Moving to Gun Hill Projects
moved to Gun Hill Projects with my mother and my sister in 1964.
We had lived on Fulton Avenue across the street from Crotona Park. I liked it there. It was the only home I knew. I had enjoyed many summers and winters playing in the park, walking to Indian Lake and walking along the top of the concrete grandstands of the ball fields in the park. I also spent many summer days flying kites from the roof of my building at 1591. My building was a block away from the pool. Our windows faced the back and I was no stranger to the rumbling sound of the Third Avenue El. Three years earlier, my father had died. The memories of those sunny summer days of walking with him over to Tremont Avenue to watch them build the Cross Bronx Expressway were a little bittersweet.
The neighborhood was changing. One night we came home to find that a man had been stabbed on Claremont Parkway. He was right there on the ground in front of the bus stop, the life oozing from his body. Fires in buildings were becoming more and more prevalent. Roaches were taking over our apartment, and it was not uncommon to hear that someone down the street was robbed of all his belongings. My mother knew it was time to move. She submitted an application to the Housing Department, and in February we moved uptown to Gun Hill Road, the last stop of the Third Avenue El.
Our new building was 3445 Holland Avenue. It was one of the middle buildings in a complex of six fourteen-story buildings. Three were on Holland Avenue and three were on White Plains Road. I was excited at the prospect of making new friends, and letting go of some of those old, sad memories left behind a few El stops away. The park-like setting of the projects and their having elevators was a step up in my eyes; besides, I was getting my own room. On the first day that we went to our new apartment, it snowed. There was a small hill in front of my building and all the kids were out there sleigh-riding. There was an even bigger hill on the other side. What amazed me most was how many kids were around. I soon found out, however, that making new friends was not going to be easy.
I went out to play. I had my snow shovel and I was digging snow in one of the many playgrounds in the Projects. It wasn’t long before I was surrounded by a bunch of kids wondering who the new kid was. Somehow, my shovel got into the hands of a kid younger than me. I was trying to get it back but all the older kids told him not too give it up. Every time I went near him to get the shovel back, he would swing it. The shovel hit me on the hand and I ended up with a big gash. As I walked back to my building, I was starting to think this was not a very friendly place. My mom and sister were out shopping and I didn’t have the key, so I sat on the bench and waited. Just then a young girl came out of my building. Seeing that I was bleeding, she came over to help. I told her the story of what happened and then she walked me upstairs to her apartment and bandaged up my hand.
My new school was P.S. 41. Making friends there was not any easier; I was being tested by my peers. Who is the kid? What is he made of? I was getting into fights with every kid and their brothers too. I must have had a least three fights that first week. I was ready to move back to my old neighborhood, whether my mother was coming or not. Being nine years old and in a new neighborhood was not easy. I had never experienced this in my old neighborhood. I think it had to do with the fact that I grew up there. I was already established. Soon the winter melted into spring. I was a year older and I had made a couple of friends in school. I wasn’t fighting as much, so I guess they were friends.
I was intrigued by the names of the streets in my neighborhood. Gun Hill Road: I envisioned scenes of the old west, with gun fighters, guns a-blazing. White Plains Road
always gave me the image of a snow-covered field. And I later learned that Bartholdi Street was named after the artist who created the Statute of Liberty. I started exploring the neighborhood. Walking up The Avenue (White Plains Road) was interesting. Evander Sweet Shop was on the corner of Gun Hill and White Plains Roads. There was the Pizza Shop, where I ended up working in later years. Babbin’s Hardware Store, fruit stands, and many other stores lined The Avenue. In the other direction was Burke Avenue. White Plains Road was not called “The Avenue” south of Gun Hill Road. There was Jack the Barber, who turned out to be the neighborhood historian. He said his shop had been on White Plains Road for eighty years and he knew everything about the neighborhood. Jack told me the Projects used to be a goat farm. The only problem was that Jack told you these stories while he was cutting your hair. By the time he finished, you had a crew cut. Then there was Luke’s, the auto mechanic. Everybody called him Lukey. If you looked into his garage you could see old harnesses hanging on the walls, used by an earlier mode of transportation.
Even though I was forbidden to venture this far alone, Bronx Park was calling me to explore it. I could see it from the Third Avenue El whenever we rode by. My mother would warn me to stay away, because of the river. Of course a ten-year-old has got to do what he’s got to do. I was thrilled by the tunnel under The Bronx River Parkway, but I have to admit I was a little leery to venture too far down some of those overgrown paths. I had no idea were they would take me. Eventually I would come to know that park like the back of my hand. And yes, I did walk right up to the edge of the river. I hope Mom isn’t reading this. I had many adventures in Bronx Park. I will save those accounts for another time.
I was always attracted to construction sites; maybe my visits with my dad over to the Cross Bronx construction site was the reason. I liked to watch the steam shovels dig and the bulldozers push dirt around. In those early spring months of 1964, there was a construction site in my neighborhood. On any given afternoon you could find me on Holland Ave and North Oak Drive, watching them build Oak Towers. They were also putting in new sewers. The steam shovel was digging up the middle of Holland Avenue.
Every few feet, the steam shovel came up against solid rock. That’s when the fun really started. They had to blast that rock with dynamite. The whistle would blow, the ground would shake, and when they lifted up the iron mats, all you could see were bits of rock surrounded by smoke. It was great.
The big sections of concrete sewer pipe were stored all over the neighborhood. They were big enough for a ten-year-old to crawl through. And of course, I did just that. Sometimes I would just sit in the middle of the tube and watch people as they walked by. All you could really see were their shoes, but it gave the neighborhood a “round” perspective.
One day, sitting in one of the tubes that was being stored on Magenta Street, I saw two sets of Pro-Keds walk by. Then the sneakers reappeared from the opposite direction. They stopped in front of the entrance to my little hideaway. The blue jeans above the sneakers were a little on the short side - high waters, the sign of growing youth. Then I saw two faces looking in at me. One kid had dark hair, the other had red hair and freckles.
“Hey kid, is that were you live?” the dark haired one said.
I thought to myself, “Oh, no, here we go again. Fight number 396 since I moved to the projects.”
I then gave the answer that changed my life forever. I said, “Yeah.”
I came out of tube and was face-to-face with two skinny kids about my age. They were wearing black, high-top sneakers, blue jeans, and those colorful, horizontally stripped tee shirts, the uniform of the day. They were a couple of Dennis the Menace lookalikes. I was too, for that matter. It seems that they too liked to play in the concrete sewer pipes. Well, they didn’t kick my butt. I didn’t have to fight. We sort of sized each other up. After a few minutes of this, the three of us spent the rest of the day watching the steam shovel on Holland Avenue.
The church bells from Immaculate Conception sounded. That meant it was almost six o’clock and time to go home for dinner. The dark haired kid headed home toward Burke Avenue. The red haired kid lived in the Projects. We walked home together. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We have been best friends for forty years.
It’s never easy being the new kid on the block. It may have taken three months, but you are always blessed when you make a friend for life. The common thread that keeps us laughing till we cry is the memories of growing up in Gun Hill Projects.