I Used to Live in a Neighborhood
by Victoria (Woskoff) Bestock
I grew up in a neighborhood. Now I live on a street. New Yorkers have a reputation for isolating themselves, but it was Sunnyside, Queens where we lived in community, and Seattle where my tree-lined street isolates me from my neighbors.
Sunnyside, which some would later describe years later when they started to deteriorate as “row houses”, had been designed as a model community. Attached brick two-story houses, each with a front and back yard, were arranged around a communally-owned center lawn. Our lawn had a flagstone patio at one end called, inexplicably, “The Summerhouse.”
Six alleyways punctuated our block, running through from 43rd to 44th street. Between Skillman Avenue and the first alleyway six cement stoops marched up to a trio of doors. The outer two were doors into a front hall. The middle door was a tunnel to the back yard, dark and cool in the summer, but because of the trash cans stored there, we never played in it but used it as a shortcut to get from the street to the back yards without going all the way around the block. The pattern was repeated five more times on our street, five little communities accessible without crossing a single street.
My aunt Estelle lived in my court, and my aunt Theresa lived two courts down. The court in between contained several Jewish families with children my age. On my block in an upstairs apartment lived Aunt Cele who wasn't really an aunt but a close friend of my mother's since her high school days and a few blocks away, another of my mother's close friends, Aunt Vee.
Wednesdays many of the kids in the neighborhood trooped to Philip Penner's house where his mother, Bernice, taught art lessons. Thursdays I had piano lessons from Augusta Yellin who was a family friend and an outstanding teacher. Only years later did I realize my wonderful art, ballet, and piano lessons gave my mother the opportunity to work three full days instead of half-days to be home when I got home from school. But of course the arts were highly valued by my parents. It's what they thought of when they thought of something for me to do after school. Not a baby-sitter. Not sports. Not staying home alone. Piano, ballet and art.
Over sixty families lived in our court, and we knew the names of almost all of them though not all were close. My mother ranted about the stupidity of the family diagonally across the way, their wrong-headed politics, their idiotic proposal to put in an ugly chain-link fence to replace the low bushes enclosing the communal lawn. But when their 20-year old son was electrocuted in a thunderstorm she wrote a condolence card.
I thought you hated them.” I said, confused.
“Doesn’t matter,” said my mother. “Their child died.”
We didn't have anything to do with the cold family (I think they were the Hermans) who bought the Gonzales’ house next door and destroyed Gonzalez' magnum opus, his jungle of exotic plants. Mr. Herman hadn't even waited for spring to see the treasures hiding in the ground. He wanted a lawn. Easier to care for. Out came the blood-red coxcombs and the enormous dahlias and in went neatly clipped grass. My mother called them “The Germans” with contempt in her voice (this was only a few years after WW II when Germany had been our enemy) until Mr. Herman, who was a lawyer, saved us from the proposed chain link fence by pointing out that if we enclosed the lawn, in seven years we would no longer own it. My mother forgave them after that but my father never got over their destruction of Gonzales's magnificent garden.
For us children there was an understanding that we could visit any other kid in the court without asking a parent’s permission, as long as we went out the back door, into the safety of the court. We rode tricycles around the path and gathered after school on the flagstone patio of the Summerhouse to play hopscotch and Mother May I, and games we made up.
In addition to people in our court, my parents knew all the leftist Jews within 10 blocks. They formed a community within the larger community of Sunnyside Gardens-- like-minded people determined to make the world better for the average person. Responsibility to the community was an important value, and my mother made sure I knew that my good grades in school were not for myself but so that I could use my brains and skills to make the world better for others.
Even outside our immediate circle, the people in the neighborhood, and especially in our court on 43rd street, were people we knew, at least to say hello to. We didn't have much to say to the Italians two doors down, five generations living in one apartment, but when six-year Loretta was hit by a car, it was my dad who tried to prevent the distraught father from picking her up and carrying her into the house. “Her legs might be broken,” my dad said, “better wait for the ambulance,” and he got a blanket and covered the child, while my mother went next door to sit with the mother and the ancient great-grandmother of the little girl.
I still remember the horse and buggy vendors who came down our street when I was very young. There was an iceman who delivered huge blocks of ice, picking them from his wagon with tongs and depositing them in a cupboard in the wall. What a treat it was when we got a refrigerator and my mother no longer had to shop every day!
When the good humor man came down the street jingling bells in the summer we all met to share information about the best ice cream. I had always gotten a Popsicle until someone turned me on to Toasted Almond. That was my favorite from then on.
Once a week a horse and buggy came down the street bearing the vegetable man, a dark-haired Italian who called me Carrots, maybe because I loved to nibble on raw vegetables but maybe because of my hair color. Milk was delivered by truck early in the morning and placed in a wooden box on the stoop.
Across 43rd street had been an empty lot where we played when we were young. I met Elsa Brothman there when we were ten, both of us digging in dirt that was mostly clay, wondering if we could sculpt with it and if Bernice Penner, Philip's mother who taught art, could bake it for us. The clay was paved over the next year to become a playground with see-saws, swings, slides and a jungle gym.
Once Linda and Elsa and I were playing in the woods next to the playground when we met two men, who claimed to be policemen working for the Long Island Railroad, which owned the property. I thought they were Bad Guys, and when one realized I didn't believe him, opened his coat to reveal-- well, Linda saw the badge-- I saw the gun. They followed us when we left, which scared me. I led Elsa and Linda through a maze of alleys until we lost them-- I didn't want them to know where we lived.
In the fall we walked to school together, ate lunch together. My mother used to make lunch for a group of kids on Tuesdays. A few of the kids in my court came but so did others who lived further from the school than we did -- they didn't have time to walk home for lunch and get back to school on time.
I have a few memories from the old house on 46th street where I lived until I was four. One was the end of World War II. Our house was in the flight path from LaGuardia airport and for a year I thought the war was here, in Sunnyside, and the planes roaring over my house were going to bomb us.
The day the war ended I had the mumps with a very high fever and was not allowed to go outside. I could hear the shouting and horns honking and knew there was a parade on Skillman Avenue, but I couldn't see anything. I was so disappointed! But then the parade came down 46th street—a brass band, and people waving banners, shouting their joy and my mother let me get out of bed to stand with my nose pressed to the living room window. The fact that a parade would come down our little side street emphasized the importance of the end of the war for me.
In those days children went to the school nearest their house which meant that my classmates were the kids I played with were also in my class in school. Our parents knew each other. Neighbors, Sunnysiders, dropped in for coffee and chat while the children played outside together. I have such warm memories of the community, the neighborhood, the connections with neighbors and friends and relatives.
My Seattle-born kids grew up with no children within walking distance of our house. We were less than a block from two schools, one public one private, but both my children were bused to school, partly to integrate the schools, partly to participate in special programs offered at other schools, so the children they met through school and through their activities lived far away.
The section of the city I live in is called Harrison Neighborhood, but no one has ever heard of it. It isn’t a neighborhood. We tell people we live near Madrona. Over the hill from Washington Park. Up the hill from the Central District. Down the hill from Capitol Hill. I haven’t even glimpsed most of the people who live on the street, and only recognize the people in the houses adjacent to mine, not anyone across the street or down the block. The same trees that make the street beautiful also hide the houses from view. It is very private. Very isolated. There is no sidewalk on my side of the street. People enter their cars invisibly from their attached garages and drive away so no one is ever seen walking in the neighborhood, except for one old man with a dog.
How different that is from Sunnyside, where we knew everyone in the court, could see and walk to the houses of our friends and family, where children played with children who lived on the same street, and parents dropped in for coffee and a chat. Now I live on a pleasant tree-lined street, but I miss the sense of community that I grew up with in Sunnyside.