For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Memories of My Life in the Bronx During The 1920's


by Joseph A. Constantine

I

n 1920, when I reached the ripe old age of five, our family moved to an area of the northBronx that was considered "the country." People only went there on picnics.

My father had purchased a lot from Joseph. P. Day. who had divided this area into 25-by-100 foot lots, which sold for twenty-five dollars each. Then my Dad bought a World War One barrack for another twenty-five dollars. The total expenditure for this magnificent estate was fifty dollars. This barrack became known as the Constantine Mansion and it became a veritable gold mine. The reason for this assessment was because of its insulation. During the silent movie days, my Dad worked as a motion picture operator, and stuffed the walls of our barrack with old movie posters. Within our walls resided the likes of Tom Mix, Theda Bara, Hoot Gibson, Harold Lloyd, Dorothy Gish, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan and many others too numerous to mention.

Our only luxuries were supplied by Bennie, an itinerant merchant who made weekly incursions into our area carrying a sack, reminiscent of Santa Claus. Benny would sell anything on time, and would ask a dollar a week, and if you didn’t have it, next week was OK too.

I would venture to say my mother was his best customer. We had the first telephone and radio in the neighborhood. The radio was an Atwater Kent that required A, B and C Batteries. It was housed in a cabinet the size of a dresser, and weighed a ton. The telephone became a constant irritation for me, as I was always dispatched to summon neighbors who used our phone.

Borden’s delivered our milk daily by horse and wagon and if it was a bad winter they used a horse and sled. There seemed to be snow all through the winter because there weren’t any sewers or snow removal.

We had vegetable and fish peddlers plus a knife and scissors grinder. If my memory serves me correctly, there were two mail deliveries a day, and stamps cost two cents.

Eastchester Road was the only paved road from White Plains Road. Left over from the past were vestiges of the fact that this area was once part of Westchester County. I mention this because during the summer; when we went swimming, it was at the end of Eighth Street, not 222nd Street. On the way to this swimming hole, known as Sullivan’s Beach, we had to pass by two pig farms. It was a sacrifice we had to make to keep cool. This was the site on which Co-Op City would be built almost fifty years later.

This move to “the country” set us into a time warp, and back into the days of the pioneers, sans the Indians. We dug a well in the front yard which was immediately occupied as a spa by the local frogs. This pleased my Dad, because he said they purified the water. (Somehow we all survived.) In the back yard an outhouse was constructed, supplied with the latest Sears catalog used for toilet paper.

Kerosene was our main source of energy, used for cooking and heating. We did our homework by lamplight. Old Abe Lincoln had nothing on us. Our second source of energy was coal, with a big kitchen stove and a potbelly stove in the parlor.

I started school at P.S. 21 on 226th Street off White Plains Road. Our school bus was a horse and covered wagon that picked us up at Eastchester Road and Needham Avenue. Fortunately P. S. 78 was built the following year, in1922, and we were able to walk there.

The only intersection that had four corners was Eastchester and Boston Post Roads, known as The Four Corners. On the northeast corner of Eastchester Road was a farm with an apple orchard, then some trees, and a swamp that ran down to Wilson Avenue. Hillside Homes occupies this area today. On that same corner was the neighborhood newsstand, two soda boxes with a plank across them. It had all the New York newspapers on it and a cigar box that was used to make change. There wasn’t any attendant and no one ever betrayed the trust.

Our next-door neighbor was a Pennsylvania Dutch settler who actually eked out a living trapping animals for their fur. His name was Bob Moser and he became Superman to me. He had worked on the building of the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge, and took on the most dangerous jobs in New York. He was fearless, and was called on to paint flagpoles and superstructures atop the skyscrapers. He also built many homes in our neighborhood with his multi-talented skills. Bob was an American legend to me.

In 1923, the closest stores where on White Plains Road, one mile away. To supplement the family income, it was necessary for me to work after school, since by this time there were four children in our family. The going rate for delivery boys was three dollars per week. I obtained a job in a dairy store, and being that eggs were my family's main staple of food, my salary became twelve dozen of eggs a week.

There was an Italian bakery on Barnes Avenue and 212th Street that would bake your dough into bread for ten cents a loaf. It was never stipulated as to size. My Mother took advantage of this oversight, and it was my duty to bring a giant-sized wad of dough to be converted into a most delicious loaf of bread. It was enough for an entire week.

As children, our toys consisted of discarded car tires, or an old broomstick which we converted into the cat and the stick game, marbles and matchbook covers. Baseball was played with a “nickel rocket” that would become lopsided and lose its cover. We taped them many times over. We formed our own little league teams without the interference of adults, and we had a great time. Once in awhile a “rich” kid would show up with a baseball glove. Every summer our whole team would get their hair shaved off, and we became known as “The Baldy Aces.”

I graduated P. S. 78 in 1928 and opted to attend Evander Childs High School. The reason for this choice was that they promised a course in aviation, and Lindberghwas my favorite hero. The new Evander was just being built on Gun Hill Road, so I had to attend the annex in Bedford Park (on Mosholu Parkway). It was three and a half miles away and I walked to and fro until the new Evander was completed in 1930, but the aviation course never materialized.

This brings me to end of my first fifteen years in the Bronx. By today's standards, people might say what a horrible life, but these years are among the happiest times of my life. I would not trade them for anybody's.




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