Scout Finch spoke of Macomb as being “a tired old town” when she knew it. When we moved to Hudson Heights in 1998, it was more than “old and tired” put together. It felt as if I had arrived on Florida’s Costa Geriatrica, a place where people came to die. The
median age of the residents was hovering in digits usually assigned to descriptions of hot and muggy weather. And believe me, these people were the kind that made you feel just as sweaty and uncomfortable under the armpits.
The Mayor’s office called the area a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, or NORC, a euphemism for a bunch of old people dying, with the result that younger families could move in. Cut to chase, it was really one of the last places that middle class families could live in Manhattan. Columbia University’s expansions were squeezing Manhattan real estate from its 116th Street campus to the medical center. The only place to go was “up.”
Located on the swan’s neck of upper Manhattan, Hudson Heights was defined, like an ancient kingdom, by geographical points. Where ancient glaciers had descended from the north to the south and formed the island, their slow progress had left cliffs of bedrock in the north. Hudson Heights now perched on these bluffs overlooking the Hudson River to the west, with the spectacular Palisades defining the coast of New Jersey. To the east, its height separated it from Bennett Avenue where Orthodox families lived and had their shuls and a yeshiva. To the north was the vast green expanse of Fort Tryon Park bordering Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan.
Only the southern border was signaled by the man-made expanse of the George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson and linking New Jersey with the island—or Manhattan with the mainland, depending on your point of view. When the fog rolled in, New Jersey was completely hidden from view. My kids would scream in delight: “New Jersey has disappeared!” They were thrilled.
Some people called the area “Washington Heights.” And, indeed, Ft. Washington Avenue ran through Hudson Heights like the spine of a flounder with the streets, like bones to the east and west. But the Real Estate section of The New York Times was really pushing the Hudson Heights nomenclature. The price of coops, after a very dry spell during the 1990s, was rising. They certainly didn’t want people thinking that they were buying in a neighborhood where their neighbors would be “ethnics.”
The gentrification was already in full force when we arrived in 1998. I guess you could say that the complexion of the neighborhood was changing, but which I mean, more white folks were already moving in.
Fort Washington was actually really a fort, dating from the American Revolution, and the days when “the Heights” were dominated by wealthy Tory families who owned farms. The commanding views and narrow neck of Manhattan in the north, had made the area pivotal in the battle for control of the island. Here, where a U.S. Geological marker pinpoints the highest spot in Manhattan (254 feet above sea level!), patriots had built a defensive position against enemy troops. They had failed completely. The proof was that even 250 years after a British victory, a NYC public park was named after the last English Civil Governor to rule the city.
Much of the older population of Hudson Heights was refugee German Jews from the 1930s and 40s. So great had been the influx that the area was often referred to as “Hamburg on the Hudson.” Among the notable immigrants were the Kissinger family, whose two sons had grown up on the apartment on Fort Washington Avenue, and whose formidable matriarch still lived in the same apartment.
I supposed that when they’d moved in as refugees in the thirties and forties, these immigrants had been young and vibrant, filled with dreams for making a new life in a new country. Now, after more than a half century of competing and arguing with each other, they were brittle and sere. There wasn’t a trace of the genteel grace you’d expect from ladies with European accents and stiffly coiffed hair topped by felt hats.
Bitterness seemed to have oozed from their hearts onto sidewalks along Fort Washington Avenue and Cabrini Boulevard. These sidewalks glittered under evening streetlights with specks of mica, making them seem to contain constellations of tiny stars. Their surfaces were smooth and unmarred. They had had no dirty words carved into them with a stick when wet, or small footprints impressed in wet cement to show that children had ever lived in this neighborhood, played in the park, or eaten ice-cream as they walked home from school. The lone exception was on our street corner of 190 Street and Fort Washington Avenue. Here, somebody had carefully and neatly written “POOP” on the corner of one cement square. This just went to prove, my kids said, that there hadn’t been kids living in the area for a long, long time. Or, as my son put it in 1998: “Nobody talks like that anymore.”
Our home, a red brick tower on 190th Street, was sandwiched in between Cabrini Boulevard and Fort Washington Avenue. The building, fifteen stories high, turned out to be the highest building in Manhattan due to its location near the highest point on the island. This was pretty much the only remarkable thing about the building other than the residents we came to know.
Our building had been built during the Eisenhower years, the time when America had the most money and the least taste. There was absolutely nothing distinguishing about it, except its particularly poor placement with its entrance on 190th Street. Here, it sat surrounded by undistinguished cypress bushes. These bushes were trimmed into a hedge like Hitler’s moustache by an illegal Mexican with an electric hedge clipper hired by the coop’s garden committee. They also planted the two dozen begonias that nodded sadly as residents entered the front entrance.
But really, we had been happy to find the apartment after Columbia kicked us and our five-year-old twins out of our graduate student housing. In fact, we were part of a mini-exodus of such unfortunates. The coop’s old timers were leery of the displaced Columbia population and young families moving into the neighborhood. In the lobby sat the longtime residents, glaring at each other, and occasionally trading a particularly vicious snipe. But gradually, some of the women, old and alone and desperate to chat, began to speak with me in the laundry room, in the hallway, in the mailroom, and outside the compactor where we disposed of our garbage.
Being a Jewish woman, they seemed to feel that I was “one” of them, in spite of my Chinese husband and mixed race kids. When they stopped to chat with me they sprinkled their conversation with short phrases in German or Yiddish. I often didn’t quite get the meaning of these expressions, but always nodded to as if in agreement so as not to stop their tales told in heavily accented tones. My housekeeping chores were often punctuated by trembling voices telling tales of miraculous escapes, terrible loss and the continuing suffering of their lives.
Who would have known these women had such stories to tell? And the mix of tales, of experiences, of attitudes within this one building captured every facet of the human condition and psyche.