I grew up on 57th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in Manhattan. I loved my neighborhood—still do.
They called this area Hell’s Kitchen when I was growing up. According to local lore, the area got its name because it was a rough part of New York City in the late 1800s. When two cops were on duty guarding the area, one cop said, “It’s hotter than Hell.” The other cop answered, “It’s hotter than Hell’s Kitchen.”
But the area is changing from Hell’s Kitchen to Billionaires’ Row. They’re building thin skyscraper apartment buildings along 57th Street soaring 1,000 feet into the sky. When I last visited the area, I stopped in to see a condo in one of these skyscrapers.
I rode the elevator up to the 87th floor. I felt as if the elevator was speeding and shaking. When I stepped off the elevator and walked into the condo on the 87th floor, I looked out the window at the city spread out below me. I felt as if I were on a plane looking down.
To be honest, I don’t like heights. I can’t imagine living on the 87th floor. The elevator ride alone scared me. But people are buying these condos. In fact, the penthouse at one of these skyscrapers on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues sold for $100 million dollars.
So the block is changing into Billionaires’ Row. But my street—between Ninth and Tenth—hasn’t really changed that much…and I hope it doesn’t. They’ve built a small apartment building and a hotel on my block, but the rest of the street is pretty much the way it was when I grew up there.
57th was always a wonderful street—broad, with four lanes for cars, two lanes heading east, two heading west—a big, wide-open street from West Side to East. We lived on the fourth floor of a walk-up townhouse. My mother’s sisters lived across the street. Their old townhouses—maybe over 100 years old—are still there looking the same as when I was growing up.
My Aunt Augy, Mom’s older sister, lived with her husband and her mother, my grandmother, right on the corner of 57th and Tenth Avenue. My grandmother was from Ithaca, Greece and everyone who came from her island to New York visited my Nona as soon as they could. She would help them find apartments in our neighborhood right around the corner on 56th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Sometimes she even helped them find jobs. My grandmother played a big role in the lives of her friends and relatives who made the great move from their beautiful, serene island of Ithaca (home of Odysseus and Penelope of The Trojan War Greek mythology) to the new and hectic life of New York City. She gave them a feeling of security in the scary big city and time to find their way.
Mom’s younger sister, Aunt Anna, lived two doors up from Aunt Augy. She had two daughters and her husband worked as a waiter at the Stork Club on East 53rd Street, at the time one of the best supper clubs in New York. Celebrities, politicians, and society people made it one of their favorite nightspots. My uncle would tell me about the movie stars who stopped in.
The main thing I remember about 57th Street is that it was a real neighborhood. People may think of New Yorkers as cold, uncaring. But that’s not true. Our neighbors were friendly, they cared about each other—they looked out for each other. I remember one day coming home late from being out with my friends. I was just about to go up the steps to our townhouse when a neighbor stopped me. “Your sister’s looking for you and she’s mad.” OK, I said to myself, I’ll just go over to Aunt Anna’s for a while till my sister, Angela, cooled down.
My big sister was tougher on me than my mother, but she always looked out for me. My big sister Angela! She was a knockout. Tall, slim, brown wavy hair and the most incredible green eyes. She was smart, funny, vivacious. Whenever she went to a Greek dance with my Mom, the phone would ring throughout the next day with guys wanting to date Angela.
I remember one special night when she was going to a party. Her escort was in a tuxedo and Angela was wearing a chiffon gown our mother made for her. (Mom made all of our dressy outfits.) Her gown was foam green, almost matching her green eyes. Mom and I looked out the front window. Angela was on the stoop waiting for her escort to get a taxi. A warm spring breeze filtered through Angela’s hair and made her chiffon gown billow around her. What an unforgettable sight!
My sister was named after our father’s mother—that’s the custom in our Greek family. Our grandmother’s name was Angeliki, so my sister was named Angela. For some reason a few neighbors called her Gloria. She was Angie to me. And she was terrific. God, how I miss her.
The old townhouse and three others where we lived were torn down a long time ago making room for a tall apartment building, but not as tall as Billionaires’ Row skyscrapers. My street is still filled with so many memories, so many good times. A lot of my family is gone now, all the neighbors have moved…but the feelings are still there, the memories, the love. Billionaires’ Row or Hell’s Kitchen, West 57th Street will always have a special place in my heart.