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.”

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Be it ever so humble…

Home, sweet home. This photo by Rob Yasinac (who's got a great Web site at www.hudsonvalleyruins.org, shows one of the apartment buildings at Mulford Gardens in Yonkers, New York. I lived at Mulford Gardens when I was a boy. Now the public-housing complex is being razed.
Home, sweet home. This photo by Rob Yasinac (who's got a great Web site at http://www.hudsonvalleyruins.org, shows one of the apartment buildings at Mulford Gardens in Yonkers, New York. I lived at Mulford Gardens when I was a boy. Now the public-housing complex is being razed.

Why does it make me just a bit melancholy to read that the old Mulford Gardens public-housing projects in Yonkers, N.Y, is finally being demolished? Because I grew up in Yonkers. And because I lived in the Mulford Gardens complex with my parents and my sister — we moved there when I was four years old and left when I was eight, apparently because my young father’s income had passed some maximum threshhold that made him no longer eligible to live in public housing.

You would think that was a good thing, and I suppose it was. We moved to an apartment in Nodine Hill section of the city, in the shadow of the city’s landmark water tower, to a neighborhood that was then largely Ukrainian, Russian, Czech and Polish with a considerable number of Italians who had spilled over from the adjacent Park Hill neighborhood.

We lived on Nodine Hill until I was about thirteen years old, when my parents bought their own house in solidly middle-class/working class neighborhood called Bryn Mawr about midway between the Saw Mill River Parkway — which serves as Yonkers’ “tracks” to live on the other side of, which became a focus of much sorrow and strife about ten years later, when the city was torn apart by battles over housing and school desegregation).

So what is it about the demolition of Mulford Gardens that makes me melancholy? It’s nostalgia, I suppose. The place as actually kind of nice when we lived there.  The units were three-story brick buildings (with a ground-floor basement) with four, five or six units to a building — for instance, the block we lived in began with 10 Mulford Gardens and ended with 13 Mulford Gardens; we lived on the third floor of unit 12; there were seven apartments per unit (two on each floor, and one on the basement level). Mind you, it wasn’t luxurious. The walls — the interior walls — were painted cinderblock. The stairways in the halls were made of steel. Our apartment was small — four small rooms (kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, bathroom). But outside each unit people had flower gardens. There was a park, Grant Park, nearby. It was a 10-minute walk away from Getty Square, the old downtown commercial district.

And, best of all, and I can remember this so clearly even though I was so young — the apartment building we lived in was high atop Seminary Hill, at the very highest section of Mulford Gardens, which had hundreds of apartments spread over the hillside, and from our kitchen window I could see the vast sweep of the crowded city of Yonkers spread out before me. I could see the cupola of St. Joseph’s Seminary to the east. I could see straight ahead the water tower at the peak of Nodine Hill, I could see church spires all over the city, and apartment buildings and small houses crowded together on the hills and in the ravines of the city. To my right, looking west, I could see the distant Palisades cliffs along the Hudson, and (as my mother remembered last night when we spoke about the old days at Mulford Gardens), I was a precocious, observant little boy, and I would sit at the window, looking out at the lights all over the city, and I’d point out that in the distance, to the south, there was the Empire State Building, and there, those flickering, glittering lights strung out in a row, that was the George Washington Bridge!

Mulford Gardens became a different place in the years after we left. It was about 25 years old when we lived there and it’s now more than 60 years since the place was built, replacing a poor neighborhood that I believe was mainly occupied by poor blacks and Irish immigrants who had jobs at the nearby Alexander Smith carpet mills.

The buildings at Mulford Gardens deteriorated and crumbled. The place became fertile ground for crime, drugs, gangs, poverty, you name it, and probably the only good things that came out of the Yonkers projects in the last twenty years were a couple of folks named Mary J. Blige and DMX.

You know, even when we lived there, people were relatively poor — you had to be kind of poor to live there, after all. And I do remember things — like constantly burning my leg accidentally on the exposed radiators in those spartan apartments.

But I also remember one winter day, and there was huge snowstorm, must have been a blizzard because my father stayed home from work, and we had no food in the house, and my young mother and father left me with an elderly neighbor who came upstairs to our apartment to babysit me while they were gone, and my young parents bundled up and trudged out into the storm, and I watched as they made their way down the hill toward the Ashburton Market about four blocks away, and I watched and I watched and stared into the swirling snow and finally, finally, I spotted my father and mother, both carrying bags of groceries, leaning into the wind and slowly returning up the hill, and I remember clearly that I moved forward a little and, sure enough, burned my leg on that damned steam radiator, but that was alright because it was warm in that little apartment at Mulford Gardens and that made the windows steam up, but I wiped the window pane with my hand and there were my young parents looking up at the window, and they were waving to me, and they were just in the mid-twenties and still so much in love, but that was long ago, and my father died six years ago, and so now it’s time to wave goodbye to Mulford Gardens and the steam radiators and the steel stairways and the cinderblock walls and the cold and impersonal brick buildings.

But my parents will always be walking up that hill through the storm, and the Empire State will always loom on the horizon, and the lights of the George Washington Bridge will twinkle and sparkle forever, off there in the distance, glowing forever in my mind.

City of Gracious Living

When I think about my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, or return to visit my family still living there – usually crossing the Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge and making landfall at Tarrytown, hometown of Rip Van Winkle — I somehow come unstuck in time, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim.

Henry Hudson’s ship is anchored off Yonkers, right where the Nepperhan Creek drains into the Hudson River. At the nearby Yonkers post office, an anonymous clerk is showing up for work – he’s David Berkowitz by day, Son of Sam by night. A talking dog barks and Gene Krupa’s hands blur as he plays his drums in his Park Hill mansion while down the hill on School Street a young girl named Ella Fitzgerald snaps her fingers to the beat. Forty years later, the School Street tenements are gone, replaced by two high-rise public housing towers, and a little boy named Earl Simmons gazes out of a window and twenty years later becomes the rapper DMX. An Otis elevator drops down from the clouds and the Musak plays “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” by DMX and out of the elevator struts James Cagney, a Yonkers boy, dressed as George M. Cohan as Yankee Doodle Dandy in a red, white and blue top hat. He’s arm in arm with Linda Lovelace, also a Yonkers girl.  They walk down to the train station, across from the post office, and join the thousands of Yonkers residents who watch and weep as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege passes slowly through, and I’m in the crowd, and Sousa’s band is playing a dirge, and just then I hear a splash – my great-uncle Thomas Crooks is being pulled out a vat of acid by his fellow workers at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill.

The men wrap Thomas in burlap and carry him up the hill to the old St. Joseph’s Hospital – just two blocks away from the Mulford Gardens housing project, where thirty years later I live as a boy and look out from our third-floor window at the city’s crowded hills and dozens of church spires and the gilded dome of City Hall and the dark Palisades cliffs across the Hudson in New Jersey and, shimmering in the distance, the lights of the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge.  As I look out my Mulford Gardens window, I see the other mill workers who have rushed up the Palmer Road hill to fetch Thomas’ mother – Anna Crooks, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. Anna arrives at St. Joseph’s hospital and embraces her burned and dying son. Thomas dies. His skin is red and blistered and peeling off like tissue paper. He’s just twenty-three years old.

I’m twelve years old and I’m a delivery boy for the local daily newspaper, the Yonkers Herald Statesman. The bundle of papers is dropped at the usual corner, a block up from the corner of Palmer Road where the Crooks home stands to this day.  I take one newspaper out of the bundle to read (the customers on my route always complain that their papers come late – now they know why). One headline says MAN WALKS ON MOON. Another says FAREWELL TO LINCOLN. Another says CARPET MILL TO CLOSE. Another says SON OF SAM CAPTURED. Another says MAN HAS PREMONITION OF OWN DEATH. The last headline gets my attention. The article describes how young Thomas Crooks had met his unnamed fiancé for a picnic lunch under a tree at the beautiful old Oakland Cemetery, located across from the carpet mill. According to the article, the work whistle sounded at the mill, and Thomas started to return to work. But “before returning to work, Mr. Crooks turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ “ Fifteen minutes later came my ancestor’s dive into that acid bath. The newspaper article described my great-grandmother’s arrival at the hospital, just in time for her young son’s death. This is the last sentence of the newspaper article: “Mrs. Crooks was burned about the face as she continually kissed her dying son.”

Anna Crooks, mother of Thomas, was my mother’s grandmother. My mother remembers that her Grandma Crooks had tiny scars all around her lips. My mother never knew why her grandmother had those scars until I found a 1928 clipping of that old Yonkers Herald Statesman article. The clipping was tucked into an old family Bible. “They were scars,” I told my mother. “But they were really birthmarks.”

When I visit Yonkers, I see ghosts everywhere I look. They stroll down the street carrying parasols. They drive fast cars past the strip malls along Central Avenue. They sit in the grandstands and watch the sulkies at Yonkers Raceway. They haunt each and every one of Yonkers’ seven hills. Oakland Cemetery is still there, and it’s filled with ghosts. It’s still hauntingly beautiful – wooded, with narrow curving roads winding around the old graves and monuments. It would be a good place to have a picnic lunch with your girlfriend. Oakland Cemetery is hemmed in by the Saw Mill River Parkway to the east, by the tenements of the old Slavic neighborhood to the east (where the onion dome of the Orthodox church testifies to a bygone day), and by the old carpet mill building to the west. It’s not a carpet mill anymore – the Alexander Smith company closed shop years ago, moved to the South for its cheaper labor, and the huge, sprawling, looming buildings, which stretch for blocks along the Nepperhan and Saw Mill River roads, now house smaller businesses and warehouse stores and even some artists’ studios.

My maternal great-grandparents and grandparents are buried at Oakland Cemetery. So are two victims of the sinking of the Titanic, Alex and Charity Robins. So is a Yonkers physician named Dr. Charles Leale.  Will wonders never cease? No, they will never cease. It is a world of wonders.

Dr. Leale of Yonkers just happened to be working in Washington for the government in 1865 and just happened to be attending the performance at Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth just happened to shoot and kill Abraham Lincoln; Leale was the first physician to arrive at the side of the mortally wounded president, and Leale took charge of the initial efforts to save Lincoln’s life. The grave of Dr. Leale is located within shouting distance of the grave of Thomas Crooks, who abides in the Crooks family plot a few hundred feet from the wrought-iron gate at the entrance to the cemetery, and I have a photograph of his gravestone. I wonder if  Uncle Thomas and Dr. Charles and the good doctor have any good late-night chats.

Revolutionary War troops march through Yonkers along Mile Square Road. My Italian grandfather takes his young grandson to his second home, the St. Cosmo and St. Damien Club on lower Park Hill, where he plays cards and drinks shots of anisette. The steamer Henry Clay burns and sinks in the river off Yonkers, killing dozens – including the young sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edward Hopper sets up his easel in Getty Square, the old downtown business district. Now, it’s referred to as Ghetto Square. A stagecoach pulls up in front of the old Getty Hotel. The stage coach becomes a trolley. The trolley becomes a bus. Out of the bus step Edgar Allan Poe (who visited Yonkers) the English poet John Masefield (who worked at the carpet mill), the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” (which takes place in Yonkers), TV comedian Sid Caesar and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the singer Mary J. Blige (all born in Yonkers). The last one off the bus is me.

I’m nine years old. It’s winter, so it’s already dark at 5 o’clock as I head home for supper. I walk up Spruce Street, turn left onto Linden Street, then turn right and walk up the steep incline of Elm Street, up past Oak Street, finally turning left onto Walnut Street, blazing a trail through the forest of streets until I’m safe at home. I pause on the front porch and look up at the winter sky. Usually the lights of the city blot out the stars. But tonight I see hundreds of stars. My eyes move from one to another to another, noticing a pattern, recognizing the shapes of letters, realizing that the letters form words, like a marquee in the sky. The marquee proclaims:  WELCOME TO THE CITY OF GRACIOUS LIVING!

City of Gracious Living

When I think about my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, or return to visit my family still living there – usually crossing the Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge and making landfall at Tarrytown, hometown of Rip Van Winkle — I somehow come unstuck in time, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim.

Henry Hudson’s ship is anchored off Yonkers, right where the Nepperhan Creek drains into the Hudson River. At the nearby Yonkers post office, an anonymous clerk is showing up for work – he’s David Berkowitz by day, Son of Sam by night. A talking dog barks and Gene Krupa’s hands blur as he plays his drums in his Park Hill mansion while down the hill on School Street a young girl named Ella Fitzgerald snaps her fingers to the beat. Forty years later, the School Street tenements are gone, replaced by two high-rise public housing towers, and a little boy named Earl Simmons gazes out of a window and twenty years becomes the rapper DMX. An Otis elevator drops down from the clouds and the Musak plays “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” by DMX and out of the elevator struts James Cagney, a Yonkers boy, dressed as George M. Cohan as Yankee Doodle Dandy in a red, white and blue top hat. He’s arm in arm with Linda Lovelace, also a Yonkers girl.  They walk down to the train station, across from the post office, and join the thousands of Yonkers residents who watch and weep as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege passes slowly through, and I’m in the crowd, and Sousa’s band is playing a dirge, and just then I hear a splash – my great-uncle Thomas Crooks is being pulled out a vat of acid by his fellow workers at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill.

The men wrap Thomas in burlap and carry him up the hill to the old St. Joseph’s Hospital – just two blocks away from the Mulford Gardens housing project, where thirty years later I live as a boy and look out from our third-floor window at the city’s crowded hills and dozens of church spires and the gilded dome of City Hall and the dark Palisades cliffs across the Hudson in New Jersey and, shimmering in the distance, the lights of the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge.  As I look out my Mulford Gardens window, I see the other mill workers who have rushed up the Palmer Road hill to fetch Thomas’ mother – Anna Crooks, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. Anna arrives at St. Joseph’s hospital and embraces her burned and dying son. Thomas dies. His skin is red and blistered and peeling off like tissue paper. He’s just twenty-three years old.

I’m twelve years old and I’m a delivery boy for the local daily newspaper, the Yonkers Herald Statesman. The bundle of papers is dropped at the usual corner, a block up from the corner of Palmer Road where the Crooks home stands to this day.  I take one newspaper out of the bundle to read (the customers on my route always complain that their papers come late – now they know why). One headline says MAN WALKS ON MOON. Another says FAREWELL TO LINCOLN. Another says CARPET MILL TO CLOSE. Another says SON OF SAM CAPTURED. Another says MAN HAS PREMONITION OF OWN DEATH. The last headline gets my attention. The article describes how young Thomas Crooks had met his unnamed fiancé for a picnic lunch under a tree at the beautiful old Oakland Cemetery, located across from the carpet mill. According to the article, the work whistle sounded at the mill, and Thomas started to return to work. But “before returning to work, Mr. Crooks turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ “ Fifteen minutes later came my ancestor’s dive into that acid bath. The newspaper article described my great-grandmother’s arrival at the hospital, just in time for her young son’s death. This is the last sentence of the newspaper article: “Mrs. Crooks was burned about the face as she continually kissed her dying son.”

Anna Crooks, mother of Thomas, was my mother’s grandmother. My mother remembers that her Grandma Crooks has tiny scars all around her lips. My mother never knew why her grandmother had those scars until I found a 1928 clipping of that old Yonkers Herald Statesman article. The clipping was tucked into an old family Bible. “They were scars,” I told my mother. “But they were really birthmarks.”

When I visit Yonkers, I see ghosts everywhere I look. They stroll down the street carrying parasols. They drive fast cars past the strip malls along Central Avenue. They sit in the grandstands and watch the sulkies at Yonkers Raceway. They haunt each and every one of Yonkers’ seven hills. Oakland Cemetery is still there, and it’s filled with ghosts. It’s still hauntingly beautiful – wooded, with narrow curving roads winding around the old graves and monuments. It would be a good place to have a picnic lunch with your girlfriend. Oakland Cemetery is hemmed in by the Saw Mill River Parkway to the east, by the tenements of the old Slavic neighborhood to the east (where the onion dome of the Orthodox church testifies to a bygone day), and by the old carpet mill building to the west. It’s not a carpet mill anymore – the Alexander Smith company closed shop years ago, moved to the South for its cheaper labor, and the huge, sprawling, looming buildings, which stretch for blocks along the Nepperhan and Saw Mill River roads, now house smaller businesses and warehouse stores and even some artists’ studios.

My maternal great-grandparents and grandparents are buried at Oakland Cemetery. So are two victims of the sinking of the Titanic, Alex and Charity Robins. So is a Yonkers physician named Dr. Charles Leale.  Will wonders never cease? No, they will never cease. It is a world of wonders.

Dr. Leale of Yonkers just happened to be working in Washington for the government in 1865 and just happened to be attending the performance at Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth just happened to shoot and kill Abraham Lincoln; Leale was the first physician to arrive at the side of the mortally wounded president, and Leale took charge of the initial efforts to save Lincoln’s life. The grave of Dr. Leale is located within shouting distance of the grave of Thomas Crooks, who abides in the Crooks family plot a few hundred feet from the wrought-iron gate at the entrance to the cemetery, and I have a photograph of his gravestone. I wonder if  Uncle Thomas and Dr. Charles and the good doctor have any good late-night chats.

Revolutionary War troops march through Yonkers along Mile Square Road. My Italian grandfather takes his young grandson to his second home, the St. Cosmo and St. Damien Club on lower Park Hill, where he plays cards and drinks shots of anisette. The steamer Henry Clay burns and sinks in the river off Yonkers, killing dozens – including the young sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edward Hopper sets up his easel in Getty Square, the old downtown business district. Now, it’s referred to as Ghetto Square. A stagecoach pulls up in front of the old Getty Hotel. The stage coach becomes a trolley. The trolley becomes a bus. Out of the bus step Edgar Allan Poe (who visited Yonkers) the English poet John Masefield (who worked at the carpet mill), the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” (which takes place in Yonkers), TV comedian Sid Caesar and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the singer Mary J. Blige (all born in Yonkers). The last one off the bus is me.

I’m nine years old. It’s winter, so it’s already dark at 5 o’clock as I head home for supper. I walk up Spruce Street, turn left onto Linden Street, then turn right and walk up the steep incline of Elm Street, up past Oak Street, finally turning left onto Walnut Street, blazing a trail through the forest of streets until I’m safe at home. I pause on the front porch and look up at the winter sky. Usually the lights of the city blot out the stars. But tonight I see hundreds of stars. My eyes move from one to another to another, noticing a pattern, recognizing the shapes of letters, realizing that the letters form words, like a marquee in the sky. The marquee proclaims:  WELCOME TO THE CITY OF GRACIOUS LIVING!