Saturday, February 11, 2023

 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.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Me, Space, Time, and Architecture

 New Idea for Posts

(Me, Space, Time, and Architecture)

Given my age, I suppose it is natural to look back more than forward. Forward seems to have a shorter shelf life.  I should tell you I am nearing the octogenarian stage of life. 

With my career choice and education in architecture, I moved quickly into construction and development.  Construction projects required an early morning alarm. Usually 5am. Now in retirement early to bed and early to rise means bed around 8pm and getting up around 4 or 5am. This allows me to tell people I get up at the same time now as when I worked.  There is a lot less stress in those early hours. I no longer worry if cocreate trucks are going to show up. Finding that first cup of coffee at 4am while waiting for the sun to rise leaves plenty of time to think and reflect on life. 

Therein lies the impetus to reenergize this blog.  Over a 4am coffee, I began to think of books I had read as an architectural student.  Out of nowhere which is how the brain works at my age came Space, Time, and Architecture by Sigfried Giedion. Ah! I said I can write a book defining life in terms of architecture.  I thought I could define the socio-economic and political impacts on architecture and the effects the built environment has on its occupants.  

I have always been interested in technology.  Given my age, it may be hard to believe but I began my research on google, not at the public library.  I wanted to start in the 1940s, I was born in 1944.  I also wanted to start with the architecture of my childhood. So my first search was a history of Hoboken, NJ, and the development of the tenement apartment.  I found Hoboken's history has been very well documented and presented in a book published by the Hoboken Historical Museum.  The following information is paraphrased from that book. "Since 1932 the city has made notable strides in the manufacturing field. In the 1940 census, there were twenty schools with an enrollment of 12,322. One college (Stevens Institute of Technology). Twenty-six churches. One free public library. One hospital. The population was 49,833."  

page 20 Hoboken Historical Museum "Industrial progress makes forward strides"

Housing that population would fall to the hands of the architects, builders, and landlords who would replace shanty towns with multifamily housing in the form of tenements. The typical tenement apartment developed in Hoboken was called a Dumbbell Plan.  I have shown examples of the plan and some photos of those tenements below.  Today many of those structures that survived demolition have found new life as expensive apartments and condominiums.   

This was the plan we lived in on Willow Ave. in the late 40s and early 50s

The above floor plan is an example of the home where I formed my first memories.

There were no bathrooms in the apartment the toilets were shared by the tenants on each floor. On the first floor, you came in the front door and entered a long hallway usually dimly lit that lead to a central stairway (tenements also known as walkups) our apartment was on the fourth floor.  Creaky stairwells poorly lit left a lasting impression on me.  When you reached your floor you walked down the hallway to enter your apartment directly into the kitchen.  You walked through the first bedroom my room to my parent's room.  Each room had a small window that opened to the courtyard which formed the signature feature of the dumbbell plan. One could almost reach out the kitchen window and touch the neighbor across the courtyard.  Clothing lines were pulled between kitchen windows across the courtyard and conversations flowed between kitchen windows as clothes were hand washed and hung to dry.  

I lived in this Washington Ave. tenement when I was born in 1944

Washington Street has been preserved in a historic district

Willow Ave also preserved became my home of first memories
I had no concept or understanding that anyone lived in anything other than an apartment.  We bathed at the kitchen sink.  A trip to the toilet may require patience depending on whether the neighbor had gotten there first.  The toilet room was in the hallway on the wall above the toilet was a wooden water reservoir hanging from the reservoir was a small linked chain with a porcelain handle to flush the toilet. Strange how these little details remain so visible in my mind. 

Entering the kitchen directly from the hallway was normal.  The kitchen had a gas stove, sink, and was furnished with a Formica and aluminum table and chairs.  The kitchen opened directly into the living room. My early memory of the living room was the flowered wallpaper a large cushioned chair and a sofa both covered with a floral print.  The only other furniture in the living room was a wood-standing radio.  The outside wall of the living room revealed a pair of double-hung windows that opened onto a firescape that hung from the building façade. The façade of Willow Ave. above has not changed from that of my childhood with one exception the wood windows have been replaced with metal framed windows. 

This is the first of a series of  Me, Space, Time, and Architecture posts.  I hope you enjoy the journey. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Bridge to Forgiveness

After 37 years my daughter Tanya and I found each other.  We began to communicate by phone, email and text.  Through the dyslexic ramblings in my blog posts she saw a search for change and Forgiveness.  After several months we would meet for the first time in 3 decades.

Photos of our first time together.

To understand how we made this happen. Read our book.
click on the link

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Bridge to Forgiveness

The Journey to forgiveness for my daughter Tanya and I started with honesty, trust and faith. As we began our communications through emails and telephone communications we shared some of our missed 37 years.  I began by sending baby photos of Tanya that she had never seen.

To learn more about our journey click and read

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A Bridge to Forgiveness

How my daughter and I started to reconnect after 37 years.
After our first phone call we continued to talk, email and share who we had become.  This included sharing family photos. 

I first saw my new family in a collage and in a photo of my three granddaughters.

To learn more of how we reconnected and why we wrote A Bridge to  Forgiveness click and read our book.

Monday, January 14, 2019

A Bridge to Forgiveness

A Bridge to Forgiveness is about a father and daughter reunited after 37 years.  
On our journey the photo and sketch of the bridge that crosses the Rouge River at Grants Pass became part of our story.  

 Tanya and I visited Grants Pass and this bridge in 2014

I drew this sketch in 1996 eighteen years before Tanya and I would visit this bridge on our journey to forgiveness.

Click on 
and read our story

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Jan 3, 2019

Now that "A Bridge to Forgiveness" is published I thought it would be interesting to share some photos and stories of my daughter Tanya's and my journey.  

Great Grandpa with Lilly, Judah, Clara, and Abigale on a recent trip to visit Tanya.