Going Home to The Bronx

In 1970-71, my family lived in the Bronx – the Norwood Heights section – on a street called Bainbridge Avenue. I attended sixth grade at a school named P.S. 56 (Public School) – in a class taught by  Mrs. Tinkelman. My father was teaching at City College of New York and my mother was completing her masters at IMG_0282Fordham.

It was a remarkable change for a kid from the bleached L.A. suburb of Claremont, where everything was sunny, non-ethnic, where migrants from across America had landed and left a lot of who they were back home.

My PS 56 classmates were Jews, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, a Ukrainian, a Puerto Rican, and about 10 black kids bussed in from South Bronx. It was the first time I’d known any kids you could describe in those ways. It was nothing like I had ever experienced back in suburban L.A. I loved the time. Their accents seemed to come from mafia movies. I learned to play stickball. The Jewish boys I knew all wore ties to school every day. A few of the black kids talked back to the teacher constantly, which amazed me, but they always did their homework.

On Wednesdays, for the weekly assembly, the school required the girls to wear white dresses, and we boys to wear white shirts and ties, which in time I grew to like.

At school was the first I heard the term “high waters” – this in reference to pants I was wearing. I had no idea what people were talking about at first, then I did and insisted my mom buy me better-fitting jeans. I also spent the entire year thinking “Ho” was a reference to a garden tool but didn’t understand why the tool would be so often mentioned.

I bought my first 45s – “Let It Be,” the song that most reminds me of the Bronx, and “I’ll Be There,” which is the second-most. My parents enrolled my brother, Nate, and me in an “ecology” class at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. Every Saturday for eight weeks, we’d march to the elevated train on Jerome Avenue and take the subway into town – two boys alone, ages 11 and 9. Never had a problem.

That year, the World Trade towers were completed, Frank Serpico was in the news, and the bank robbery happened that was later made into the movie “Dog Day Afternoon.” Times Square did not look like corporate Disneyland – but in fact looked quite the opposite.

In the Bronx, I met the first two kids I’d ever known with my last name. Puerto Rican brothers. We played basketball together at the Mosholu-Montefiore Community Center, where I also took a pottery class. I had my first girlfriend at PS 56, though I was terrified to talk to her. Her name was Linda Neihardt.

At school, I was milk monitor, distributing milk to the other classes, along with Frankie Campbell, Salvatore, and Terry – whose last names I’ve long forgotten. We spent time around Joe the Janitor, who had a heavy New York accent. I always wondered what became of them. Frankie and Terry were from South Bronx and were growing up to reach young adulthood as the Bronx famously became a war zone.

When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time in the Fight of the Century, which it probably was, I was the only kid in my class rooting for Ali. I found this strange, for to me Muhammad Ali was the only reason to care about the sport of boxing, and I haven’t since he retired. Several kids asked me why I had moved from California to New York as so many folks were headed the other direction.IMG_0402

Yesterday, I was invited to speak about my book at the nearby Montefiore Hospital’s psychiatry department. Afterward, my daughter and I walked down a transformed Bainbridge Avenue. The house where I lived for a year is now home to the hospital’s Children’s Psychiatry unit. The Bainbridge Pizzeria, which served still the best pizza I’ve ever had, is now the Norwood Grocery. Bainbridge is dotted with 99-cents stores, small Chinese and Latin restaurants, cellphone shops and beauty parlors.

P.S. 56 when I went there was woefully under serviced, with ancient plumbing and only a small patch of fenced-off grass. Now it is under complete reconstruction. A worker told me they were adding new classrooms, a new gym, and a playground. It’s due to open in September.IMG_0319

The area is now home to mainly Dominicans, but also Muslims (judging from women in shador dress), Pakistanis, some Mexicans (judging from a store or two), and blacks. No white people at all.

This change probably came many years ago, and I found it fascinating because I had not heard in the news that it had happened. I found that encouraging.

In the countries where many of these immigrants, and those with whom I lived, are from, the concept of “holy land” and who it belongs to seems part of the history of life. Ancient battles, purges and pogroms, bitter feuds tenderly nurtured over generations divide one ethnic or religious group from another and keep neighborhoods, villages, static and unchanging.

(In the years after I left, the neighborhood became a refuge for folks from Northern Ireland escaping the violence there, was known as Little Belfast and was a hotbed of support for the IRA. Norwood spawned one Irish band, Black 47. The Irish influence waned after peace came to Northern Ireland and folks returned.)

This concept is foreign to anyone from Southern California, with its rambunctious real estate market that shapes neighborhoods, then reshapes them again 25 years later, and aggressive sunshine I’ve always felt helps people leave the Old World behind.

True, it has had its eruptions in the form of gang feuds and violence, but they have subsided to the point where they almost don’t eIMG_0386xist any more.

I don’t know how well folks in the neighborhood get along today. It wasn’t perfect back when I was living there.

But in Norwood Heights, a massive demographic transformation took place twice in the space of 40 years and it happened quietly, organically and without the kind of eruptions that might attract national, much less worldwide, attention.

It felt good to be back.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Going Home to The Bronx

  1. Hi. Thanks for your blog entry. I also attended PS 56 in the 70s, probably a few years behind you. I had Mrs. Tinkelman also; she lived just down the block from the school. Sixth grade which for me was 1975. I lived on 209th Street a block away from the school. I wish some pieces of the former neighborhood …the people were still there but no, no one remains as far as I know. It’s good to see it hasn’t changed too much in terms of buildings.

  2. Wendy Miller

    Hello Sam,
    My older brother always peruses websites about the Bronx and directed me to one called Forgotten Bronx because there happened to be an article about a candy store on Gun Hill Road that we were familiar with. He told me to look at the names of people who left comments in case I recognized any of the names.
    Don’t ask me why after over 40 years that I remembered YOUR name! I know you would have no idea who I was (not anywhere as pretty as Linda Neighdhart) but we were in the same class at PS 56. I had Mrs. Tinkelman for 4th and 6th grade.
    I’m so glad that you have fond memories of your short time living in The Bronx. It was a great place to grow up in.

    • samquinones

      Wendy- Oh my goodness! i just saw this. i remember you very well. Woah, what a weird thing – the magic of the Internet.

      Thank you so much for writing. I wonder if you know of what happened to any of our classmates.
      please let me know your story over the last 40 years. My website tells most of mine. I stayed in NY only that year, then we moved back to Southern California.

      • Itzik Gottesman

        Sam – I was your next door neighbor on Bainbridge and baby sat for you and brother (s?). I hope you are well – Itzik

        • samquinones

          Itze Gottesman as I live and breathe!!!…..the miracles of the Internet never cease. I’m very well. thanks so much for getting in touch. I have only fond memories of you, your parents, your brother….We spent only a year in the bronx, but it had enormous impact on me, as I was old enough to have it mean something to a kid from LA’s suburbs….My brothers were Nathaniel, Benjamin and Joshua….Nathaniel (Nate) died in a car accident in 1979. My mother also died of cancer that year. My brothers are lawyers, my father is still around, though very frail….i’ve been a journalist for many years, living in LA…I don’t know about your house, but the house we lived in was, when I passed, a center for children’s medicine…thanks again for writing in….Sam

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