Me, Space, Time, and Architecture
No. 2 Feb. 2023
Continuing with the impacts an apartment in a tenement on Willow Ave. in Hoboken New Jersey had on a child.
I at 6 or 7 years old. Sitting in the living room in front of the window
Several important architectural features are visible in this photo. The first is the fire escape. The first law requiring fire escapes was enacted in 1860, through fire codes. The fire codes have been greatly revised in recent history. Fire escapes have been almost eliminated with the advent of new requirements and materials.
A close look at the photo, with me holding a stick pony, shows the iron slats that formed the fire escape floor. Escape would be determined by what you feared most, a fear of heights, or the fear of fire. Climbing out onto the fire escape meant a view directly down, in my case four stories.
The fire escape was also used as an outdoor balcony during hot summer nights. There were no air conditioners in the early 50s tenements. My mother solved my fear of heights with a blanket thrown over the metal slats. With my blanket and pillow, I would climb onto the fire escape after dinner on hot nights for a cool good night's sleep.
One could hear the sounds of neighbors out for a smoke or looking for an escape from the sweltering heat. The unintended uses of the fire escape included a break from the heat, a place to smoke, and unfortunately access for criminals to apartments. The impact this architectural feature had on me was a feeling of openness. I would lie and look up to view the night sky and listen to the unforgettable sounds of the city at night. Muted conversations would drift through the night air from open windows, traffic below on Willow Ave. sent a rhythmic song upward, and soft voices of others just trying to escape the heat filled the night.
|Willow Avenue façade of fire escapes|
Looking closely at the photo of the boy above one can see the opposite side of the street in the early 50s. The buildings were reflections of the tenements. A service station and some retail stores were staring back at me from the ground floor. In the back of the service station was a stable with access to an ally. Yes even in the early 50s there were horses in Hoboken.
I was told on the roof of one of those old buildings is where Marlon Brando shot the pigeon coop scene for On The Waterfront in the early 50s.
Today looking from my 50s window you will see the 200-unit Fox Hill Gardens a public housing project. There are no fire escapes to serve as balconies to escape the heat or view the open sky. The whole block was razed for the 60s or 70s modern mid-rise building. I preferred the historic architecture the memories of a clear sky and the sounds of the city.
|A view of Fox Hill Garden from the tenements across the street |
How else did the Hoboken streets and architecture impact those of us living in them? Well, they provided employment for kids, recreation, and relief from the summer heat.
Remember horses were on the streets of Hoboken in the early 50s. There were policemen on horseback and the vegetable man with his horse-drawn wagon.
My very first job was with the vegetable man. An Italian immigrant would pull his horse-drawn vegetable wagon down the middle of Willow Avenue, shouting in broken English "Vegetables, Fruit, for sale." The sounds of his horse's hooves and his voice vibrated off the building like he was in a valley of echoes. Women would shout out their orders from the windows high and low above the street. Vegetable man would pack their orders in brown paper bags. With what must have been a geese pencil he would scribble each item and its cost on the bag. The bags with deep black graphics were his works of art. A bag with the amount owed was handed to his helpers, usually a kid from the block. Our job was to run up to the apartments, deliver the groceries, and collect the money. Hopefully, a delivery boy would get a 5-cent tip. In many buildings that 5-cent tip was for climbing the stairs 5 stories.
|Typical horse-drawn vegetable wagon and vegetable man of the 50s |
It should be noted that refrigeration was still very new and expensive. In many of the apartments tenants still used ice boxes. The ice box would keep vegetable man's grocers fresh for a few days. It was the ice man's job to deliver ice for the ice box. He would carry a large block up to an apartment. In the apartment, he would chip off a smaller piece that would fit in individual ice boxes (refrigerators in the tenements).
The ice man delivering blocks of ice
The ice box being filled
As for recreation in the streets of Willow Ave., there were street showers. During the hot summer, the fire department would occasionally set up street showers. The showers were connected to fire hydrants; in some cases, the fire hydrant was just opened and one ran through the open hydrant. Government officials felt the showers relieved tensions on the streets. Some of us didn't have bathing suits so underwear would be used to access the showers.
|Street showers in the 50s|
The stoops in front of each tenement were the social, economical, and political hub of each building. Stoops worked like social media today. The subjects ranged from that kid is a troublemaker to comments on the socio-economics of the neighborhood. A building also reflected its own ethnicity. In the early 50s, our building was mostly German, Norwegian, and Italian. No African Americans or Puerto Ricans were in our building or on our block.
Changing ethnicity on a block and in a building created conflict and change for many families. In our apartment talk of no work was confirmed when electric bills were not paid and the lights went out.
Employment, boosted by war production, had remained high in the years immediately following World War II in Hoboken. The Hoboken Land & Improvement Company sold the waterfront and docks, and job opportunities slowly disappeared in the early 50s. There was a brief surge in manufacturing jobs in the 50s but the garment manufacturers, especially Sweets Company of America, the manufacturer of Tootsie Rolls, recruited a new group immigrating to the US. Puerto Ricans began to move to Hoboken with low air fairs and the draw of manufacturing jobs. On the stoops of our building, the conversations became dark and confrontational. Puerto Ricans and Blacks were moving into the neighborhood.
In our apartment, my father was very vitriolic. He had a sixth-grade education had served in Kora and saw duty in Germany. Irish and Nordic heritage he was a big man, six foot two inches and 250 pounds with a chip on his shoulder. I don't think it helped that he came from a divorced family. The only child of an Irish father and a Norwegian mother. His bigoted bullying temperament was balanced by my mother. She had a high school education and had Italian and Jewish heritage. She was short dark complected and often identified as Italian. She suffered the slurs of the time. She had been called a Wop and Ginny. I think that gave her an innate tolerance for others.
With the transformation of our block and building, I can imagine my mother sitting on the stoop of our apartment, contemplating our next move, hoping to improve her child's life.
|Typical stoop life in the 50s|
|My imagination of a mother's contemplation |
A move from the tenements of Willow Ave. will introduce a new architectural style for apartment living. My next home would be 103 First St. Hoboken NJ.
This blog is written by a dyslexic writer with no editor. I think the inaccuracies are a part of the story.