, walking with my father block to block, as he pointed out the landmarks no one else knew: the spot where the Third Avenue El of old stopped (he pointed out the supports hidden beneath the black asphalt); the apartment house where another close-knit family lived in cramped quarters, the three boys studying in dim lights under their mother’s watchful eye to become a lawyer, a doctor, and a priest (and later a bishop); and the double spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the place of my parents’ wedding and the baptisms of their three boys. My father had been an altar boy and loved to recall humorous tales of preparing for Mass with his cousins.
We would pass the plaza of the Unilever building on Park Avenue, where my father, newly married, was accosted in daylight by an assailant (the term “mugger” was not in vogue) wielding a can opener. My father tried to dash past and the man cut his forearm to the wrist, leaving a scar. I am still amazed that my father could tell the story with such detachment, without anger or bitterness, though he lost much blood and the police suspected his wife had cut him in a domestic spat.
We would end invariably at the fountains of the Seagram’s Building plazathe first “modern” skyscraper, he would explain, with the frame of the structure exposed. (I would later read Tom Wolfe’s Bauhaus to Our House to understand.)
Our family rented small summer apartments on Long Island and returned each Labor Day to see the city new yet distressedfresh excavations, more steel frames covered with thin glass skin, sky cranes hoisting tons of stuff forty stories or more. I took it all in at a young age. I was Melville’s Ishmael, the wanderer who began at the New York docks and became my instant high school companion, with his words from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” I, too, had seen destruction beyond description and felt as though I was clinging to a coffin in the open sea of change. “Life is saved by the symbol of death,” Sister Christine explained in English class, but I was not too sure.
Yet some things endured. The Second Avenue Irish pub that my father’s father knew has gone through many owners, but still serves up good Guinness. The diner on the corner of 50th and Second, at the intersection of the crosstown and downtown buses, remains as an Italian bistro. The dry cleaner and the supermarkets also do business under other names, along with some other hubs of trade.
Surprisingly, my old apartment building on 50th Street still stands, one of the few to survive the domino fall that affected Second and Third Avenues. We climbed five high flights on smoothed marble steps, building up strong legs and lungs, many times a day. As boys we could race by twos all the way up and barely lose a breath, as my father quick-stepped behind us. My mother was the best, carrying a baby and grocery bundles up the 100-plus steps. The wave of obesity crossing our nation would never have advanced in our neighborhood.
People stayed for years or lifetimes. My parents moved in as newlyweds and planned to stay a short while, but the low rent and three babies who came quickly kept them in place for twenty years. I think the friendly fit also persuaded them stay.
On the first floor was Little Mary, a “shut-in” who was crippled from birth and walked with a brace. Always at the window, she kept track of the children, warning them to stay out of the street. My mother would leave me with her almost every day when I was a toddler as she lugged groceries and my older brothers up the stairs, and then returned for me. The first stirrings of compassion grew in my heart as I watched Little Mary walk bravely from room to room, and she gave me my first objective view of my parents by telling stories of “that lovely young couple” who moved in years ago, so much in love.
A few floors up were the “spinster sisters,” Polish perhaps, who ran to Mass every morning before work and were always blessing us children though they never got too close. Blind Mr. T. was a floor beneath us. Pleasant in person, he often banged his walking stick on the ceiling if we boys made too much noise. My mother explained that blind people develop better hearing because God made sure that the loss of one sense was offset by the improvement of another.
Then there was Mr. D., a few floors down, who, my mother explained, was "a bit tippy-toes," a much better term than "gay." When we met him on the stairs, he was unfailingly pleasant and proper, and through my mother’s respectful manner I learned how to care for someone as a person while knowing that all is not quite well with him.
One day, my father took his three boys on a Good Friday walk, when the city seemed different in its soul. We went downtown on Park Avenue, so wide and airy you could see the sky for many blocks, and passed through the walkway beneath the Union General Building (later named the Helmsley). It sat on haunches in what looked to me to be the end of the earth, and I was amazed as we emerged from the covered walkway not into another world, but onto 46th Street, heading toward Grand Central. We continued to St. Agnes Church, the homey, sagging structure where the famous preacher gave his Good Friday sermon. There were loudspeakers outside the church to catch the overflow crowd, some of whom stopped only for a few minutes during lunch. The whole world seemed to come and go through the doors, and slowly my father moved us into the church and up to the balcony, as seats became available.
We were Catholic. A sense of identity and belonging came with being Irish-Americans. There was a security, love, and wonder I sensed (at an early age) that only Catholics hadthe hushed, steepled churches and the priests; the parish school with veiled nuns whose black habits swept the floors; the picture of the pope on the bedroom wall, a strange man with what looked like an eggshell on his head who gave the sense of a wider world and eternity. At school, we children almost gasped when Sister Helen Marie’s veil pushed back and a few sprigs of gray hair sprouted. But I knew, somehow, they dressed this way out of sacrifice, out of love.
I lived through Vatican II, receiving First Communion at the council’s close in 1965 and Confirmation in 1967, as the new Mass and other innovations got their sputtering starts. By 1969, the school and church along First Avenue were closed and another wrecking ball came crashing through the stained glass and fine masonry. The strongest support and sanctuary in a changing city had gone away, in the most violent fashion imaginable. The world, it seemed, had won. But true to the Catholic spirit, another church would be built on the same site.
It strikes me today as ironic that the children and grandchildren of the families that fled or were forced from the cityto Queens, Long Island, the countiesare now clamoring and clambering to get back in, if they can afford the price of a closet or the stress of roommates. The city that was deliberately destroyed in my childhood has been raised and renewed. Yet I find the place unlivable. Too noisy, crowded, and inhabited by those who want to make too much money in too little time, with no sense for the way things were or should be.
When I visit, I sometimes scan the crowds for a sensitive kid walking block to block with his father, but do not find one. So I walk the streets with my own two boys.
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.