Before Parkchester

The Holy Angels School -- the car is the travelling library operated by the NY Public Library.  Unionport Road between Hoguet and Storrow Streets.
The Holy Angels School, 1938. The parked car at left is a travelling library operated by the NY Public Library. Unionport Road between Hoguet and Storrow Streets.

Before Parkchester was Parkchester, and before the Bronx was even officially the Bronx, Parkchester was the site of The New York Catholic Protectory, an orphanage for boys and girls.

At the end of the Civil War a sharp rise of children found themselves abandoned and living on the streets. In 1861, the Protectory, outgrowing its Lower East Side location, came up to the country and farmland — The Bronx (then, the area was the town Van Nest in Westchester county) and set up the school and dormitories for the children.

The boys and the girls were taught a trade so they’d be employable once released. (Many of the boys were tough kids living by their own set of rules and often ran away from the Protectory.) The boys  learned letterpress printing, chair caning, shoemaking, baking, carpentry, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, farming, gardening. The girls learned to embroider, cook and make gloves.

The uniforms they wore were sewn by them in their tailoring department. And the shoes they wore, each child had two pairs, were cobbled on site too.

The boys even had a functioning fire department. But they weren’t able to save the girls’ building when it caught fire in 1875. It was destroyed, but the girls got out safely.

Semi-pro baseball teams rented the fields on the Protectory site for games. High Schooler Lou Gehrig played there with his High School of Commerce team against Dewitt-Clinton. On game days, the number of boys that would most likely run off would drop considerably.

Unionport Road looking south from East Tremont Ave. New York Catholic Protectory, May 1938.
Unionport Road looking south from East Tremont Ave. New York Catholic Protectory, May 1938.

Around 1938, a developer from the Starrett Corporation, a Mr. Robert Dowling, went about looking for land. Seventy-five sites later, he found the land owned by the Protectory. His assessment was that the buildings were “outmoded and dangerously inflammable”. According to his profile in a 1960 New Yorker article, Mr. Dowling, a Protestant, never revealed to the fathers in charge at the Protectory who he was representing. He convinced them that if they sold the site to him, they could find a more cheerful site somewhere else. Mr. Dowling’s company paid five million dollars for the land. He secured the equivalent of fifty-five city square blocks for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company project: Parkchester, the world’s largest apartment house community. The Protectory was razed completely. No original buildings exist.

I worked with a woman who confided in me that she’d grown up in a protectory on Staten Island in the late 1950’s. She was dropped off when she was two years old with her older brother and sister. Her mother had nine children and could not care for all of them.

My friend told me she was allowed to go home certain weekends and holidays, or sometimes she and her siblings would sneak off and go to their mother’s apartment on E. 8th Street, in Manhattan to spend the weekend. My friend was often in trouble for talking or for her “fresh” mouth. She said the nuns would always tell her, “This is going in your file.”

This elusive file was held over her head the entire 15 years she lived there. And she never saw it. Until, seven or eight years ago, her brother got hold of the file. It is 1 1/2″ thick. She showed it to me. Inside are pages, single spaced typewritten pages — daily records of her activities: her “fresh” mouth incidences, her trips to the infirmary, phone call logs, conversations with her mother (who had moved 28 times in ten years all around Manhattan and the Bronx). But the records are not the work of the nuns. In fact only one or two pages addressed my friend’s “fresh mouth”. The records were kept by the social worker assigned to her family’s case. It is a fascinating yet gut wrenching account of her life, not even the most dutiful mother or father could have kept such a detailed daily diary. I told my friend that that file is an odd and extraordinary gift. She said yes it’s true.

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Four Bronx Women

In recent weeks, I have turned my lens and my ears toward a few Bronx women whose talents and community projects have impressed me.

Emily Rodriguez, Soprano and Bronx student, performs with the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Quartet.
Emily Rodriguez, Soprano and Bronx student, performs with the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Quartet.

Emily Rodriguez
Soprano / Student at Celia Cruz High School of Music

Ms. Rodriguez performed Mozart’s “Alleluia” accompanied by the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Quartet earlier this year.  We went to the Ensemble’s January concert and it was really lovely, held in a private home in Riverdale.  The Bronx Arts Ensemble often features young Bronx musicians in their concerts. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to expose My Favorite 15 Year Old to chamber music.  And it was — she enjoyed hearing and seeing someone close to her own age. Ms. Rodriguez appeared quite at ease singing to a packed room, which included her school’s principal.  Sitting next to us, a young man wearing a badge that read “Press — Celia Cruz High School” commented to his friend, “She gave me goose bumps.”

Last month, I attended the discussion, “Civil Rights in the Bronx: Past and Present”, as part of The Bronx is Building lecture series presented by the Bronx African-American History Project at Fordham University. The panel happened to be an all women line up, with two women from local chapters of the NAACP (which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year) and South Bronx community activist Majora Carter.  I was especially excited to hear Ms. Carter as I’ve followed her story shortly after she was awarded the “genius” prize — a MacArthur fellowship in 2005, for her work in her Hunts Point community.

Beverly Roberts, Shirley Fearon and Majora Carter, panelists at the lecture "Civil Rights Activism in the Bronx: Past and Present."
Beverly Roberts, Shirley Fearon and Majora Carter, panelists at the lecture "Civil Rights Activism in the Bronx: Past and Present."

Beverly Roberts
President / NAACP, Parkchester Branch

From the time it was built in 1938 until the early 1970s, the Parkchester housing complex had no residents of color.  Ms. Roberts noted that it was the National Urban League who sued the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Parkchester’s owner, for their “whites only” policy.  The NAACP Parkchester branch, established in 1974, provided support to families with integration of schools in the area.  Ms. Roberts said further, “All people of color, newly arrived in the United States, have benefited from the NAACP.”

Shirley Fearon
President / NAACP, Williamsbridge Branch

Ms. Fearon recalled her first act of defending civil rights as a young girl in her Williamsbridge neighborhood. She joined her father and other blacks in the community in picketing the five and dime store on 216th Street.  It was 1959 and no black women were working there. The moderator Professor Mark Naison, noted this with particular interest commenting that demonstrations and picketing by black Bronxites is not readily known.  Today the Williamsbridge chapter brings programs into local schools that teach students about Black History.

Majora Carter
President and CEO / Marjora Carter Group

Ms. Carter started off by commenting on the name of the lecture series, “The Bronx is Building”.  She said, “As someone who lived in the South Bronx when it was burning, I am so happy to see the word ‘building’ in reference to the Bronx.” Ms. Carter has built bold strategies to improve the quality of life in her Hunts Point, South Bronx community, where residents are saddled with high asthma rates and live side by side with the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center which brings semi trucks into the area on a daily basis. In the late 1990’s, Ms. Carter placed herself front and center in opposition of the city’s plan to bring a waste treatment plant into her community’s back yard.  Her efforts have brought “green” jobs into the South Bronx and she secured a $1.25M federal grant to design a South Bronx Greenway along the Bronx River for parks and recreational use.  Ms. Carter, said during the lecture that “Environmental justice is the civil rights of the 20th century.”

If you have not seen it already, Ms. Carter’s talk at the TED conference (Technology , Entertainment, Design) is brilliant.  She is passionate, she is bold and she is honest. And she puts a challenge directly to Vice President Gore that is so daring but necessary.

Onward and Upward!

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In Case of an Emergency

BxM6 Express Bus on Metropolitan Avenue.
BxM6 Express Bus on Metropolitan Ave.

My Favorite 15 Year Old stepped off the BxM6 Express Bus last Friday afternoon with a garment bag draped over one arm holding a party dress and an ivory trench coat.  Saturday night she was going to a Hollywood glam Sweet 16 party of an old grade school chum she hadn’t seen since “for years”.  I held the umbrella over her head, so that her party hair would keep.

But it wasn’t until a half an hour later, with me standing in the kitchen over a pot of water waiting for it to boil, {of course it was not} that she came to me saying, “Uhh…I think I forgot my wallet on the bus.”

— Anything of value in it? I asked her.
— No, just my student metro card, another regular metro card and twenty bucks.
— No ID? I asked.
— No ID.
She was carrying her school ID separately.

I’ll just narrate over the montage: in the next hour we would make two round trip trips, on foot in the rain, to Hugh Grant Circle up Metropolitan Avenue to the Oval and then back home with the hopes of catching the bus driver making his return trip to Parkchester.
No such luck.
One Manhattan bound driver gave me an apologetic look and the bus schedule, instructing me to call the number on the back for the MTA lost and found.

On the way home we walked in silence, our minds fixed in thought, mine on something warm and drinkable.
My cell phone rang.
Here was my F15YO’s grandmother, reporting that she’d just received a call from a driver of the BxM6 Express Bus and that a wallet had been found with her name to call in case of an emergency. And could we make arrangements with the driver to get the wallet back as he really didn’t want to leave it with the MTA lost and found?

I asked my F15YO what was this emergency card?
She was already laughing and told me how it got in her wallet:
When we went to the Obama Inauguration, we each carried a card with an emergency contact person and the name of the nearest DC Metro subway stop where we’d meet in case we got separated, pulled apart or left behind while taking too many photos (that would almost be me).
Absolutely nothing grave happened to us that day.
It was a glorious day and our Inauguration Emergency Cards were never tried out.
Until now, over a month later, back home in the Bronx.

In the next hour, the Big Guy drove out to Coop City where the MTA driver proffered the wallet before taking the bus back to the depot for the night.

Happy Ending!

Yesterday, I was buying Happy Birthday balloons at the corner 99 cents store.
As the guy tied the ends, I noticed on the the countertop, a heap of keys with several store discount badges on its ring.
— Someone forgot their keys?, I asked.
— Yes! For three days they’ve been there.  I don’t know who to call, there’s no information, no number there.

Ah ha, no emergency contact card, but plenty of opportunities to get a dollar off a half gallon of Häagen-Dazs or 79 cents off the 32 oz Spic N Span.

So I’m sending a Big Bronx Thank You! to the BxM6 passenger who found our F15YO’s wallet and turned it over to the driver, to the MTA driver of the BxM6 with the foresight to not turn over the wallet to the MTA’s Lost and {Never to be} Found, but for making the effort to contact us directly.
And to the guy at the 99 cents store, for his expressed intent to get the keys back to their owner, if only he knew who to contact.

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