WEEKEND HISTORY: WHEN THE MIDDLE OF BROADWAY WAS A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

broadway median
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.

HISTORY | 30 comments | permalink
    1. ScooterStan says:

      Re: “The Upper West Side … 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.”

      HOW IRONIC, for it was the very same “MasterBuilder” Moses who, decades later, would seek to destroy a Central Park playground, according to this site’s 2013 story .

      From that story: “Mothers … would often sit on the benches along the outside of the playground fence, from which they could keep an eye on children playing both inside the playground and in the landscape.”

      Moses wanted to turn that playground into a PARKING LOT for Tavern on the Green, but didn’t count on a hornet’s nest of outraged UWS mothers who helped defeat the plan.

      Supposedly that Battle of the Central Park Mothers was ONE of the factors contributing to Mr. Moses eventual fall from power.

      Again, full story here:

      • Paul RL says:

        Good points, Scooter. And while Moses had initiated some good projects early on, he turned into a highly destructive (and nearly invincible) force in shaping the NYC we have today. His expressways shredded neighborhoods, and his monolithic, penitentiary-like housing projects ripped the hearts out of our friendly street grids. Urban planning at its worst, and we are suffering with his effects to this day.

        Read Robert Caro’s excellent biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker” to understand how the NYC in which we live and drive now came to be.

        • Nelson says:

          “Power Broker” is an amazing feat of Biography. I believe Mr. Caro was then a resident in the West 60s at the time of its writing/publication. Another UWSer!

        • jezbel says:

          I heartily agree…. the PowerBroker should be mandatory reading for every New Yorker who wants to know about the history of this City. The book has been around for decades, but it is truly amazing. Robert Moses was ingenious and at the same time extremely divisive.

      • D.R. says:

        There is an incisive portrait of Moses, with heavy participation by Robert Caro in the site that I include below. It begins at 46:00 of the video.

        Some of the points that it expands on are:

        — That Moses bears responsibility for the flight of the whites and the middle class to the boroughs and the suburbs.

        — That the key to understanding Bob Moses lies in knowing that he *didn’t care about people*: He reserved his passion for automobiles (49:10).

        — According to Caro (at 1:12:50), Moses, who knew he could never be elected into public office, kept his grasp on power by creating for himself an unelected “fourth branch of the government” via the Public Authority, where money flowed in for his own projects.

        — Caro pauses to envision the pain that poor Black mothers must have felt in knowing that Moses had created 255 playgrounds, but located only two of them in the Black areas where their little children played.

        — In the end, when Mayor LaGuardia decided to rein in the tyrant by denying him a position in the Housing Authority, Moses began to refer to the Mayor as “that little organ grinder” and “that dago son of a b_ _ _ _.”

        As LaGuardia faced his death, Caro tells us (Episode 7 at 12:23), he confided to a friend his misgivings about the City’s future: Moses wielded too much power, the Mayor confessed.
        “You gave it to him,” the friend reproached.
        “I know,” LaGuardia answered. “But *I * could control him.”

        Commentators refer to Moses as ferocious and a bully with a savage will. But the video also concedes his genius in envisioning highways that were sculpted works of art, achieving road-building as was never known before, with innovation that would spread throughout the nation and, eventually, the world — for better or worse

        The video depicts a New York seemingly married to Moses, with children that now have to live in the house that Moses created.
        I hope that you will get a chance to view it; it is engrossing and enlightening.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KYg7wjWBPs

    2. Giovanni says:

      I wish we could go back to thse days when people would meet in “The Middle.” Back when people met face to face, good manners were the norm, and as you got to know the people in the neghborhood you came to appreciate them, evenif their opinions were not the same as your own.

      Today when people meet on West Side Rag and many other websites, for some folks there is no middle, there are only extremes, and their vitriol flies at the drop of a hat. Too many discussions go off topic from the start, with a lots of unwaranted, hateful comments and name-calling. But wouldnt it be nice if we could meet in the middle, just like the residents of the past? Wouldn’t that be a saner way to spend our time?

      I grew up on the UWS and the UES, and have also lived downtown. New York’s neigborhoods have all changed, but the tone and tenor on the UWS seems to have changed the most. There is no more meeting in The Middle, not when you can post anonymous insults on a website without risk of becomng a social outcast or getting a punch in the nose, as would have happened in times past when people met face to face and were forced to display at least some manners.

      After reading far too many attacks here and elsewhere, I’ve had enough. It’s time for us to return to the middle, to be more polite and tolerant of those we might not agree with. It’s time for people to stop hijacking discussions with their political agendas. I thought we were here to learn and talk about local news? If people can’t find ther way back to the middle — which doesn’t mean you have to agree with everyone, just respect them as you also want to be respected — then this website will probably be forced do what so many others have had to do by banning those who abuse the privilege of posting, and heavily moderating discussions, which can sometimes stifle discussion. I just hope we can find our way back to the middle before it’s too late.

      • grandmasterbeta says:

        thanks to comment sections and partisan news, there’s not a lot of middle ground, true. But I think it will one day return. When people get fed up. Or we’ll blow each other up. Who knows…

        • 9d8b7988045e4953a882 says:

          I actually enjoy the exchange of different viewpoints. We don’t all have to agree on everything.

      • lis says:

        Agree with your comment.
        But perhaps one reason for the conflict on the UWS is – as elsewhere in NYC – the increasing loss of the middle, ie the middle class demographic?

        Fairly rapidly, especially over the past 10 years or so, there has been a large number of wealthier households moving into an area that was largely middle class for decades. And there seem to be definite differences in preference and expectations. And diminishment of common factors…

        Not so long ago, the East Side was the neighborhood of the really affluent – and wealthy people moved there.

        • senyc says:

          Yes, yes and yes!! As a born and bred UWSer, it is beyond sad to see its current state. Very, very few native UWSers remain, the wealthy have taken over, it looks like an UES/suburban hybrid. Sadly, the UWS is no longer part of NYC….

      • Walden Pond says:

        Giovanni: This very website had to close down the comments section last year due to all the negativity and vitriol. At the time the blog asked for people to be more civil when they reopened the comments, and pretty soon it was back to normal with a few regular posters arguing and pushing their political agendas, especially against DeBlasio who they blame for everything.

        I have never seen so much bickering on a local blog, usually you see it on facebook or NY magazine which has been taken over by angry trolls. Even NYMag.com has started to moderate comments on certain topics that bring out the loonies. It ruins it for everyone else when they keep posting the same thing over and over. I don’t know what kind of advertisers this blog wants to attract but maybe a few psycolanalysts or anger managment therapists could do good business here, I’m sure the rest could do without all the anger. I agree, lets get back to the middle in terms of civility, at least it that would save me money on blood pressure medications.

      • D.R. says:

        I have the following response, Giovanni:

        1 I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I would risk becoming “a social outcast or getting punched in the nose” for expressing my views.

        2 If we all “found our way to the middle,” then we would all be conformists; we would have no differences that we would want exposed. (And, also, in this City of diversity, who would lay out exactly where the “middle” is?)

        3 There * are * comments submitted to the WSR that do get blocked and edited, I’ve learned.

        4 I find, Giovanni, that you can largely avoid comments that may offend: One way is to bypass those under stories where they are likely to group (e.g., those about crime). Another way is to take lightly, or skip entirely, comments from posters whom you feel usually submit angry or mindless messages.

        5 The entire West Side of this vertical city cannot be judged by posters. Research shows that only 1% of the population submits comments to blogs. In addition, I have noticed that a number of comments are sent by those living in other parts of the City; indeed, some that I’ve read originated from as far away as Arkansas and even California.
        Have a great Labor Day!

        • Henry Hudson says:

          Add reading comprehension to the list of pet peeves on comment actions. Giovanni specifically said he does not mean that being in “The Middle” means we all have the same opinion but thy we respect each other’s opinions. Taking time to read and understand people’s opinions also means not dashing off a laundry list of comments that carelessly disregard or misinterpret what others are saying. We can all learn more civility but that means listening before we speak.

      • NativeNYer says:

        Beautifully said Giovanni.
        You grew up in NYC as did I.
        I believe the vitriol spewed from some posters on this site are not native New Yorkers.

    3. manhattan mark says:

      Lyla, it’s good to see your interest in the benches in the
      middle of Broadway. Just like the” Marble Season” that I responded to two years age, I also share the same memories
      of the benches…my grandmother who got here in 1882 was
      a regular on the 104th street benches as were her daughters who got too old to make it all the way to the eastside of
      Broadway in a single green light. I’m still looking forward
      to a copy of the “Marnle Season” book.

      • lyla ward says:

        I remember you, Mark–Actually “The Middle” will be included in my book, “Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye–Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side” that is scheduled to come out early next year..

        • manhattan mark says:

          Lyla, I look forward to reading the book and all the memories
          it will bring back to me. Thanks for remembering me.

    4. jezbel says:

      I think the days of “Needle Park” are not so far behind us that people are willing to literally meet in the middle anymore. True those benches were cleaned up from the junkies who used to live there and sleep on seats — but now they’re filling with the homeless who have merely been shuffled from one bench to another during the day and who sleep just about anywhere at night. Not a good place to have a chat with friends.

      • Sean says:

        The panic in needle park was roughly 45 years ago. People sit on benches all up and down Broadway. Only the area surrounding the subway at 72nd is truly a mess. The newer station is simply not maintained and Verdi Square is a mess. Direct your distain to the Parks Dept. and the MTA and the booksellers of course.

        • jezbel says:

          The movie “Panic in Needle Park” with Al Pacino was, I think in the early 1970’s but that didn’t clean up the areas where junkies and homeless slept on the benches sometimes all day and all night. It wasn’t confined to Verdi Park, it was all up and down Broadway during the 1970’s and to some extent in the earl 1980’s. This part of town was very different back then under the Beame and Koch administrations. I lived on the UWS up in the 90’s near CPW because I was young and it was affordable. Almost all of Amsterdam Avenue was unsafe in broad daylight. And if you lived in the 80’s or 90’s some blocks were safe and some were run by gangs who lived on a particular block. The 60’s and most of the 70’s were always pretty good. But the benches on Broadway were iffy, street by street.

    5. Reader says:

      A photo from the time period would have been nice.

    6. Claire says:

      Those malls are where people sleep and get high. They’re a great place to keep an eye out for police.

    7. Upper West Sider says:

      I feel bad for people that have nothing better to do than sit in the middle of Broadway and watch cars go by all day.

      • Independent says:

        Why, how sporting of you.

        Also, it’s not only cars that go by. Many people (and dogs) do too.

        • Independent says:

          Perhaps I should explain that the sarcastic manner in which I responded to Upper West Sider’s comment (expressing pity for those who sit on the Broadway mall) was because I took it to be an expression of snobbery and disdain for the elderly and less-fortunate (both of which have been clearly present in any number of other comments that I have seen at this site).
          If I was wrong in this interpretation; if Upper West Sider was sincere and driven by compassion in his expression of pity, then I apologize.

          • D.R. says:

            I didn’t think of it that way(?).
            In any case, it’s sad, and there are volunteers who will sit down in the homes of the lonely and just devote time to chatting with them.

      • D.R. says:

        I feel for them too. I think that, maybe, they have no A/C; that they can’t make it any further – to the two parks. They can’t afford to sit in a coffee shop or café. (And north of 73rd Street, there are no atriums or little parks on Broadway.) They don’t have a computer, or maybe even a TV. They don’t read and, in some cases, never learned to read. They have no one to visit, and no place, or no one to invite. They have no community activity that gives them pleasure or joy and that they can reach without an assistant.

        They sit on benches that are not the cleanest and could harbor bed bugs, beside a median with rats and often with birds over their heads. They breathe carbon monoxide and are drowned in traffic noise. They are unhealthily exposed to the sun.

        I think that there are services (some that deliver food) with volunteers that are willing to sit home with them and just talk. I feel for them too.

    8. Independent says:

      “NativeNYer” wrote,

      I believe the vitriol spewed from some posters on this site are not native New Yorkers.

      Native New Yorkers“?

      Do you happen to be a descendant of the American Indians who originally inhabited New York?

      As far as the rest of us, didn’t we all either come from somewhere else at some point or are desceneded from someone who did?

      Aren’t we a “City of Immigrants”?

      What is particularly remarkable and instructive here is that the individuals making these comments about “Native New Yorkers” are almost certainly the very same people who would derisively dismiss the many Americans who support the patriotic, sensible and just immigration policy* that Donald Trump has been articulating during this campaign as (among other things), “nativists“.

      Am I wrong?

      (*One that dares to place the interests of American citizens, and, especially, the American worker, ahead of foreign invaders.)

      “senyc” wrote,

      Very, very few native UWSers remain, the wealthy have taken over, it looks like an UES/suburban hybrid. Sadly, the UWS is no longer part of NYC….

      Ah, so now, in addition to those who are not “native New Yorkers“, we can add those who are not “native UWSers“, those who hail from the Upper East Side, those who hail from suburbia as well as those who are wealthy to the list of those who have been singled-out for disdain, contempt and scorn in this thread. By my count, that makes no fewer than five distinct categories of human beings. And all this in comments that were made in support of a post that complained of, “vitriol”, “unwaranted [sic], hateful comments and name-calling”, “insults”, “attacks”, “political agendas” and a lack of treating others with respect, “as you also want to be respected”.

      Incidentally, although beside the point, I will note for the record that I, for one, was born to longtime Upper West Side residents and raised here. (Since the hospital where I was actually born was located on the Upper East Side, to state that I was “born on the UWS” would, technically, be incorrect.)