Yorkville 1960s–A Neighborhood in Transition

by

06/06/2021

Neighborhood: Featured, Yorkville

Early 1960s, Yorkville. My block, 81st street between 1st and York avenues. 

During my early years, I witnessed a predominantly working-class immigrant neighborhood of Irish, Germans, and Hungarians being replaced by new wealthier residents.

The transition started with the construction of high-rise apartment buildings on the avenues. These characterless buildings were replacing the five-story walk-ups and their mom and pop stores, including the all-important luncheonette. 

The new high-rises rose up towards the sky, blocking all but the mid-day sun from the walk-ups. Sunlight now would only be for the wealthy. The high-rise was a modern day medieval castle with the drawbridge being replaced by the doorman. No one entered without approval.

Although high-rises were going up on the avenues, the side streets remained the domain of the railroad apartment dwellers.

These older buildings, many of which went up around the turn of the 20th century, were an improvement to the airless cramped tenements of lower Manhattan. The railroad apartments layout ran the length of the building. Living room in the front faced the street, followed by narrow bedrooms, which were divided and had windows in them for airflow, but also no doors, and no privacy. The kitchen was often in the rear of the apartment, facing the back of the building on the opposite street. The area between the rears of two buildings was a jumble of laundry lines. The kitchen, the center of life in these apartments, also housed a bathtub next to the kitchen sink. When not in use, the tub would be covered with a white enameled top. A big upgrade in the railroad from the older tenements was that there was a toilet in each apartment. There was no bathroom sink, but it was far better than the shared toilet in the hall of the tenement. The smell of decades of cooking permeated the walls of the building, never to dissipate, but only added on to with the cooking of the next meals. This apartment was the home of my early childhood.

Although changes to the neighborhood started with the coming of the high-rise, it would take some years for the transition to be complete. The remaining European immigrants and their children and, in some cases, grandchildren, held out like a defeated army that wouldn’t surrender until the last man was killed.

In my early childhood my block was still as it was when my grandparents moved there in 1918. The men went off to their blue-collar jobs in the morning. The women, clad in housecoats, would enjoy a cup of tea in the designated kitchen of a neighbor, and pass on the latest gossip. You would hear the clanking of the glass bottles as the milkman left his delivery in front of apartment doors.

Yorkville Kids: The author, in hat and suspenders, with friends and siblings on  81st Street  between 1st and York avenues, about 1963 -64.

In the summer, all life shifted out to the street to escape the heat of the apartments. There was no air conditioning in most buildings. The kids played the typical New York City games: Johnny on the pony, tag, red-rover, flipping baseball cards, hit off the point, and my favorite, ring-a-levio. When the mothers finished with their tea, still dressed in housecoats, they headed for the stoop. These woman were the referees of the neighborhood, ready to call a foul on any kid’s infraction. In their presence, we would have to refrain from foul language; very hard to do when you lost a Mickey Mantle card while flipping. 

A mother leans out a third floor window and calls to her son.

“JIMMY”
“YEAH MA”
“GO DOWN TO JOHN’S. GET A LOAF OF BREAD AND POUND OF BUTTER.”
“MA. I’M FLIPPIN CARDS HERE, I’LL GO LATER.”
“NOW! I’LL THROW THE MONEY DOWN.”
“OK”
“WHAT?”
“OOOO KAY”


Jimmy’s mom would throw the money down wrapped in paper with a rubber band around it.

“I WANT MY CHANGE TOO!”

The old men of the block would converge in front of their stoop after work. Like alpha males of the animal kingdom, these were the kings of the block, unless their wives were around! They would always stand. Sitting was a sign of weakness. The majority of this crew was immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Hungary, and of course, there was our neighbor Mr. Farina from Italy. These men were not the friendliest. They had an attitude shaped by the harsh lives in their former countries.

Now and then the old men would take a stroll down the block. Shoulder to shoulder, they would declare the sidewalk theirs. No room to pass, or continue a game of tag, all the kids would part like the Red Sea to let them through. Any resistance to giving way might prompt a kick on the shin.

As the day wore on, battle scars of the kid’s games would become noticeable. The tee shirt that was white in the morning turned dingy gray, the four inch rolled up cuffs of dungarees unrolled and wrapped around sneakers. Oh, and the sneakers. A day wouldn’t go by without some kid searching for a discarded popsicle stick to remove the dog shit off the bottom of a sneaker; the price you paid for a game of tag in the street.

The day of play would come to an end with a shout out the window, “Dinner!” In the house we’d wash up at the kitchen sink, remember no sink in the bathroom.

Dinner on the table, you wanted to eat fast and get back outside because of that special treat that arrived every evening. Dinner finished, dads snoozed on the couch, clean up after dinner, and the kids pestered their mom for some money.

Out on the stoop in the evening, you’d sit with your friends and discuss the plays of the day. The homerun in stick-ball that went all the way to York Avenue, the big winner in pitching pennies bragging about his haul, winning a Mickey Mantle rookie card in flipping, losing a Mickey Mantle rookie card in flipping, and so on.

The talk would come to an abrupt end as Mr. Softee turned onto the block. Like the Pied Piper, Mr. Softee jingle summoned the children of the neighborhood. Like moths to a flame, all flocked toward the bright white florescent light of the truck’s interior. I’d get a large vanilla cone with chocolate sprinkles. The ice cream starting to melt before I got across the street didn’t matter. Every kid on the block always had sticky hands; it helped when catching a Spaldeen.

That was a typical day on my block. At times we would change it up with a trip to John Jay or Carl Schurz parks. Trips to these parks and other blocks would become more frequent as the transition of my block moved on its path to completion.

The change started with the appearance of dumpsters in front of the five-story walk-ups. Like dominos, these buildings were transformed. The railroad apartments were gutted to make way for more expensive studio and one bedroom apartments, and long-time tenants were supplanted by young professionals with lots of cash.

Once the transition was complete there were no more street games. The kids just disappeared. The moo-moo clad women were replaced by empty stoops. Those stoops had once been social clubs for the tenants; now they were just the entrance to a building. A few of the old men remained, still converging near their stoop, but they would now have to make way for the hyperactive young professionals rushing to and from work.

Although my family was displaced from our railroad apartment, we would remain on the block for several more years. My family made the long journey two doors down to one of the newly renovated buildings where my dad became the super.

I now lived on a block, which would come to resemble the lifeless face of the rest of Yorkville. With the change of my block, I now had to migrate to 80th street to play with my classmates from Saint Monica’s. On 80th Street life would continue unchanged for my friends and me. We still played the old New York games, went to John Jay Park, and hung out on the remaining blocks that hadn’t yet changed. 

My family and I left New York in 1973 for rural New Jersey. I wasn’t witness to the complete transition of Yorkville. As an adult though I have been back to my old neighborhood and am saddened by the changes. The sun stealing high-rises dominate the avenues. The only people on the streets now are those heading to a destination. 

***

Joseph Samuels is recently retired. His Irish ancestry has passed on to him the gift of storytelling. So, at his wife’s insistence, he now writes his stories down. He believes it was her way of just getting him to shut up.

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§ One Response to “Yorkville 1960s–A Neighborhood in Transition”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    We all mourn the loss of the old Yorkville — even me, who swore I never ventured above 14th st, would on occasion take the Lex uptown on a Saturday to prowl the rich-folks thrift shops. Toting my treasires, I’d head further east to revive myself with coffee and kuchen at a coffee shop that had been there for decades. I love your story, the specificity of the street games, the women in their house dresses, and the sense of leisure that stretched on forever. Thank you!

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