Castle On the Hill
f you were a kid who grew up in Castle Hill projects, then you were the luckiest kid in the Bronx. We moved to Castle Hill when it was brand new in April of 1960. We had panoramic view of Manhattan from our seventeenth floor apartment. We felt the vibration of low flying jets as they passed by on their way to LaGuardia, which we could see from our window too. We could see both the Throgs Neck and the Whitestone Bridges, which at night reflected on the Long Island Sound. The new Projects were beautifully landscaped with a star-shaped flowerbed in the front of our building and a circular-shaped one in the back. This was before they covered the back flowerbed with blacktop and put in stone benches and checkerboards. Not too long after we moved into Castle Hill, the Throgs Neck Bridge opened. A guy on a bike was the first one to cross it. The senior citizens and young mothers would sit out in the back with their carriages and become acquainted while watching their children and grandchildren play.
To my brothers and me, that tiny three-bedroom apartment in 635 Castle Hill Avenue was a palace. Our mom was a housewife like most of the moms who lived there. She kept that place immaculate. Roaches? Nah, not in our apartment. Mom had the cure. Confectioners sugar and boric acid was her antidote, and it worked. In the mornings, Mom would walk with us along Olmstead Avenue to P.S. 138 and turn onto Lafayette Avenue and later have lunch ready for us when we got home. Yeah, in those days you could go home for lunch. Most of our friends had large families so you usually ended up attending school in the same class with someone’s younger or older brother or sister.
We remember our neighbors, .the Greenbaums, Brookmans, Wax’s, Keplers, Fazios, Jaffes and Ferraras We remember the milk deliveries from the dairy on Hermany Ave. Milk was delivered in glass bottles then and nobody stole them. One morning, when one of the bottles broke in the hallway, our neighbor Mrs. Greenbaum opened the door to help us clean it up. That was when we met our best friend Fay. Our friendship has lasted more than forty years. It was truly a community where everyone knew and respected one another.
In our neighborhood, there was Food Fair, McCrory’s, a bakery, the Chinese laundry, the dry cleaner, liquor store, the Deli and the pizza place across the street on Castle Hill between Randall and Cincinatis. At the “Luncheonette” you could get an egg cream, floats, candy, comic books and newspapers. A twenty-five cents allowance got you two candy bars, the latest Marvel comic and three Bazooka Joe bubble gums. The Castle Hill library under Food Fair was the place where everybody would meet to do homework or to meet boys or girls.
Most of all, we remember the fun we had in the summers in Castle Hill. We didn’t take many family vacations since our Dad was busy coaching the Castle Hill softball team. We didn’t mind because Dad would take us on family picnics, and he gave us the time we needed with him and that was enough for us. Some of the team used to hang out in our apartment and play cards. We remember a favorite card game was “Fan Tan”. We don’t remember much about how to play it but it certainly caused a lot of laughter and fun. Neil Berger was there all the time. We sort of adopted him because he practically lived with us. He was Dad’s assistant coach who just loved hanging out in the Harris apartment. Neil has been our brother and son for over 30 years. The O’Garro sisters, Noel Twins and Terry Hill and my sister would visit each other and listen to Motown, do our hair, learn the latest dance moves, talk about other neighborhood girls and eat. We didn’t do much talking on the phone other than setting up a rendezvous place and time. The O’Garro sister’s lived in 2140 Seward and Mona loved going there because they always had snacks. Fay would hang out with us in the evenings since she was busy with dance lessons and other artsy stuff during the day. Since there was no air conditioning, on hot nights the windows were open, and we even slept with the front door open to get a cool breeze from the hallway. As kids, we would run up and down the staircase playing tag, go out onto the roof (which was twenty stories high) on hot summer nights, and just enjoy the fun of being a kid in the sixties.
All the tenants on each floor shared the terrace. It became our private domain and clubhouse and we would challenge anyone who came to our floor uninvited to play. Another cool thing about the terrace was that it had vents against the fencing through which you could call down or up to the terraces on the floors above and below you. It also had little indentations or coves where you could hide out. The terrace was our own field of dreams since we played every sport imaginable. When it was locked in the winter, we would climb in through the window of the terrace and have snowball fights or, for those of us more daring, we would steal our parents’ cigarettes and sneak a smoke on the terrace. Another winter memory was one of our neighbors in the building - Joanna Dentico – who played organ and piano and around Christmas time would set her organ close to her living room window and play beautiful Christmas Carols, which could be heard for blocks.
The playground behind our building on Randall Avenue between Castle Hill and Olmstead was another world unto itself. It had a sand box, basketball courts, handball courts, monkey bars, skelly, hopscotch and the sprinklers. It had a “park house” with bathrooms and the “Parky” would give out balls and games for us to play, while he and his friends would play pinochle inside the park house.
The playground is where we learned to play Ring-a-leeveo, Red Rover, freeze tag, paddle ball, stickball and of course basketball. The playground had a pecking order: older kids got first dibs on the courts. Even if you were in the middle of a game, when the older kids came on the court, you had to leave; that was the unwritten rule of the playground. Summers in the playground were filled with laughter and music from different radios playing WABC (top 40) or WWRL-AM, (Motown and R&B) depending on your taste in music. Our curfew was when the streetlamps came on or when Mom would raise the shade in the kitchen and announce that it was time to come upstairs. Mr. Softee, Bungalo Bar, The Good Humor Truck and of course “Al’s Truck” keep us fed and cool with ice cream, soda’s, ices and all kind of sugar laden treats. Now that we are older with our own children and the responsibilities that come with middle age, we often wish we could go back in time to a simpler time of our youth in the Castle Hill Projects.
Our children should be so lucky!