My parents Luddy & Orlando, Abuela Angie & Abuelo Moncho, Rachel & Ellen, 1022 156th Street, South Bronx, 1960s.
Today brought an odd sense of virtual dislocation. The first time I felt something like this was in 1988. We were newly married and Tom drove us to the South Bronx, to see Fox Street, and the block where I grew up. In my mind I could envision the candy store that jutted out onto the sidewalk from the tenement building on the corner. Just outside its door was a set of raised, welded steel shelves atop a metal sidewalk punctuated by glass. This was where newspapers were sold to those who lived in the adjacent tenements that dated from the 1890s.
Most of the buildings were missing their cast iron detailing, melted down for the war effort of the 1940s, which left raised stoops with stone steps that led to doors flanked by columns, each brick building a little different than the one next to it. A Polish couple, the Bragnes were the managers of 548 Fox Street, which had white and black checkerboard floors, and the cast iron staircase had soft white marble stairs that dipped in the center, from the many feet that went up and down and wore away the stone. Each level had a large window, like part of our apartment, which faced an adjoining building. I remember how hard it was for me to go up and down them when I started walking, and the building shrank in size slightly as I began to attend PS 25 on Tinton Boulevard. What I knew of the Bronx was that it was Jewish, and that they left rapidly as the neighborhood demographics shifted and more Puerto Ricans arrived. My father began a search for a different place to live when a man was shot in the head down the street. Things went from bad to worse in Mott Haven.
When we drove up in 1988, what met my eyes was an expanse of rubble close to the ground. It was a shock, since I expected the buildings to be there and somehow survive the wave of landlord arson that eradicated tenement buildings during the 1970s and 1980s.
Now small two family homes dot the blocks around Fox Street, looking very different than the tenement housing that linked the Jewish, Italian and then Puerto Rican residents of the Bronx and the Lower East Side. The battered space I encountered in 1988 was not my first visceral dislocation, but perhaps the most profound, since my first decade was lived in apartments that linked members of my immediate and extended family.
Today, I went to look at the apartment building where my grandparents raised their family, and experienced a virtual dislocation. I thought at least that place would be there, and when I entered 1022 156th Street into Google Maps, I expected to see the building. What’s there now is the Fox Playground, which I was built in 1979 and recently renovated.
We always went to my grandparent’s home from 548 Fox Street over to 1022 156th Street, walking the four blocks with my mother and later my brothers. Once when I was about 5 or 6 I took my brother (a year younger than I) to my grandmother’s house, and it seemed an enormous journey. Everyone was surprised, my mother frantic that we had left and taken off somewhere.
Everything changes, that is the one thing we can count on. Todo cambia, for better or worse, and I remember what these places made possible, a network of extended family that survived the precariousness of migration, of setting down roots elsewhere.