For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Recollections of Summer, 1936


by Doreen Brand

H

illside Homes was a privately owned housing project in the north Bronx. I lived there for5 years as a child. My parents moved there when I was eight because it was near mother's new teaching job at Evander Childs High School on Gunhill Road, and because it was a safe haven for growing children.

There were about fifty four-story buildings of red brick standing in a rectangle about six blocks long from Eastchester Road past Fenton Avenue, Seymour Avenue and Fish Avenue and bordered by Hicks Street and Boston Post Road. The uniform red buildings gave the place the feeling of a mini-city of sorts consisting of numerous shops, a Loews movie theater and P.S. 78, the school we all attended, which stood at walking distance just ouside the development, taking the responsibility for educating the scores of children passing through its doors.

Almost everywhere in the neighborhood cement sidewalks led from place to place. Only here and there a maple tree graced the landscape.that was dominated by brick and cement.

Often, in winter, with faces pressed against the glass, we watched from windows as hordes of dancing snowflakes skipped out of the heavens while cars skidded over slippery streets. Nightfall crept down, limiting visibility. The next day shovels could be heard early in the morning, as building custodians removed the packed snow from sidewalks. Sleds came out of cellars and off we stamped in galoshes-clad feet to the hill at the schoolyard which was empty of children when school was out on Saturdays.

In summer, the sidewalks sizzled. New York heat in summer is legendary. Ninety degree temperatures sent families off to Orchard Beach and City Island in buses. Few people had cars. Mothers took small children down to the playground wading pools. These pools provided the only local relief from the hot sidewalks and airless atmosphere. Fans were rare and air conditioners were non-existent. Old folks mostly stayed indoors. Bronx winters and summers were accepted by Bronx dwellers as inevitable.

Thanks to Dad, my sister and I were exposed to another kind of life in spite of living in The Bronx. We had our own private woods. Actually, they were public woods, but in the numerous times I wandered through those woods I don't ever recall meeting another person. Perhaps it was because parents cautioned children never to go there alone, and were not available to take them. The woods were located at one end of our city block, on the corner of Fenton Avenue and Hicks Street. You couldn't enter at ground level because they were situated about eight feet above ground. You had to climb a clay-like mound just to reach the woods. Then, you had to inch your way along the mound's edge, carefully fingering the prickly needles of each fir tree to find those less dense places which would allow entre into this special place.

Once inside, you were greeted by the fragrance the evergreens sent to welcome you. Taking a deep breath, you wandered down the narrow path that laced these woods, making every corner accessible. Enjoying relief from the outside heat, you became aware of the peeping and chirping going back and forth among hidden birds commenting to each other on your unexpected arrival. The density of the overhead, leaf-laden branches allowed only occasional viewing of the robins, cardinals and ever-noisy blue jays. Flowers were everywhere. Here in the shade, my favorite wildflower, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, flourished. They grew low to the ground, hidden by leaves - the only completely green flower I had ever seen. In future years I rarely met anyone who ever heard of this striped, elongated flute, with its graceful overhead canopy sheltering Jack - or was it Jill?

Ambling along, we watched the upper branches separate to reveal a portion of azure sky and white cotton clouds puffing by. Here, more wildflowers, the kind that worship the sun: daisies, dandelions, Queen Anne's Lace. All became part of my growing bouquet that would later grace our dinner table.

A chipmunk scurried by, and then another in hot pursuit. Standing stark still so as not to frighten them, I suddenly felt frightened myself as a slow moving, speckled, garter snake presented itself, spitting unsociably, before slithering away into the brush.

Holding tightly to my little sister's hand, and flicking a clinging brown beetle from her shoulder, we completed the final leg of our journey through our woods. Then, I gently pulled her through the secret leafy exit.

The woods were our respite from the hot sidewalks of The Bronx. They gave us a taste of a world others enjoyed and the impetus to seek it out on our own in adulthood.




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