Eden: Van Cortlandt Park, 1946
by Alice Rosenthal
I am standing on rising ground overlooking a large expanse of green that blankets this corner of the northwest Bronx. I’ve come back to revisit this distinct patch of time and place from almost a lifetime away and a distance of 3,000 miles. I’ve come to honor it — and to grieve for it — as an American and a Jew. Something I couldn’t have dreamt of doing in those years I lived in it. I look back with love to this time, though my actual memories are the vivid sensory ones of a young child; but with all the advantages and revelations of hindsight I see here, in 1946, in this comfortable, unglamorous, urban community, the blossoming of a vigorous and hopeful democracy. Its emblem and its heart are our park.
Van Cortlandt Park embraces the neighborhood, reaching north to the very edge of New York City, and before it can become a memory, it is caught up by more parkland in Yonkers — the passing of the green, like a torch that is never dropped, from one group of civic custodians to another.
A few centuries ago, this area was a large tract acquired by the Van Cortlandts from the original Dutch settlers. They knew what they were about, those shrewd Van Cortlandt’s, and they lived on this capacious estate during the Revolution and through most of the 19th century. One of the sons built a family home up here, still preserved as a museum in the park. Van Cortlandt Mansion is actually quite modest compared to the ostentatious houses of the Gilded Age that came later. It does not scream to be envied or admired, nor does it invite close inspection. The pristine rooms are roped off and only the polished and buffed surfaces of existence can be seen. Except for a basement kitchen, we see nothing of workshops, fields, or any evidence of the underbelly of backbreaking labor necessary to run the place. Quarters for servants, bonded or otherwise, are not preserved for our view, yet it is the descendants of slaves and bonded servants, and their first cousins, the waves of working class immigrants and their children, who will later become denizens of this stretch of green.
The mansion is the final whiff of old money in these parts. In 1946, it is visited primarily by families and classes of public school children, almost entirely white and Jewish, for these are the people populating the surrounding neighborhood. The area is called Norwood in the 21st century. Possibly the name has been around for a long time, but no one called it any such thing in the time I’m revisiting. “Norwood? Very fancy-shmancy!” people would comment, chatting on the stoops of of six-story apartment buildings and the occasional two-family houses. The neighborhood has no panache.
There is nothing even faintly Episcopal in this area in 1946 — virtually no Protestants of any persuasion. A few Irish and Italian Catholics call it home, but the vast majority of residents are first- and second-generation Jews. There is, however, nothing of the ghetto here. The secular Jew is simply the average American of these streets. Places of worship there are, but they are comparatively modest, and no particular shul, synagogue, or church demands your attention. What dominates the landscape is the park.
What an impressive stretch of earth this must have seemed to those European colonists who first acquired it by means fair or foul. The hills allowed vistas of river and forest and farmlands, lovely, promising, and, above all, theirs. Still beautiful country, in 1946 it is for everyone. Racial, ethnic, class tensions, and turf wars do not exist within its boundaries. The park is the great democratic leveler. This is a place to play until you are tired and sweaty and hungry, to stretch your mind, nourish your soul, or just ease your bones in the sunlight. It’s a place for exploration and woodland adventure of our own creation — yours and mine. Theme parks that enclose and bend your mind to their corporate gain do not yet exist.
This southeast border of the park where I stand may seem adventurous only for the very young who can imagine away the well-populated and very ordinary urban streets. You have glimpses of a pastoral public golf course, the oldest in the city, but before you reach it there are playgrounds exploding with postwar infants, toddlers, and pregnant mothers, and also tennis courts and modest grassy rises you can sled down in winter on your Flexible Flyer. Slender macadam road or stone-cobbled paths lined with hedges lead to the clubhouse, for golfers, and to the picnic grounds dotted with trees, trellis tables, and small simple stone and iron grills. They also bring you to the necessities: the discreetly placed but convenient rest rooms, water fountains and trash containers. When the park is your backyard, these are no small matters, and the facilities are well maintained and fully adequate to our needs. All the planned and landscaped pathways are civil and thoughtful, designed to be easy on the eyes, legs, and small wheels.
Always, there are the park benches. These stalwart, indomitable sentinels of wood and curved concrete are built to survive centuries of three-generation families, working stiffs, household pets, squirrels, pigeons, and the next ice age. They are not works of art, and some of them face nothing more beautiful than the El tracks and the rows of six-story apartment houses that line the streets. Nevertheless, the benches are kindly and accommodating, catch-your-breath and take-a load-off-your-feet structures, where you can read your newspaper or grab a lunch in the sun if you’re a shopkeeper working on Jerome Avenue or a motorman off duty. At midnight, these same benches may provide a bed for the occasional hobo. He isn’t a fixture of the landscape and is seldom seen, in fact. Nor is he considered a menace or an offense to the eye. A park bench is more comfortable than the damp ground, and like virtually all New Yorkers, he can sleep through the lumbering tooth-rattling visits of the elevated trains that run all night. You notice I say he. Nobody here has seen a homeless women, and homelessness, itself, has not become a byword.
In the event that you haven’t brought a lunch from home that will keep body and soul together, don’t worry. This part of the park is only a few steps away from Jerome Avenue, the major shopping thoroughfare of the neighborhood, lined with food shops and small eateries. Delicatessens, bakeries, dairies, and sweet shops beckon customers without the need of fans to waft enticing aromas into the streets. These are family businesses that survive and prosper through local reputation, and their breads, cookies, salamis, pickles, salads, meats, and fish are of high quality. If not, shoppers will let them know about it and go elsewhere. There is always more than one choice. A lot of these shops serve kosher favorites, but there is also the distinctly non-kosher Woolworth’s, always called “the five and ten,” with it’s seductive “don’t fill up on that garbage” cheap ice cream sandwiches, sodas, and candies. And there is at least one Cantonese style restaurant every block or so, by this time obligatory in any Jewish neighborhood worth its salt.
There is nothing elegant about the Avenue, bisected by the El tracks, yet its shops have a secure, solid aspect, as if they are certain of their time and place and value. You want a good egg cream, here’s where to get it. The freshest flounder is right here. Bagels and bialys for Sunday breakfast are across the street. You want fine pastrami, you come to us. Without fanfare they announce to the world: We have come out of the Depression and a devastating world war. We are not rich, but neither are we hungry, and we are safe. Our children have a future. Come to us for quality and value. We’ll be here. We have no need to hawk our wares.
Less substantial are the vendors of the true street foods: the Italian ices, soft pretzels, roasted chestnuts, Good Humor, Bungalow Bar, and Mello Roll ice creams, and sellers of cheaper (and to our mothers more questionable) hot dogs and soft drinks. Their position in the world is tenuous and shifting. We don’t know which vender is Bernie or Sal or Pete. They must follow after us into the park as far as their wheeled pushcarts and small motorized trucks can go. They are migrating birds who change with the seasons, but they do not cry out. Their song is a bell. For a few months they alight in the early afternoon and disappear at night, and we have no idea where they sleep. Still, they will be back, we know that.
Parking spaces are another certainty. No need for big ugly parking lots inside or outside of the park. Nor is the air fouled with gas fumes. Few city people own private cars in 1946, and even fewer people need them, for public transportation meets the very borders of the park and everyone in the Bronx uses it. New York City Transit is in its heyday, proudly trumpeting its arrival as it stretches and winds to the very edges of the boroughs. It is anything but quiet. We don’t expect quiet. The subway becomes an El as soon as it crosses over to the Bronx, and the trains bellow in the open air. Trolleys still clang over their tracks to the city limit and beyond and the buses let out giant sighs when they stop and open their doors, like Titans after some mighty exertion. That this brash, crowded, rackety system maintains a thriving symbiotic coexistence with the green peace of the park causes no wonder to the folks who use it everyday. It’s perfectly natural to them.
All of this park borderland is unabashedly urban and not all that different from the other parks that form a patchwork across the boroughs of the city. To find the real Van Cortlandt Eden, you must venture further to the center of the park. Here you find the lake that has been here since the first Dutch owners of the land dammed up Tibits Brook to power a mill. That makes it about two and a half centuries old in 1946, more than enough time for lush vegetation and trees to cover the scars of its creation, and it looks as if it has been there forever. The autumn blaze of red, yellow, russet, and a wonderful dusty pink from the surrounding trees is mirrored in the water and makes fall perhaps the loveliest season, and also the quietest. In warm weather there are concession stands and rowboats to rent and all kinds of human sounds. No lifeguards are on duty, however, for you may not swim here. It is not considered safe. You can ice skate in winter on days when the park caretakers declare it safe. But only then. There is neither skating nor walking on thin ice in Van Cortlandt Park in 1946.
Finally you can abandon populated recreation areas and venture into the park’s greatest treasure, its woods. The ancient oaks, maples, and hickories are splendid in any season. You can enjoy them to some extent on horseback, if you have the money and skill. There is no upscale equestrian center within the park grounds in 1946, but there are modest stables only a block or so from the park. You must stay on the bridle paths, however, and keep your wits about you for both horse and rider. Besides, who is rich enough to rent a horse for more than an hour? The true treasures of the woods are entirely free, and to enjoy them you need only put on sturdy shoes and walk. You are rewarded with a nature preserve that is as close as you can get to the wilds within the city limits. The park benches disappear now, and if you need a breather you sit on a log. Or you may lean your back against a shaded boulder that the Lenapes, a woodlands people, used for the very same purpose, generations before Europeans ever imagined this land existed.
It’s not all ancient growth, of course. The Old Croton Aqueduct, the original one that over a century ago helped prevent the city from going up in flames and that first assured thirsty and feverish New Yorkers a healthy water supply, runs underground straight through these woods from its source at the Croton Reservoir in Westchester. Take the beaten dirt path built over it and you can see the old brick Weir structure that that regulated the flow of water. There’s also a piece of an old railroad track stretching north to Yonkers that runs through the park. These remnants of New York City history (which my father tells me about when we walk here on Sunday mornings) in no way disturb the centuries-old trees that shade the path or the wild blooms that peek out at their roots. Nature has been allowed not so much to take its course as to make the most of its restorative power. The woods are wild, yet cared for and looked after, just as the kids who transform themselves into cowboys, Indians, Robin Hoods, explorers, woodland princesses, and poets run wild but are cared for. Their parents are cared for. Virtually everyone who lives in these surrounds is.
The social safety net makes sure of that, though no one uses those words in 1946 nor vilifies the concept, 21st-century style. Nor would anyone dare to hurl the name Nazis at the people who create and maintain the fabric of this safety net, be they elected or appointed officials, park keepers, cops, firemen, public health nurses, teachers, or motormen. We may not like some of them of them as individuals, but they are public servants, and to accuse them of being anything remotely like those only recently defeated enemies of humanity is both a flagrant lie and an obscenity. Young children playing on the cement covered city sidewalks cry out unthinkingly, “If you step on a crack, you love Hitler,” but we know what real Nazis are — everyone old enough to read a newspaper or see a newsreel knows — and nobody trivializes that horror or dishonors its victims by flinging that word around as a careless epithet. These same kids venture into the cold bundled up in identical, authentic navy blue pea coats, war surplus sold cheap to civilians, and are given free milk and apples in the public schools in the afternoon, agricultural surplus this time. No one in their right mind considers this degrading or debilitating charity, and if there are men in Washington or Albany that call this pernicious socialism or communism, nobody around here is listening to them yet.
Rhapsodizing about the past is dangerous — I know that. Basking in the fresh, sunny air of 1946 with the knowledge of what has happened since, it is easy to emerge slick with nostalgia that distorts and glosses over the harsh realities of those good old days. Polio, a terrifying specter of small graves, iron lungs, and braces, becomes a truth for too many families every summer, so that a simple cold or sore throat becomes a fearful threat until the danger passes. The Holocaust, only recently fully exposed, is an abyss that for some of us will never close. Families still mourn dead soldiers. Veterans whole and wounded fight the war again in their dreams, and a refugee woman who lives on the fourth floor in that corner building still screams “Blitz! Blitz!” each time a passenger plane flies above. Then there are those atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese civilian population. We can’t yet even imagine what that has done to them and to us. And, of course, there is the glaring disparity of our existence here that we hardly notice at all: The only people of color in this modest but comfortable neighborhood are maids and janitors, who live in dank, unfinished apartment building basements or journey north from Harlem every day by subway and bus to serve us.
Still, unseeing as we are, we are also extraordinarily hopeful, and our assumptions about what makes for a good society and good government still involve such virtues as sharing and caring for each other. Veterans and civilians know what they fought and sacrificed for and know it was worth it. Returning soldiers are lauded before they are off to college, thanks to the GI Bill of Rights. VA hospitals are vigorous, respected institutions. Penicillin has been developed. Doctors make house calls and charge manageable fees. Teachers are still underpaid, but are respected by children and parents, and public schools are the well-maintained, safe norm that provides a superior education for us. The modern state of Israel does not yet exist but everyone I know is hopeful about its creation, and when my mother sends packages of our outgrown clothes to our relatives in Palestine, she hides in them lollypops and bubble gum, which is now back in the candy stores.
And always there is our back yard, the park, our public Eden and our emblem of those huddled masses who do, indeed, breathe free here.
In ten years it will suffer a drastic change. The Major Deegan Expressway, the darling of Robert Moses and other less famous city planners, will cut a huge gash through the center of the park and split our garden virtually in half. Nobody spoke of carbon footprints when the highway was being built, yet here’s the giant one coming and crushing everything in its path, and it isn’t a pretty sight. But it’s progress, isn’t it? By 1956 it will be possible to drive your private chariot from Manhattan straight through the Bronx up to Westchester and meet the New York State Thruway without having to avert your eyes from the “element” that persists in surviving in Harlem and the crumbling south Bronx and inexorably is working its way north. All you have to do is keep your eyes on the road. Just as suburbanites commuting to Grand Central Station need only turn to the sports page when their train edges toward, say, 187th street to forget that only a few years ago they themselves were the element. The mass exodus to the suburbs is well under way. The older element, second-generation Irish, Italian, and Jewish Americans who prospered enough to migrate north from Hell’s Kitchen, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has achieved middle-class status, and a public back yard is no longer good enough. They want private lawns and elaborate barbecues and at least one car in their two-car garages. Their children have to go to better schools, so they take their vital tax base out of the Bronx, the very funds that supported superior public education, and abandon those schools. They leave their comfortable but distinctly unglamorous and unhip neighborhood to aging parents, many of whom quickly buy into enclaves of co-op apartments and so escape rubbing shoulders with the new element — poorer, darker people from the South Bronx and from Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
In time I will be part of an exodus, too, but not to the suburbs. College-educated young adults, single or married, will not want the suburbs, at least not until we have children. We will want to be locationally desirable for dating and mating, to be part of the culturally and intellectually hip life of Manhattan, even if it means sharing cramped rooms in a walk-up and fighting for occupancy with brigades of roaches. We’ve had quite enough of those comfortable and surprisingly spacious six-story elevator apartment buildings — so parental and boring. And in the flat lower half of the fabled Manhattan island, the element isn’t fearful, just interesting.
But I’m back in 1946, now. The north Bronx is not yet locationally undesirable to the people who live here. Not when the buses and subways run frequently and on schedule. Even quite young children use public transit, not only to music school, religious instruction, and dentists, but also to meet their friends at the library, movies, parties, and downtown museums, skating rinks, and, of course, the parks. We don’t drive in 1946, and no one chauffeurs us around. Soccer moms of whatever political persuasion are unheard of. Are you kidding? What are your feet for? We are, all of us, old and young, remarkably mobile and free to wander, by later standards, and when we come in after dark, it’s because it’s suppertime or bedtime or Jack Benny time; not because the element — the other — menaces us. Possibly this is because as a society it is not yet officially all right to hate poor people, to spew venomous lies on the airways and in cyberspace, or to worship greed. Of course there are prejudices, economic inequalities, us-against-them attitudes, the occasional curses and fights on streets where one ethnic neighborhood spills into another. But these are considered aberrations that decent people disapprove of. You are a racist? An isolationist? An anti-Semite? You had better swallow back those nasty convictions. You don’t vomit them up in public. After all, we just fought this war. Reasonable people assume that in a decent society, people are responsible for each other, care for each other. They have to.
And very possibly we feel safe and cared for because in the postwar 1940s we are still the element and we are among our own. A whole lot of people outside of these surrounds want us to keep away. We are not welcome in their country clubs, hotels, resorts, and businesses. We are educated in neighborhood public schools, so our English grammar is standard, our spelling is excellent, our academic achievement and test scores unusually high, but our distinct regional accent — attempted (often inaccurately) in the movies and radio only by comic characters and gangsters — is the giveaway that we are denizens of these streets. We are also denizens of this public park, most definitely a people’s park in the best sense of that term; an Eden for immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants and an emblem of good times. Not luxurious, not even affluent. Just good, and safe.
Well, times change and populations change because that’s the way we are, and different peoples moved into those once well-maintained and landscaped six-story apartment houses and streets that we abandoned: different music, foods, smells, language, and skin colors. Bodegas replacing kosher dairies and delis. Many of these new immigrants are descendants of plantation slavery as brutal as America’s was and vitally connected to it, and are now victims of an unending supply of Caribbean dictators. They didn’t come here as hordes of vandals determined to destroy our streets. Our streets were decaying before they came — that’s why they were allowed to move into them. It’s astonishing that we have to remind ourselves of this, but evidently we do. These newcomers to the neighborhood just want to live decently, but they are way poorer than we were and their families more shattered and oppressed by poverty. That civic safety net that helped us thrive and prosper as we moved north from the tenements has become frayed and ragged for them, and its emblem, the park, has frayed too. That great expressway, symbol of can-do progress and (let’s face it) undeniably useful to a great number of people, as much as told local Bronxites: Sorry, but we can’t worry about you. It marked the beginning of a whole lot of thin ice in Van Cortlandt Park, and not many people to look out for you. If you drowned, well, sorry! By the 1970s the park was in serious decline and was to suffer drastic budget cuts in the next two decades.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Local communities will come together and organize and plan and fight for what is rightfully theirs despite huge difficulties, and the neighborhood people, old and new, have been doing just that. They have been reversing that decline, reviving precious green space and taking the park back for everyone to enjoy. They know you must use it or lose it. Good for them and more power to them!
Still, I know that Van Cortlandt Park will never again be the Eden it is in 1946. Eden is beautiful and whole and created for our benefit. Entering it we are free to be ourselves. And when we are in Eden, we can never conceive of its loss.
Alice Rosenthal is a transplanted New Yorker who makes her home in San Francisco. Previously an editor, writing consultant, and English instructor, she is currently publishing her first novel, Take the D Train, set in the 1950s in the same Van Cortlandt Park area.