The Broadway median today. Photo by Stephen Harmon.
By Lyla Ward
The Upper West Side in the 1930’s and early 1940’s didn’t lack for park benches where mothers could sit with other mothers and chat while their children played on grassy areas Robert Moses had provided in his Grand Plan for Riverside Drive Park. For those families who lived closer to Central Park, plenty of benches stood in country-like areas, and afternoons saw residents resting on similar benches,visiting with neighbors and friends.
Many older people, mostly women, did not choose to walk the two or three blocks east or west of Broadway to a park—instead they left their homes in the morning or after lunch and headed for The Middle, a grassy strip of land, fenced on the sides and paved at each end, that separated uptown from downtown traffic on Broadway; the street car tracks stood on either side of it. And at each crossing, from 72nd to a least 115th, there were two wide benches where elderly residents sat and passed the time talking to each other about their children, their grandchildren and “the old country. “ Although the “old country” was not the same for all of them, they were able to communicate using a language common to all—Yiddish.
My grandmother was one of these ladies. Having come to America from Hungary as a young bride, she and her husband (my grandfather) settled in St.Louis. Missouri, where, despite the fact grandpa was an itinerant Cantor, they had nine children over the course of fifteen years. Widowed at a young age, grandma Regina, moved the family to New York City. The oldest daughter, Marguerite, in her early twenties, became the chief breadwinner. Working in retailing, she soon was promoted to buyer of women’s dresses and eventually owner of a retail store on Madison Avenue. As the brothers and sisters moved away, Marguerite, who remained single, made a home for her mother and herself on the Upper West Side not far from where our family lived. It was there my grandmother joined her friends bundled up against the cold or protected from the heat, to reminisce or commiserate about what was going on in their lives.
Nobody is quite sure who actually planned “The Middle,” but for these women and many who came after them, these oases were truly a “mitzvah.”
Read more of Lyla Ward’s memories of growing up on the Upper West Side in the 1930’s and 40’s here.