by Ruth Horowitz
When the Horowitzes arrived on 44th Street in 1949, not much was noticeably different in terms of the house we moved into; in fact, it was an exact copy of the 46th Street house we had just left: 3 bedrooms upstairs, a living room, dining room, very small kitchen on the first floor, with a semi-finished basement below. Nor did the street hold any surprises either. There were the same houses and alleyways, the same sturdy sycamore trees, and a similarly configured courtyard outside the back door.
Because all the backyards were visible to everyone else in the courtyard and could be easily visited from the walkway that bordered the center common, gardening was a major source of pleasure and a way to socialize with your neighbors. Lincoln Court, bounded by 44th, 45th and Barnett Avenue (always called 39th Avenue in the day), was a beautiful, well-maintained courtyard that bespoke a spare aesthetic and an upward-striving sensibility, well-kept and tidy.
Each separate small backyard was hedged in, and the path around the center lawn invited people to walk about and visit one another. These strolls happened on weekends and holidays when folks, off from work, came out onto their back porches to relax. We knew the neighbors on our side of the courtyard well, and related often to them over the hedges that divided properties: The Metcalfs and the Murphys on one side, the Cutillos, the Plimacks and the Stewarts, on the other. Small talk over hedges might include the weather of the day, the weather to come, and chat about gardens and gardening techniques. Sunnyside, in this respect, resembled a small town, and bonds over hedges seemed inviolable as people grew to know one another over time.
My mother loved to work in her handkerchief garden. She’d spend whatever spare time she had on weekends caring for her flower bed. I never took an interest, but I also sensed that she liked being alone to tend the hyacinth beans she planted each year and which twined around the black metal balustrade on our concrete porch. Small as our lawn was – probably no more than 10’X12’ - it accommodated a mulberry tree in one corner, and a hedge that separated it from our neighbors’ and the common walkway. One year, my mother spent a hot sunny day planting out individual Meyer Zoysia plugs to create a new lawn. We all applauded her effort as it filled in with new growth, but it looked pretty much like crab grass in the end.
When we arrived in 1949, there had been a Rose of Sharon bush between our back porch and the Cutillos’ next door, and both families tended it. At some point, tired of cleaning up the dead blossoms that fell along the flagstone path, my mom conferred with Phyllis, and it was agreed to take down the Rose of Sharon and replace it with a Golden Chain tree. The Golden Chain was delicate and beautiful, and didn’t drop any blossoms. Neighborly bonds were forged through such simple joint decisions.
A few backyards down the row, Mrs. Stewart had her own little paradise, the crown jewel of which was an azalea bush that appeared year to year in a sudden flame of fuschia out of the lawn’s emerald green. A carefully tended rock garden wound around the base of Mrs. Stewart’s patio, and in the middle of this tight mix stood a very tall “Canadian” maple tree, many years old. Mrs. Stewart’s little plot was stunning, and attested to her very special gardening talent and her work ethic.
One year, Mrs. Stewart decided to have her maple tree cut down; it had grown so tall that now it shaded her flower beds. My inveterate tree-loving mother, hearing this news, became alarmed and sat down to write Mrs. Stewart a delicately worded note asking her to re-consider. Trees take a long time to grow, she wrote, and with some trepidation, waited for a reply. It didn’t take long for Mrs. Stewart to re-consider, and to my mother’s great relief, the tree remained standing for many years, continuing to shade Mrs. Stewart’s little gem of a garden, until its demise from some kind of tree ailment.
But we are talking about the 1950’s, a time that often made friendships difficult and neighbors mistrustful. The Cold War was at its height, and Senator Joseph McCarthy had determined to root out and destroy the lives of Communists and “fellow travelers” in America. Fear-mongering was rampant and people, frightened about the consequences of having Communists in their midst, worried about who their neighbors were. In Sunnyside, the FBI circulated on our streets, parked in front of houses, and accosted our parents. Progressive people lived in fear of losing their jobs and some at moments, their actual freedom. Children of Communists absorbed all the terror and distress of their parents.
When the New York City Board of Education began calling people in for questioning, Sunnyside Gardens, largely populated by schoolteachers, became a veritable battleground, with lines drawn politically. There were the Legionnaires who were very anti-Communist, the Social Democrats (Socialists), the Communists, and no doubt, many Democrats, Republicans and ordinary undeclared people too. But if you were the child of Communists, you definitely had to know who the “enemy” was, lest you ever let your guard down and inadvertently disclose something that would jeopardize your parents’ lives. I never knew what I could say or to whom I could say it.
The most notable schism existed between Socialists and Communists. Allies perhaps under other circumstances, these two groups became bitterly hostile to one another. I think the rift was so deep because many Communist schoolteachers were being fired, (around 345 in New York City by the end of the purge), while many Social Democrats were not. Scared by the threat this period of repression fostered, people formerly engaged with one another felt the need to distance themselves, even from friends. Some people informed for the authorities. For Communists, the sense of betrayal was huge. The closest I can hope to understand this inimical situation has come from my experience during a strike situation in which people crossed the picket line.
The saddest fallout perhaps from this era was that the children of each group were cautioned in some way not to play with the children of the other group. To my parents’ credit, they allowed us to play with everyone in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, by my parents’ expressed attitudes towards certain adults, I knew I’d be disloyal to them were I to play with the kids of those adults. And so I didn’t.
While some rancor never subsided and some relationships never healed, many neighbors remained neighborly on 44th Street, a testament to the strength of bonds created over backyard hedges.
Ruth Horowitz has been homesteading with her husband in the backwoods of Nova Scotia since 1974.