A City Kid Remembers
Growing Up in Inwood.


By Henry J. Stern
August 26, 2005

Every now and then, one's mind turns to recollections of places and events of years ago. We offer these memories to you, and invite you, if so inclined, to share them with us.  Although it is utterly presumptuous to initiate a blog history of New York City, there is no harm in collecting stories about our experiences growing up.  They are more likely to be preserved in cyberspace than in transitory repositories like our brains.  So write if you like, read this if you care to, and let us know what you think: should individuals' memories of the city be collected?

The dog days of summer may be behind us.  After several uncomfortably hot and humid weeks, the weather has become more bearable.  We hope it stays that way.
 
This Wednesday, September will arrive, and oysters will be back in season.  I remember as a child the Blue Point Fish Market on Dyckman Street in Inwood, which displayed a sign that read "Oysters 'R' in Season."  I asked what that meant, and I was told that oysters were safe to eat only in months that had the letter 'r' in their names.  I wondered how the oysters knew how the months were spelled, until I looked at the calendar and found that every month from September to April contained an 'r', and that only May, June, July and August did not.  As a kid, I thought that maybe oysters spoiled in the heat, or maybe the fishermen didn't go out when it was too hot.  Now we see oysters in the summer, so the rule appears to have been relaxed.  To find the answer today, we consulted Google, and learned:

"You can only eat them basically in the "r" months," said Clifton {Allen Clifton of Clifton's Seafood}. "The reason for that is because your oysters and clams are on higher plains, so the water only covers them during high tide. During the low tide they are exposed to the sun, so your bacteria count goes up during the summer…Refrigeration has made it possible for people to eat oysters year round. Before refrigeration you really couldn't eat oysters during the hot seasons because of bacteria, but it's no longer true."

Oysters remind me of penguins, and, if you haven't seen it, I want to recommend a very good movie, "March of the Penguins".  This movie is much better than you might imagine.  From the title, I thought "who would want to see penguins march for an hour and a half", but in the film they do more than march.  There is another movie out, "The Oyster Farmer", which is set in Australia.  I haven't seen it, but EK said: "Good acting, modest plot, worth seeing."
 
Looking back at the oyster sign reminds me of the old neighborhood, and how it has changed  over the years.  The apartment buildings look the same on the outside, although many have been rehabbed by the city.  There are still taxpayers on the business streets, which contain stores, and sometime living quarters for the merchants over the store. That custom is definitely passé.  In this context, 'taxpayers' are not people who pay taxes, as one might normally assume.  Taxpayers are one or two story buildings, erected to earn enough income to pay the real estate taxes on the property, and easy to demolish for an apartment house or other large structure.  Brooklyn and Queens have many taxpayers of this sort, some in areas that are unlikely to be developed..
 
What has changed in Inwood is the language spoken, now mostly Spanish rather than English, and the ethnicity of the people, now largely Dominican and previously Irish and Jewish.  The Loew's Inwood and Alpine theaters are both gone, the Alpine with its unique L shape replaced by a McDonald's.

When I was a lad, children paid 14 cents to see a movie, ("Gone With the Wind" was more expensive.)  We sat in a rear section of the theater, closely watched by an elderly matron.  Now the children's price is $7, a 4900% increase.  That will get you one movie rather than the two we used to see, and the newsreels have been replaced by commercials.  We observe the way our quality of life has deteriorated over the years, as well as the many ways it has improved.
 
We should never forget how much better off we are in some important ways.  In my childhood, we lost several classmates.  Janet Lawson caught pneumonia and, in the absence of antibiotics, died at the age of 10.  Fred Rein, the only kid I knew with a 200 IQ, died at 14, a few weeks after he entered Bronx Science.  He was stricken with bulbar polio, eight years before the Salk vaccine became available.  Some causes of tragedy continue, like automobile accidents (Walter Vogl, 17) and suicide (Melvin Goldenberg, 14).  Others have arisen, like drugs.  Dylan Thomas, (1914-53) wrote about the subject.  The inescapable line we recall is: "after the first death, there is no other."
 
Another constant in the neighborhood is its large parks.  The most northerly community in Manhattan (except for Marble Hill, which was surgically removed from Manhattan Island by the construction of the Harlem Ship Canal in 1895) was named for the ample parks that surround it.  On the Harlem River, there is the 118-acre Highbridge Park, reaching west to the Dyckman Street station of the MTA (formerly the IRT) and stretching south to 155th Street.  On the Hudson River, we have Fort Tryon Park, home of the Cloisters and the Heather Garden, west of Broadway and south of Riverside Drive.  Inwood Hill Park has 198 acres and is largely wilderness, studded with open spaces where 19th century buildings had been demolished by Moses, who also clipped off some of the west side of the park to run the Henry Hudson Parkway north to its eponymous bridge.  The 1936 steel arch gateway to Riverdale then cost a dime to cross, but now the toll is $2. (That's up 1900%)
 
The War impacted the neighborhood in many ways.  Young men and older boys went off to fight.  We in P.S. 152 brought old newspapers to school on wagons, to be used for the war effort.  Tin cans were saved as well, a forerunner of today's ecological recycling.  We sold books in which were pasted war stamps, which came in 10, 25 and 50 cent denominations.  The book was filled when $18.75 worth of stamps were purchased, and it was exchangeable for a War Bond, which could be redeemed for $25 in ten years.

To discourage early redemption of these war loans, the interest was back-loaded, so if you turned in the bond during its first year, you would get something like six cents interest.  The bonds helped fight inflation by encouraging saving rather than spending.  They also made excellent gifts for birthdays or bar mitzvahs, in part because the face amount of the bond was 33% more than its actual cost to you, and also because there was a place on it for the donor's name, which the donee could read when, years later, it was taken out of the desk drawer to be redeemed, most likely at the Harlem Savings Bank on Broadway.
 
We also had what was called a Victory Garden, a sizable plot, in the northeast corner of the school playground.  We planted radishes among other vegetables so we would not have to buy them in stores.  By doing that, we were supposed to be helping the war effort by adding to the nation's food supply, which also helped to fight price inflation.  For most of us city boys and girls, it was our first experience in planting things in the ground and seeing them grow.

Compared with recent wars in which the United States has been involved, the country had much better national spirit than we have enjoyed in recent conflict, and the public was much more involved, what with rationing of sugar, meat and gasoline, price controls.  Apart from the merits of the wars, no one not in the military is compelled to make any sacrifice (Cf. SUV).

Everybody respected President Roosevelt, although the Jews were more enthusiastic about him than the Irish.  When he died, on April 12, 1945, we were listening to Captain Midnight on the radio.  The program was interrupted by a somber announcer, who told us the news.  My grandmother, who had come over from Germany in 1938, started to cry softly.  My brother and I knew that something very sad had happened.  The radio played nothing but funeral music for three days.  There was a great sense of loss, in our home and outside on the street. When we went to school, the teachers talked about the President. People wondered what President Truman would be like.
 
I feel very fortunate to have been born, grown up and educated in New York City.  Not only that, but the City employed me, except when I was periodically thrown out.  I hope that those of you who have stayed with us this far will let us know what you think, and share your own urban experiences with the rest of our readers.

a248  8.26.05  1546w



Henry J. Stern starquest@nycivic.org
New York Civic
520 Eighth Avenue
22nd Floor
New York, NY 10018

(212) 564-4441
(212) 564-5588 (fax)