Memories of My Life in the Bronx During The 1930's
n 1930 our family consisted of my father Anthony, my mother Elizabeth, and seven children, five boys and two girls. I was the eldest at fifteen years of age. The Great Depression continued into this decade.
The Constantine Residence improved, with a few new amenities like a bathroom with running water and a coal-burning furnace. The former well, which once served as our water supply and frog spa was history. We missed the frogs that had serenaded us nightly with their love songs. The “Mansion” still remained without gas, and electricity throughout the 1930’s.
The farm on Boston and Eastchester Roads became a golf driving range, and I was hired as a golf ball retriever. This position required me to carry a shield, fashioned from a wooden frame covered with wire mesh, and a pail to retrieve the golf balls. I became a sitting duck in a shooting gallery. My salary was a dollar a day, without compensation for hazardous duty under fire. This driving range subsequently became the site where the Hillside Homes were built.
Our area of the Bronx was now showing some signs of urbanization. Some stores were built on Boston Road between Eastchester Road and Kingsland Avenue. Among them was an A&P operated by one employee whose name was Huey Lawe. Huey was manager, clerk, cashier, and checkout, and became a much needed and loved asset to the community. He also extended credit, so what was not to love?
For recreation we would visit the Bronx Zoo. There were never any entrance fees. We would also take the White Plains Avenue trolley to Fordham Road, where we could catch the latest movies and vaudeville acts. There was the RKO Fordham, the Valentine, and my favorite, Loew’s Paradise.
I still retain the memory of being at the opening of the Paradise in 1929, which for me was the entrance into Shangri La. Before you entered, you were assured of protection, because there on the roof was St George slaying the dragon, every hour, on the hour. As you entered the foyer you just sank into the plush carpeting. There was a gold fishpond, a marble staircase, and on the foyer balcony was a Spanish Troubadour with his guitar singing his romantic love ballads. Inside the theatre, you sat inside a Roman Coliseum with the evening sky overhead, replete with moving clouds and twinkling stars.
Another place of interest and entertainment was at 225th Street, just off White Plains Road. There was a large open area where medicine men and salesmen would congregate, entertain, and hawk miracle cures, plus their wares. I recall on one occasion an American Indian drove a brand new 1932 Pontiac cross country, dressed in full native regalia. To indicate the speed he traveled at, he pointed to the radiator to show it was clogged with insects. The White Plains Road trolley line ran beneath the Third Avenue Elevated. At every train stop there was a movie house: the Wakefield, Laconia, BB, Burke, and Allerton theaters. It was at the Laconia where I saw my first talking movie in 1927; it was “The Jazz Singer” featuring Al Jolson.
After graduating P.S 78 on Needham Avenue in 1929, I attended Evander Childs High School at the Bedford Park annex until 1930. We were then transferred to the newly built Evander on Gun Hill Road. After one term there, I felt obligated to help augment the family income, so I dropped out from Evander to work full time.
At sixteen years of age I obtained a job in a fruit and vegetable store located in Woodlawn, on 239th Street and Katonah Avenue. There wasn’t any direct transportation to work, so I had to walk three miles each way, compounded by the fact that my job entailed delivering produce all day long. However, it became a fun job for me, and I became a member of the teenage crowd that hung out in Willie’s Candy Store on 239th Street and Katonah. On Willie’s candy counter was a tray with cigarettes for a penny apiece. If you felt prosperous, a pack cost you a dime.
Among the many new friends that I acquired in Woodlawn was Freddie Soldwedel, Howard’s brother. Through the magic of the Internet and The Bronx Board I contacted Howard, seventy-one years later.
One hot summer’s day in 1931 my friends and I were heading for Sullivan’s Beach when we were hailed by one of our new neighbors on 222nd Street. He was a man in his thirties with a heavy German accent. We later found out that our new neighbor was Bruno Hauptman. He later became implicated in the Lindbergh Kidnap case. Was he innocent or guilty? I remain noncommital on the outcome of this tragic event.
In 1932 the Great Depression was in full gear, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President, and Prohibition was repealed. The Banks were also shut down and my life savings of $8.75 were frozen. With his alphabet agencies, Roosevelt instituted many dramatic changes in this country. Among them was the N.R.A (National Recovery Act) which enacted into law a minimum salary of twenty-five cents per hour. The W.P.A (Works Progress Administration), under whose auspices the Hillside Homes were constructed, and the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps), of which I became a member in 1934. I was sent to Bassett, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The camp consisted of two hundred young men supervised by an Army Captain and a Lieutenant; our duty was to create The Fairy Stone National Park, which we accomplished by late 1935. We were paid the magnificent sum of thirty dollars a month, of which twenty-five were sent home to our parents. We had to survive on five dollars a month.
My year of duty was complete and the thrill of going back home to my beloved Bronx was indescribable. When our train was approaching New York, I could feel my heart throbbing in my chest. I would soon be back where I belonged, with my family.
In 1936, we were still in the throes of The Great Depression. My Dad had made a career change and now was a New York City electrician under Mayor LaGuardia. With five sons he had a problem remembering our names, so we all became “Sonny.” I registered with The New York Employment Agency and was interviewed for many cockamamie jobs such as the Dated Egg Company, who were out of business before I reached their office. Another beauty was a company that was selling a dog collar that was embellished with semi-precious stones. The dogs and their owners were really clamoring to possess this little hot item.
Finally in 1937, The Mapes Piano String Company on 134th Street And Willow Avenue employed me as a lathe operator making piano strings. I was now able to trade in my 1931 Model A Ford for a 1934 Ford V8. With this new acquisition I became very popular with my buddies and the gals. The fellows would chip in for gas at twelve cents a gallon, and we now could frequent Orchard Beach instead of Sullivan’s. On weekends we would clip the White Castle coupon from The New York Daily News. Then we redeemed them at the Allerton Avenue branch on Boston Post Road. This coupon entitled us to five hamburgers for ten cents. Another twenty- five cents went for a quart container of beer at the local pub, and we now had the ingredients for a royal feast.
In late 1937 my partying days were over. I met my beloved Bettie. She worked as a bookkeeper for National Bronx Bank on Freeman Street. We fell deeply in love, and I dated her exclusively for the next year and a half. That very fact proved to me that this was the woman that I was destined to marry. We were married at Our Lady Of Grace Roman Catholic Church on August 27, 1939. She became my partner, friend, advisor, and soulmate for sixty-two years. I was certainly blessed.