My first encounter with the Pelham Parkway neighborhood took place in my mid-teens, around 1970, when my grandparents moved to a building at Lydig and Wallace. Most of the Jews in the Bronx were moving to Co-op City or the suburbs, but Pelham Parkway was very likely the last of the old-fashioned Jewish immigrant neighborhoods in the borough.
By that time, most of the residents were seniors, but you still had a good number of families and a few young single people. Jewish refugees from what was still the Soviet Union were also moving in.
The area was characterized by huge 1920s apartment houses with courtyards and a few private houses here and there. The main shopping streets, White Plains Road and Lydig Avenue, had many old-fashioned stores that warmed the heart of my parents and others in the older generation – a bakery where one could buy black-and-white cookies and hamentaschen, the Zion Kosher Delicatessen; and a dairy restaurant that served blintzes and noodles-and-cheese. White Plains Road had a small musical instrument store, a big plus for aspiring young rock musicians like me, the spacious Six Brothers diner where my grandfather used to take us for lunch, and a tiny mom-and-pop health food store that had nothing in common with the chains that later dominated the industry.
Pelham Parkway itself was the area’s main attraction, a green ribbon through the neighborhood. The parkway was anchored by the subway station, two gigantic synagogues, and Bronx House, a big community center with a swimming pool. In the summer, you saw hundreds of seniors on the benches.
Grandpa died in ’76, Grandma in ’77. I thought of moving into their apartment after she passed away, but at the time, I was working only part-time and couldn’t afford the rent. And in my early 20s, I knew nothing about leases, rent increases, or the fact that you couldn’t just move into a relative’s apartment as if you owned the place.
After that, however, I still found myself in the area a few times a year. My visits increased after 1980, when I met Mike Tannenbaum, a young guy my age who was an electronic-music freak, a stereo and computer whiz, and a brilliant science-fiction writer. He lived on Barnes Avenue with a roommate who soon moved out.
Mike told me that one of the other tenants, a woman in her 90s, was one of the building’s original tenants from 1927. “At that time, there wasn’t much but trees and grass around here,” he said. “She decided to move here because her other choice, the Concourse, was only for rich people!” We had a good laugh, since the Concourse was very rundown in the ’80s.
Because Mike lived in the North Bronx, he was somewhat isolated from his peers. In his apartment, however, he was king. He had two computers when most people didn’t even have one, two VCRs, a huge fish tank, and thousands of dollars worth of stereo equipment. When a would-be-girlfriend rejected him, he consoled himself by saying, “She doesn’t know a damn thing about stereo!”
Throughout the 1980s, I kept visiting the Pelham Parkway area from time to time. The neighborhood was like an old friend that didn’t change much, even though it was becoming a little rundown around the edges. I had fights with friends (including Mike, who became enraged when I bought a stereo without asking for his advice), problems on the job, and breakups with girlfriends. But Pelham Parkway was still Pelham Parkway.
After I got married in ’95, I took fewer walks around the city. A few years later, my wife suggested we take a trip to the Bronx Zoo. After walking around the zoo and having a great time, we came out on the White Plains Road side. I eagerly took her on a walk, but to my shock, Pelham Parkway was no longer my Pelham Parkway.
On Lydig Avenue, Olinsky’s supermarket and Carvel were gone. Several Albanian social clubs, food stores, real estate offices and coffee shops had moved in. While I definitely have nothing whatsoever against Albanians, it made me sad to realize that people like myself, the grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants, were now a small minority.
Walking over to White Plains Road, I found it dominated by big 99-cent stores with displays spilling onto the sidewalk and generic chain stores. The corner diner on the north side of the parkway had become a Dunkin’ Donuts, and the Six Brothers diner on the south side was gone. The tiny health-food store had disappeared, and although there was a GNC on the street, it wasn’t the same.
We eventually found a small coffee shop with wooden tables and a limited menu. Most of the customers were shabbily-dressed older people who had been sitting there for hours, talking to each other and watching the overhead TV set. You could tell this was the highlight of their day. We vowed that the next time we went to the zoo, we would leave on the side nearer to Arthur Avenue, which had good Italian restaurants.
Today, I have a more balanced view of Pelham Parkway. The neighborhood as it once existed failed to hold most of its children and grandchildren – probably because it is so far from Manhattan. Mike Tannenbaum had confidently predicted that the parkway itself would make the neighborhood “hip” in the same way Prospect Park spurred gentrification in Park Slope. He was wrong.
Today’s Pelham Parkway, rather than being the province of one ethnic group, as it was in the old days, is extremely diverse. You see Albanians, Russian Jews, Pakistanis, Latinos, Arabs and even one or two Hasidim. Many, if not most, are immigrants, just as most of the people who originally moved into the neighborhood in the 1920s were immigrants. The people are busy living their lives, having their dreams. They’re making their own memories, which will be as important to them as my memories of sitting on the couch with Mike Tannenbaum while listening to The Who, Yes or Kraftwerk are to me.
It’s no longer my Pelham Parkway, but it’s still Pelham Parkway. And the next time we go to the zoo – I’m sorry, but we’ll still opt for those Arthur Avenue Italian restaurants!