Lost in Yonkers

Getty Square in Yonkers, New York
Getty Square in Yonkers, New York

I love my childhood home — Yonkers, N.Y., a gritty industrial city on the banks of the lower Hudson River, where I lived from age 3 through the end of my college years. I’ve still got family there.

I’ve many fond memories of the place. Every time I visit, including last week, I take time to drive through my old neighborhoods in South Yonkers: Seminary Hill, where I lived in the now-razed Mulford Gardens public housing complex; Park Hill, the old Italian neighborhood, where I went to school and where my father grew up; Nodine Hill, which had many Eastern European families when I lived there; and Getty Square, where I spent many boyhood hours at the main branch of the Yonkers Public Library and  fondly remember shopping at the three department/variety stores at the heart of that old business district, Green’s, Grant’s and Woolworth’s.

Getty Square and the neighborhoods have seen better days. There’s a lot of crime and poverty. Much of the housing is rundown and dilapidated.  It wasn’t an affluent place when I lived there years ago. And it’s less affluent now.

The ethnic and racial make-up of South Yonkers had changed, too. Both Park Hill and Nodine HIll now have populations that are mostly Latino, the latest in wave in the waves of immigrants who have come to seek a better life in America — just like my Italian grandparents when they left their impoverished and isolated village of Scerni in the province of Chieti.

Deep racial and ethnic divisions in my old city resulted several decades ago in traumatic battles in federal court over housing and school desegregation and equality. Sadly, as I was reminded again recently, those racial and ethnic divisions — and the accompanying ignorance and hatred — still remain.

A few years ago, I discovered a Facebook page called South Yonkers Photos, which featured great old photos of my old stomping grounds — now-defunct movie theaters and stores, old buses I rode so frequently, buildings now fallen victim to the wrecking ball…great stuff…I don’t know who created and runs the site, but I’ve loved visiting the page and looking at the vintage images of bygone days in a city that, in a certain sense, no longer exists.

Recently, a photo of a school play at St. Mary’s School prompted a comment from someone who remembered taking part in those school plays — including one in which some pupils were painted in blackface and performed an Al Jolson number, and then had to work home through Getty Square while still wearing that offensive makeup.

Another “friend” of the Facebook site then opined (I paraphrase) that it was a good thing that back in those days African-Americans were still referred to not as black people but as “colored.” To which she added: “LOL!”

Then,  a few days ago, the proprietor of the Facebook site posted a photo of thousands of Latino people, probably Mexican, celebrating Cinco de Mayo. The caption described the festivities as taking place in Getty Square.

The clear implication was that this was a commentary on the notion that Spanish-speaking immigrants have “taken over” or “overrun” or even “ruined” our beloved, old, used-to-be-mostly-white city of Yonkers.

I posted a comment on this thinly-veiled racism, calling it insensitive at best, bigoted at worst.

The only response: The same woman who posted the commented about “colored” people replied with a sarcastic slur written in pidgin Italian!

When I checked back a few hours later to see whether the unidentified person behind “South Yonkers Photos” on Facebook had perhaps risen to the occasion, had maybe taken a stand on the side of tolerance and against racial and ethnic hate, what did I find?

I found that I’d been “unfriended” — blocked from access to the Facebook page.

Here’s a quote for these small-minded people to ponder as they seethe and stew and angrily snipe at anyone who doesn’t look like them or speak like them or believe like them. It’s the greatest commandment, the most golden of rules: “Love one another.”