I don’t think a whole lot about our time at East 71st Street, even though it lasted through most of my high school years. There were three reasons for that. The first was that I hated the neighborhood. The building was great — I made lots of friends, not counting the Irish heroin addict from the sixth floor who burglarized our apartment and received a ... well, in these more enlightened times I shouldn’t say ... in return. But by the late 1980s the East Side south of 86th and east of Lexington was going on its third decade of what would today be called gentrification, and while I greatly appreciated the fact that I could space out on the walk from the subway station with no fear of getting mugged, I hated the neighborhood’s wealth with a deeply-burning passion impossible to describe. The second reason for my lack of nostalgia or good-feeling to the area was that most of my good friends lived elsewhere. I spent much more waking time in Stuyvesant Town and Loisaida and Washington Heights ... and I probably spent more nights at my friend Guy’s house in Queens — also the borough from which I drew most of my friends. (My wife is from there!) Which brings us the third reason. Life inside the apartment was not particularly salubrious. Not that I’m complaining! It just wasn’t a great time, so while I have heavy nostalgia for the late 1980s in Rego Park and Stuy Town and Washington Heights and Harlem (East and otherwise) and Loisaida, not so much for East 71st Street.
I’ll digitize some photos at some point, but as of right now I don’t have any. Which says something about my feelings towards the address, despite the fact that the neighborhood was much nicer than 115, 93, 77, or anywhere in Brooklyn, Bayville, or North Miami Beach. So here I give you a picture from 1986, when I lived on East 71. Dinner for the first person to ID the 16-year-old me.
Forty-four years earlier, the East Side was significantly different from 1985-88. 416 East 71st, however, was remarkably similar. The difference is that in 1940 the building was representative of the census tract, whereas by late 1980s it was an outlier. It still had plenty of children, the sons and daughters of older folk who remained due to rent control rather than moving to the suburbs. Their kids were not in elite schools, and it was not easy to earn their toleration. It helped that I joined next-door Sokol Hall for gymnastics and tae kwon do. In short, the building was a little retro pocket of old-line white ethnics, in an neighborhood that had turned into a suburban-like mush of affluence. At the time it was not enough to compensate for my extreme antipathy to the rest of the neighborhood ... and to be honest, it is not enough now 24 years later. Maybe by the time my son turns 18.
In 1940, the entire neighborhood was Czech and Slovak. It wasn’t quite as Slavic as East Harlem was Italian, but it came close. Co-blogger Doug Muir had family who lived six blocks north at the time, and reports something similar.
The 1940 census counted 21 households at 416 East 71st Street. Of those, eleven had the head of household (or both, if a married couple) born in “Czechoslovakia,” “Slovakia,” or in one case, “Bohemia.” The twelfth reported that the head of household — a 66-year-old widower named Tilly Dran — had a birthplace in “Austria.” Tilly lived with a single daughter aged 39, a married daughter (age 48), her 52-year-old husband (Harry Ledak), and their 20-year-old granddaughter. The older daughter and Tilly’s son-in-law had also been born in “Austria.” It isn’t unreasonable to assume that “Austria” probably meant Czechoslovakia, considering as he had emigrated before 1901.
In addition to those 12, the Viddetzk (sp) family was born in New York (Joseph in 1905, Anna in 1914, and daughter Dorothy in 1934) but was likely of Czechoslovak origin. Similarly, up on the upper floors, Edward Holut (born in New York in 1894) lived with his “Austrian” mother. Meanwhile John Panelka of Ohio (33-years-old) lived with his 31-year-old wife from “Austria-Hungary” … who had been born in 1909, when there really was such a place. (They had two children, Eleanor aged 4, and Alfred aged 1.) Having moved into the building 44 years later, I am having trouble believing that John’s wife wasn’t actually from what would today be the Czech Republic or Slovakia.
That’s 15 households with origins inside the 1918-93 boundaries of Czechoslovakia. But there’s more! Sam and Anna Graycon (born in 1885 and 1884 respectively; she was in fact a year older than he was) reported having been born in Hungary. In 1885, Hungary included modern Slovakia. (Their 22-year-old daughter was born in New York.) The Slawinskis (born in 1875 and 1887 respectively) listed their birthplace as Poland at a time when there was no Poland. It is likely that they were Polish, but I am also sure that they felt comfortable around their fellow Slavs. (They lived with their four children, aged between 16 and 23.) In addition, the Hrabie family was born in New York and lived with their two children … along with the father’s mother, who had been born in Czechoslovakia.
At that point you’ve got 18 out of 21 households being some sort of Slavic — you can dig into the most West Indian parts of Brooklyn and Queens today and find less homogeneity. Who was left? Walter Thiele had been born in Germany in 1895, and his wife Olympia had been born in Russia in 1904. It’s possible that they weren’t Jewish, but that isn’t how I would bet. They lived their children, 18-year-old Rita and 13-year-old Ralph, both in school, and a lodger, Edward Parfer, who worked in a hospital laundry for $1500 per year. The family paid $32 per month in rent; nothing was reported from Mr. Parfer. For what it is worth, Edward had been born in New York in 1890.
The Cuthberts, aged 46 and 37, had both been born in Scotland. Their six-year-old son Robert was born in Short Hills, New Jersey, where they had been living in 1935. Cuthbert pere was a porter at a bank for $1352 a year. Their previous address implies serious downward mobility.
There was also Leo (age 37) and Georgette (age 33) Larkin and their 4-year-old son, John. Leo was from Pennsylvania and Georgette from New York. Leo was an unemployed dockworker who had earned $830 in the previous year; Georgette didn’t work. They paid $23 a month in rent: $276 per year. Admittedly, the area was crappy back then, but imagine somebody making $13,300 a year living there now. My mother did it … but that was (a) almost three decades ago; and (b) involved judicious use of the rent control laws and (c) a significant other.
The building hangs on around high-rise redevelopment that has utterly changed the character of the neighborhood. That is a good thing. I have moved left on most things over the years, but when it comes to land-use planning and historic preservation, I am of the libertarian “tear it down and build bigger” school. (I can accept that owners should have a property right to sunlight. But that is it.) I will survive if the charming brownstones of the Upper West Side are ripped down and replaced with 50-story towers ... and America will be better off. No need to mention the crappy little tenements around Pleasant Avenue. More towers, please, just like the ones on 93rd Street..
Before we end, I want to mention the Novak family. The widowed head of the family, Anna, had been born in Czechoslovakia in 1882. She lived with her three New York-born children, Emily (age 27), George (age 26), and Gerald (age 24.) The three children had eighth-grade educations. Emily worked as a bookkeeper for $1040 per year, and George worked as a delivery man for $680. Gerald was unemployed, but had previously worked as a machinist for $916.
Why do I report this? Because I knew George Novak, the bow-legged old man who ruled the building. He gave me fatherly advice on more than one occasion during the not-very-nice years of 1985-88. He was in his seventies, he had fought in World War Two, and he was a very good man. He deserves props, and I hope he is remembered.
I believe that this story was because of him. It does, in fact, date back to 1987. God bless you, Mr. Novak.