For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

My Bronx Oasis

by Chris Smith


ew York University’s Bronx campus was located on University Avenue and approximately 180th Street. My family lived at 1934 Harrison Avenue, just about two blocks away. My earliest memory of the Bronx campus of N.Y.U.. was around 1964 when I was seven years old. My dad had taken me there on a Saturday afternoon to ride my bicycle as it was very open and spacious. Although the campus wasn't opened to the general public, as long as children were supervised, the campus security didn't seem to mind. I had a great afternoon of bicycle riding and discovering a place that - although not a park - was spacious and offered a lot of the freedoms that a park does.

It wasn't long before I was bugging my father to take me back to the N.Y.U. campus again. This time we discovered the World War One cannons and artillery located at the west end of the campus at the base of the flagpole near the student union building. I still remember that deep dark green they were painted. What a major find this was for me. I couldn't stop climbing all over them playing imaginary war games. From the cannons it was onto the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame was a winding open air exhibit that faced west toward Manhattan and overlooked the Harlem River. The Hall featured busts of noted Americans and gave a brief story of each one. This sparked an idea in my father’s mind to have me do a school report on all the people featured here on our next trip to the campus. That really went over big with me.

A neighbor on the floor below us was a student at N.Y.U. by the name of Miriam. Miriam was very friendly with my mom and my sister Madeline and also took a liking to me. One day while in conversation with my mom she said if ever I wanted to use the indoor Olympic-sized pool at the campus to let her know and she would give me her student identification card to get in. Man, I thought I died and went to heaven! That had to be one of the best summers I ever had. I was up there every day that summer of ‘67. I was the envy of all my friends on a lot of those hot summer days. I cried when Miriam graduated N.Y.U. and moved out of the Bronx. What was to become of my pool privileges that I thought would go on indefinitely?

Salvation! My mom and Aunt Liz got jobs together working in the student cafeteria on the campus. My pool privileges were intact for the following summer. My cousin Barry and I would go to the campus and wait for our moms to finish work at 5:00 p.m.. Right outside the cafeteria was the campus track and field. We used to have so much fun wrestling on the foam rubber pits used by the pole vaulters. I'll always remember the wooden track that they would assemble for track meets. It was not flat but was rather on an angle which my cousin and I found difficult to run on.

I was now going up to the campus more and more, as were my friends. We used to play basketball there for hours on end after school. We also used to play ring-a-levio which oddly enough evolved into a new game called "chase."

I guess there were complaints that a lot of young kids were roaming the campus, and although we weren't causing any trouble, the campus security had to address this problem. So now we were going onto the campus solely to be chased by the security people. The guards seemed to be mostly retired guys. They wore grayish-blue uniforms and drove big black Grand Fury sedans that had New York University written on the doors. It was a big thrill to watch the sedans setting up to cut us off as soon as word went out that we were on campus. Occasionally one of the guards would get out of his sedan and get into a brief pursuit with one of us. Here were these security guys thinking that they had it made in a nice relaxing campus security job and these young kids were making life miserable for them.

Well I can say I got my just deserts one day. As one of the older guards exited his car and approached us, my friends ran but I defiantly stood my ground. My plan was to stay ‘till I was within his arms’ reach and then run, taunting him the whole time as he approached. As I turned to run off the curb, I twisted my ankle and fell. The boot to you-know-where that I got from that guard was like a major victory for all the security personnel. As I hobbled to my feet I was escorted by my collar to the University Avenue staircase exit. I'm sure that the outcome could have been worse with the police and my parents being called. Fortunately it didn't come to that.

As I got older and wanted to sneak a cigarette out of any neighbor’s view, we would go to the campus. When you got to the top of the stairs from University Avenue, there was a lawn to your left that had this huge old tree with a five foot pit around it. This seemed like the perfect hideaway to sneak a cig. It was on one of these occasions that I noticed on the wall of the student dormitory the phrase "Free Bobby" and "Free Huey". These phrases were appearing more and more around the campus with other people’s names as well. I really didn't understand what it meant but admit I was intrigued by the word free. It wasn't until years later that I came to find out that these were the names of members of a radical group called the Black Panthers. I guess it was just a reflection of the social upheaval going on around the country at the time. After all, this was a college campus and it was the students that drove the anti-war movement at the time. All this really didn't have any impact on a twelve-year-old kid at the time. Even though my brother was serving in the Army over in Vietnam, I was just twelve years old and having fun at N.Y.U.’s campus with not a care in the world.

My family eventually moved out to New Jersey and N.Y.U. became Bronx Community College. For many years to follow, my heart was still in the Bronx. The fond memories I have of the N.Y.U. campus will be in my heart forever though. Walking the campus with my dad, learning new things, my cousins and our moms having little picnics on the sprawling lawn, my cousin and our fathers playing two-on-two touch football at the athletic field... I guess I never realized how much we utilized that place and what it meant to me so many years later. It was truly an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of the Bronx streets outside.

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