Part Three: Early Bronx Memories (More Woodycrest)

October 26th, 2015 § 0 comments

One of HG’s sharpest Great Depression memories (circa 1935-37) is of clusters of men gathered each day in front of 1210 Woodycrest Avenue, the Bronx apartment house where HG and family lived. The men were dressed in coats, suits, shirts and ties, shined shoes, fedora hats. That’s the way men dressed in those days. Sportswear hadn’t been invented and only cowboys or laborers wore jeans.They smoked cigarettes. They were unemployed but neatly dressed in case a job interview came up. Unlikely. But, they were prepared. A grim time. HG’s older brother, Bernard, found a job as a bartender at the Topps restaurant on W. 42nd Street. Then he worked in the stock room of a luggage manufacturer. Bernard was always unlucky, a rat bit him and he became the last recorded typhus victim in New York. Later he worked as a salesman in the fur district. Saved money. Studied optometry at Columbia. Became an optometrist and lived and practiced optometry in Atlanta from 1941 until his death a few years ago (Some 14 years older than HG, he was proud that he supplied eye glasses for Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. King Jr’s father–who he called “Daddy” King–and all other members of the King family and their congregants). In 1937, HG’s late sister, Beulah Naomi, graduated high school at the age of 15 and immediately went to work as a bookkeeper for a fur coat manufacturer. At night she attended City College of New York at the 23rd Street branch (now known as Baruch College). The family weathered the Great Depression. The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936. Politically left wing (but not Communist), HG’s family supported vigorously the Loyalists who battled the Fascists. Some of HG’s brother’s friends joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and went to Spain to fight. Little HG was shocked by the bombing by German and Italian warplanes of the Basque village of Guernica. The vision of death from the skies haunted HG. Picasso, of course, responded to the bombing by painting Guernica, his huge, moving anti-war work of art. (Completed in 1937). In later years, HG always viewed Guernica at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Very moving. Viewed Guernica again after it was moved to the Reina Sofia Museum In Madrid. HG and BSK agreed, It still had a powerful impact.

Woodycrest Avenue (and much of The Bronx) began to deteriorate in the 1960’s and by the 1970’s became dangerous and decayed. In the 1970’s HG’s public relations firm was retained by a Bronx-based elevator repair and maintenance company. It became HG’s mission to dramatize the dangers of the elevators in bedraggled Bronx apartment houses. The aim was to force the city to enforce vigorously safety codes regarding elevators. Of course, this would mean increased business for elevator repair and maintenance firms. At the time, HG worked closely with Carl Stokes, the African-American ex-Mayor of Cleveland and then an NBC-TV anchorman and reporter. The elevator story that Stokes reported on for NBC centered on HG’s childhood home, 1210 Woodycrest Avenue. The place was in desperate shape. Glass doors had been replaced by plywood sheets smeared with graffiti. The lobby was filled with debris. Corridors were filthy. The elevator barely functioned. The program created action. Elevator inspections and enforcement became more frequent in The Bronx and other boroughs.

At the time, Woodycrest Avenue was the home of a folk hero, idolized by some of The Bronx’s impoverished African-American population. He was Larry Davis, an alleged murderer and drug dealer. Davis, his mother, brothers, relatives and a group of friends lived in a frame house on Woodycrest. (Many of the inhabitants wound up in prison). In 1986, Davis was at his sister’s home in the East Bronx. Davis was wanted for murder. Six police officers burst into the apartment. Davis answered with gunfire. A number of officers were wounded (some seriously) before he was captured. At his trial, Davis was represented by William Kunstler, a flamboyant attorney who represented many left wing radicals and anti-Vietnam War activists (including the “Chicago Seven”).. Kunstler claimed that Davis sold drugs for corrupt police officers. Davis said the officers were going to kill him before he could inform on their activities. Thus, his actions could be defined as self defense. The jury acquitted him. Later, he went to prison on a murder charge and was killed by a fellow inmate in 2008.

Woodycrest and its environs have changed through the years. It is now a Dominican neighborhood with some Puerto Rican and African-American residents. Much of the housing has been renovated (including 1210). Two architectural landmarks in the art deco style have been preserved and revitalized. They are the eight-story Noonan Towers (939 Woodycrest Avenue) and the remarkable group of buildings, Noonan Plaza on W. 168th Street. Both were built in the late 1920’s by developer Bernard Noonan. The Noonan Plaza complex was little HG’s vision of paradise. It was entered by a gate manned by an imposing fellow with a colorful cape. The buildings were white brick art deco. The courtyard had a waterfall, streams adorned with Japanese bridges and graceful swans who glided on he water. HG visited Noonan Plaza with HG’s sister (a high school friend lived there). HG was astonished by the big living rooms, bathrooms with colorful tiles and built-in tubs, kitchens that were the height of Moderne. Tragically, Noonan Plaza disintegrated. But, fortunately, the city stepped in before it disappeared. A very ambitious restoration program made it sought after housing for lower income families. No, the swans and waterfall are gone. But, Noonan Plaza lives. HG doesn’t know what has happened to another great art deco masterpiece in the neighborhood, the Park Plaza apartment house on Jerome Avenue. Built between 1929-31, it faces Mullaly Park. Its facade is adorned with remarkable gargoyles and terra cotta plaques. The architect was the late Horace Ginsbern who designed some 137 Bronx apartment houses as well as many Manhattan buildings. The late Julien J. Studley, who loved architecture (HG wrote about him recently), bought the building at one point. Fascinated by its design, Julien, an optimist, thought he could effectively maintain the building despite the strictures of rent control. He was wrong. Quickly sold the building. The Woodycrest neighborhood is improving (still a bit dangerous, however). At one time, it was composed of estates where the gentry rode to the hounds. Woodycrest Avenue was part of the Marcher estate. The Marchers loved Shakespeare and created formal gardens with busts of Shakespeare and characters from his plays. All that remains of their interest is Woodycrest’s neighboring street: Shakesepeare Avenue.

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