WEEKEND HISTORY: A MEMOIR OF GROWING UP ON THE UWS IN THE 1930’S

Editor’s Note: Lyla Blake Ward has published a memoir called Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye — Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side and she’s graciously allowed us to print one chapter here. You can pick up a copy of the book (it’s worth reading!) at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue, or purchase it online.

Lyla in fur-72dpi
Lyla Blake Ward, bundled up on Broadway in the early 1930’s.

By Lyla Blake Ward

I think the neighborhood we now know as the Upper West Side came into being at around the same time as I did — in 1928, high rise apartment buildings were beginning to crop up along Riverside Drive before the great renovation of the park was even a twinkle in Robert Moses’ eye.

My mother gave birth to me at home, 375 Riverside Drive, so she would not have to be separated from her two older children; my brother George (10) and my sister, June (5). She was a very protective mother.

Very. This meant I didn’t start school until first grade because my mother thought too many germs lurked in kindergarten classrooms. And when I did go to school, at six years old — the City of New York had the final say here — I trotted off to P.S. 54, one block east on Amsterdam Avenue, bundled up to the chin, like Nanook of the North, from September to June. I didn’t know what cold air felt like until I was in high school.

lyla5Our school didn’t have a cafeteria or even a lunch room or gymnasium, for that matter — I don’t know if any other city schools did– so everybody went home for lunch. Some mothers gave their children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or tuna fish (from a can!) — not my mother. When I got home I would find a hot meal on the table — lamb chops (or possibly calf’s liver that I detested but my mother admired for its iron qualities) a baked potato and green peas. Often she sat down with me while I ate, maybe to keep me company; more likely to make sure I ate everything on my plate. Anything less was not acceptable. If I overlooked even a pea or two, I would have to live with the guilt of having wasted food that could have gone to the starving children of India. How it would get there? I never asked.

At 7 or 8 years old, the city, for me, was the block around our apartment house. Without crossing any streets, my friends and I could play hopscotch or jump rope on the sidewalk right outside the door. When we got hot and thirsty from playing, we would go into the corner drugstore with its soda fountain, and try to cajole the soda jerk (sorry, that’s what they were called) into giving us a glass of water. This was a step we took only as a last resort when the elevator man had refused to take us up again having given us three or four rides in the hour before.

I was nine before I was allowed to walk, with my best friend, a few blocks further from home, to 100th Street and Broadway. This was important for two reasons. First, it meant crossing four side streets on our own, and second because on the way we would pass Raymond’s Bakery, where even with the limited funds available to a nine-year-old, one could buy a charlotte russe or a linzer tart cookie.

Our new freedom also extended north 2 blocks to Straus Park, at the intersection of Broadway and West End Avenue at 106th Street. This small area had been named in memory of Isadore and Ida Straus who went down with the Titanic in 1912. (Isadore Strauss was one of the owners of Macy’s.) Their names were engraved on a bronze plaque displayed prominently in the park, but we were not interested in history; the smooth, paved paths were perfect for roller skating. We could walk there on our own, skate for hours, and when we fell and skinned our knees, the mercurochrome was only two blocks away.

At ten, my world began to expand. For every block I walked on my own, there were ten blocks behind, in front or forward, I covered with my sister or brother or mother and father or my teacher when she took us on field trips from school. A favorite destination was The Museum of Natural History where a huge Tyrannasaurus Rex stood in the Fossil Hall. This was supposed to be a major attraction and it was for most of the children. Personally, I kept my eyes half closed when we came to the dinosaurs and the mummies—and turned my attention to the many cases of ancient cooking implements wrought by native Indians or Eskimos.

The museum spanned two city blocks, 77th-79th street on Central Park West and in 1935 gave birth to The Hayden Planetarium. Our second grade class was one of the first to visit the newly opened celestial auditorium, where we learned to identify the planets, and the stars, and the constellations. I formed a special relationship with Orion and the Big Dipper, because they were so easy to spot, whereas I never really warmed up to the little splash of stars astronomers had named the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. Frankly I couldn’t then, and can’t now, tell that splash from any other splash in a star-studded sky.

I knew the city extended way beyond our neighborhood because on hot summer nights, my mother and I would take rides on the Broadway Streetcar with its open sides allowing whatever air was stirring to blow gently across the otherwise steamy trolley. We boarded practically in front of our house and rode to the end of the line—42nd Street and 1st Avenue, at which point, we stood up, the conductor turned the seats around, and we were facing forward again for the return trip (no additional fare.)

camel2
“Camel cigarette advertisement at Times Square.” Photograph from 1943 by John Vachon for the Office of War Information.

On those rides we passed Times Square and its huge billboards: Camel cigarettes– with actual smoke coming out of the pilot’s mouth– the Wrigley’s Gum sign, bigger than life, featuring Spearmint Gum, my flavor in brighter lights than I had ever seen, right up there overlooking the most famous Square in the country. There, too, was the New York Times Building with the news ticker running around the North side of the building.   It was exciting to ride through the theater district — I saw crowds outside the Paramount before Frank Sinatra was old enough to sing there — but at the end of the day, we returned to our neighborhood, that one mile square filled with stores and restaurants, banks and schools — that little piece of Manhattan where I grew up.

HISTORY | 21 comments | permalink
    1. manhattan mark says:

      Lyla, once again you described my early life in exactly the same place where you experienced yours. West End Ave.,
      Broadway, Riverside Drive and the park,P.S.54, 104th St and
      all that followed. I look forward to reading the book. Straus
      Park, where we climbed all over the statue, Armstead Drug store, where my brother was a delivery boy and of course
      the Automat where I set up my little show shine box after
      school…and so much more.

    2. manhattan mark says:

      My previous comment should have said “shoe shine box”,
      not ” show shine box”.

    3. 21D says:

      Lucky children!

    4. KindToStrangers says:

      Wonderful read of a wonderful life! Thank you Lyla. I’m going to go buy the book and retrace your steps–as soon as it gets warm, of course–seeing it as it used to be.

    5. 9d8b7988045e4953a882 says:

      I loved reading this reminiscence. Thanks for sharing it. I was struck by the fact that the city was safe enough for children to be outside on their own. It sounds like it was a nice time in NYC.

    6. naro says:

      were there any muggers, homeless or stabbers in those days? what was the racial composition of the UWS and Harlem?

    7. Steven says:

      More importantly, how was the quality of the produce at Fairway?

    8. manhattan mark says:

      Naro, The largest group was Irish, next was hispanic, then
      jewish, Black, Asian, Italian, etc. No visible homeless
      No muggins. By the 1950’s there were teenage gang
      fights and teenage purse snatchings

    9. Danny I says:

      I too grew up on the UWS although younger than the writer I remember all the locations mentioned. Wouldn’t trade where I grew up for “all the tea on China”. Can’t wait to purchase the book and take a walk “down Memory Lane”

    10. Eileen Martinson Lavine says:

      I had a similar youth, living from 1925 at 800 West End Ave. at 99th St. My father’s medical office was on the first floor, and we walked to P.S. 93 at 93rd and Amsterdam from kindergarten through 9th grade. I took the trolley alone when I was about 10 down to my grandfather’s office at 44th St. and Madison,and he took me to lunch at the Automat’s – heaven! We took the trolley in the opposite direction to 125th St., transferred to another, to visit my grandmother at 170th and Amsterdam. I even took the subway myself at age 11 to visit a camp friend in Brooklyn.

    11. Vivian says:

      Love this, thank you so much for sharing!

    12. Always an UWS gal says:

      Lyla, Which building did you live in on 104th Street? I bought your book and am enjoying it. Can’t wait to share it with my Dad.

    13. JON BACCO says:

      o m g this was wonderful thank you so much for sharing it. I have to get the book. I always loved new york and the old history. Those were good days .

    14. Alan A Fleischer says:

      We are almost the same age: 88.

      800 WEST END AVE then
      125 West 76 st. then
      150 West 80 st then
      235 West End Ave then
      585 West End Ave then
      222 West 83 st then
      Queens then
      180 Riverside Dr.then
      Westchester now
      New Canaan, CT

    15. lyla ward says:

      I lived at 245 West 104th St.–the Armstead, from about 1931-1939.

    16. lyla ward says:

      I lived in Stamford for many years then New Canaan and Wilton–so we, roughly, took the same path.

    17. manhattan mark says:

      Lyla, Welcome back to the neighborhood…

    18. Always an UWS gal says:

      Lyla, that’s my building too! My family and I lived there from 1968 – 2015!

    19. Rosalind "Roz" (Steinberg) Rosenbluth says:

      Lyla – You and I were attending P.S 54 at the same time — I lived on 105th Street and Broadway from 1935 to 1940, 2 short blocks from that school. I believe it was 1938 when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the building, complete with slide shows of its beginnings, including bicycles with those high front wheels.
      You mentioned lots of familiar places — I’m sure we could go on infinitum naming them — but you didn’t mention one of my favorite haunts, the public library on 100th Street (right near the Police Precinct building). When we started the girls-only Joan of Arc Junior High down on 93rd, we were entitled to purchase $1 monthly bus passes to ride to and from school (and any other places during daylight hours, including the library).
      Because of the “Rapid Advancement” classes at junior high, we finished 3 years of classes in 2, and a brand-new, high-rise elevator building, to be co-ed, replaced the old Joan of Arc by our final semester before moving on to high school. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the “Little Flower,” was present both at the groundbreaking and our graduation, the first to be held there. Believe it or not, we had one male in the entire first graduating class.
      I haven’t seen the old neighborhood for years, but we did have fun on the streets and in the nearby parks. By the way, back then, we never heard of “hopscotch.” It was “potsy,”and anyone who didn’t grow up in Manhattan has EVER heard of it, from my experience.
      Best wishes on your writings.

    20. lyla ward says:

      Was Lennie, the elevator man still there?

    21. manhattan mark says:

      Lyla, Lennie the doorman was still there in the 50’s, I’m not
      sure if he still ran the elevator.