I grew up in Manhattan on West 57th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. I loved it and still do! I left the old neighborhood some time ago, but it never left me. There are some new buildings built over the years, but surprisingly a lot has stayed the same. I hope you enjoy reading my memories of growing up in the Big Apple…New York City.
57th Street in New York City was a wonderful street to live on. I still love it. And it hasn’t changed much. The four-story townhouses my aunts (my mother’s sisters) lived in are still there…unchanged. Aunt Augy’s apartment was at the corner of 57th and Tenth Avenue. She lived on the top floor with her husband and mother, Euterpe—my grandmother.
There’s an old family story that when my mother and her sisters had to be registered in school, my grandmother (who only spoke Greek and very, very little English) was somehow able to ask a neighbor to register them. The neighbor asked the sisters for their names and when they replied Stamoula, Akrive and Augustina, the neighbor—unable to pronounce the names—said, “OK. You’re Anna, you’re Mary and you’re Augy.” The names stuck. Even when I grew up I still called them Aunt Anna and Aunt Augy, and my cousins called my mother Aunt Mary.
Aunt Anna lived two doors down from Aunt Augy, also on the fourth floor, with her husband, Spyros, and two daughters, Joan and Pepe (short for Euterpe, our grandmother’s name). Uncle Spyros worked for the Stork Club on East 53rd Street, at the time the place to be for politicians, movie stars, society people, and gossip columnists. I’d bug him about what movie stars stopped by the club. I loved movies even as a kid.
I remember we used to go from home to home by crossing over the roofs to get from Aunt Anna’s apartment to Aunt Augy’s and back again. (Admittedly, a foolish thing to do. Please don’t try this!) It was faster then running downstairs from one apartment, then upstairs to the other place.
We lived in the same building as Aunt Anna. Our apartment was on the second floor. I was going to kindergarten at the time and I remember our apartment was dark. After a couple of years, we moved across the street to a big, bright, beautiful apartment. Our new address was 437 West 57th Street. It was four stories high, two apartments on each floor. There were four such buildings next to each other.
We lived there for many years. Just before I was getting married, the owner sold all four townhouses where we lived to build a 17-story apartment building with 275 units. They kept the address of 437 West 57 Street. My Mom and I moved uptown, and a few months later I married and left New York. But the old 437 stayed in my heart.
Our new apartment at 437 was a railroad apartment—its layout was in a straight line just like railroad cars. When you entered the apartment, you were right in the living room—no hallway. If you walked left, you walked into the large, bright kitchen that had an alcove. There were two big windows in the kitchen and one in the alcove that had a fire escape. During hot summer days, I’d grab a pillow and a book and sit out there, hoping to get some fresh, cool air. (We didn’t have air conditioning, just a couple of fans.)
This window looked down on an area surrounded by other apartment buildings. It was a little like that Hitchcock movie, REAR WINDOW with James Stewart and Grace Kelly (love that movie). Only our back yard didn’t look quite as nice. We never went down there to walk around or sit. There were lines running across the yard from one building to another where people hung their clothes to dry. I remember a couple of times a man with a pushcart would yell up if anybody needed their knives sharpened. That’s how he made his living.
For me, as a little kid, the most exciting part of our new home was the dumbwaiter in the kitchen. We would load our garbage on it, and using ropes and a pulley system, we would lower it to the basement where the superintendent would dispose of our garbage. The first Christmas in our new apartment, my mother said that’s how Santa Claus would come into our home—through the dumbwaiter. Amazing what a kid would believe.
Back to our railroad apartment—if at the front door, you turned right, you’d walk into my bedroom, then my sister Angela’s bedroom, and then my parents big, bright bedroom. All the rooms were in a straight line like a railroad.
One day there was a lot of excitement at our building. My mother had bought a used, black, upright Steinway piano. I wondered how they were going to carry it up four flights of stairs. But they didn’t. They brought it into my parents’ bedroom through the window. They tied a ton of heavy ropes around the piano, and with pulleys, and about four men down on the street, and three men in the bedroom, they slowly hauled the piano up.
They carried it through the window, and placed it in the corner of the bedroom where it stayed. And that’s where I took piano lessons with Mr. Martin until I went to high school. (I learned to play Beethoven’s Fur Elise. It was one of only a couple of pieces I played well—so I played it a lot. Drove my sister crazy.) A bunch of neighbors were standing around downstairs watching as they pulled the piano up and into our home. The neighbors were so excited they stood there and watched until the piano was safely in our home. Then they all cheered and went about their business. A big day in the neighborhood! Only in those days…only in New York.