Looking down the city steps

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I’m going to leave our trip and arrival the first Tuesday (June 2) out of this for now, because I want to start getting to the good stuff (the pictures, for those of you who weren’t actually there). And since we rented a car in Flushing, we actually drove around Flushing first, but let’s pretend we didn’t so we can retrace my steps in chronological order. And when I say “my steps”, I mean “my first baby steps”, because the Bronx is where I was born and grew up until high school.

Stuck on the Cross Bronx Expressway
Stuck on the Cross Bronx Expressway

First, we had to actually get to the Bronx, so our first picture is us on the Cross Bronx Expressway. I was happy to be able to prove to Steven that the Cross Bronx has traffic jams 24/7, day and night, and all the time! But I still remembered a few things about NYC driving, and despite all the giant trucks tearing up the roadway — which looked exactly as bad as I remember from 30 years ago — we were suddenly at Jerome Avenue and it was time to get off.

The first stop was my Grandma Henrietta’s old apartment building at 11 West 172 Street. They’re renovating the entrance but the building itself looks just like it did back in the day.

I had originally planned to take Steven up 170th Street and under the Grand Concourse and show him the cool bus stop under the D train, but I suddenly decided it was much more important to show him the playground around the corner where me and my sister and cousin Lenny used to go when we visited Grandma. Then we went up Macombs Road, where I pointed out Featherbed Lane (and told him the story) and the apartment building that my uncle Harold used to live in. And then as we got to the top of the hill, I explained that this is how my father walked to school from Grandma’s house, because here was JHS 82 that he went to as a child, and then I went there too! It looks pretty much the same from the outside.

JHS 82, Bronx
JHS 82, Bronx

We turned left on Tremont Avenue as I pointed out important historical sites, such as where the Chinese restaurant was where I ate $0.95 lunches (like a big shot!) with my other big-spending buddies, when we weren’t getting square slices of Sicilian pizza down the block. We drove down a few blocks and popped out on University Avenue just in time for me to point out the spot where my Bar Mitzvah reception was held (and then the very next day, my sister sent me an email reminding me that it had been exactly 50 years ago to the day…coincidence, or conspiracy?!?!?!).

University Ave and Tremont
University Ave and Tremont
1307 E.L. Grant Highway
1307 E.L. Grant Highway

Now there was only one thing to do and that was go to my first apartment building at 1307 E.L. Grant Highway, where I have a number of vivid memories, such as selling comics in the next alley from a milk crate (clearly foreshadowing my nonexistent career as a marketing genius), going to unknown planets in my cardboard rocket ship, and my 2-year-old sister pushing down a bully who was bothering me. I explained to Steven that I knew all this had happened before I was 5, because I had been going to kindergarten at P.S. 114 (whose tower is still visible down the block) and then in the middle of the term, we moved around the corner to Shakespeare Avenue and I was suddenly a new student at P.S. 11.

As a little kid, I also remembered running down the amazingly steep hill (search for the phrase “killer hill” in that link) next to the building and having to stop myself by catching onto the light pole at the bottom. I did some calculations using my phone’s sensors and it seems to be more than a 30° grade.

We proceeded down E.L. Grant Highway to P.S. 114, where Jerome Avenue begins. I pointed out the school and the wedged-in gas station across the street (which will feature in a later story), Mullaly Park on the left (named after a writer, editor, and inventor…I did not know that!), and showed Steven where the old Anderson Avenue stop on the Polo Grounds shuttle was and Yankee Stadium now is. Then we drove up Woodycrest Avenue, about the only street on our entire trip where little seems to have changed since the 1970s.

Climbing the wall at 1246 Shakespeare Avenue
Finally, we got to 168th Street, and double-parked briefly on Shakespeare Avenue so I could jump out and take pictures of the second apartment building I lived in. But first, I climbed the wall (or at least tried). I got Steven to take this picture mostly for my sister’s benefit, because few other people would remember how we used to climb up these large “mega-bricks” on our building. I’m just a bit too old and heavy for this nonsense now!

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charlton heston old moses
While I was taking the picture down the Shakespeare hill, a little kid asked me why I was standing in the street (looking like an idiot, taking pictures of “nothing”, although he was too polite to say that). When I told him I lived there 50 years ago, he looked at me very strangely, exactly as if I suddenly looked like this guy.

So then we proceeded up 168th Street, where I pointed out all the now nonexistent drug stores, card shops, delis, candy stores, and pizza places operated by French Canadians who were missing fingers. Steven managed to snap some shots of the Noonan Plaza, the apartment complex where my family lived in two different buildings until we finally left the Bronx in 1967. It’s now both an official landmark and low-income Section 8 housing, although it looks pretty decent from the outside.

Further down 168th Street, we parked to check out the Merriam Playground, a kind of “secret” path running behind the buildings on Merriam Avenue. It was here that I first developed an amateur interest in geology, due to the large boulders I discovered in the fenced-off area as an inquiring 9-year-old. While the area was a bit overgrown for us to climb out there now, I told Steven how the striations on the rocks were all at a peculiar angle that I thought were due to the glaciers, but a book that Susan once bought me about the geology of New York City gave a much more detailed (and correct) version having to do with seriously ancient continents bashing together. It’s explained pretty well on this page, and as a bonus, the photo there marked “Isham park marble outcrop” shows pretty much exactly what I saw half a century ago, peculiar angle and all. I later pointed out more of the same kind of thing in Central Park.

We drove up University Avenue (which here is a tiny one-way street, not two lanes in each direction as it is further north) and around to Ogden Avenue, so I could show Steven where my maternal grandparents’ candy store was (still basically performing almost the same function). Then we drove down further to what was once an empty lot and is still mostly an empty lot, although it’s protected by fences and part of it has been turned into a community garden. There were certain rocks I wanted to say hello to from 50 years ago…we climbed all over the rocks here on our way up Ogden to the candy store after school, where I was actually making sodas and egg creams at the age of 8 or so.

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The actual historical star of this show is P.S. 11, an elementary school that’s as old as my grandfather…my mother went there as a child, and I was sitting in my classroom there (with my white shirt on and my hands folded on the desk, no doubt) on those unforgettable days when Alan Shepard and John Glenn went into space and when JFK was assassinated and we heard it all live on the radio piped in from the principal’s office.

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Next: Flushing Nostalgia

Notes:

1. For those of you unfamiliar with this area of the Bronx, this is a great informational page, although the neighborhood has always been called “Highbridge”, period.

2. Here’s why we say “the Bronx” and not just “Bronx”!