The Upper West Side of Manhattan, like East Harlem (and the upper reaches of what used to be called Yorkville) had become a slum by the 1970s. It never reached the abandoned gang-ridden depths of East Harlem, and parts remained nice … but in general it was crappy. The San Juan Hill area was cleared for Lincoln Center and the Amsterdam Houses. During the 1977 blackout, looting hit the entire area, but it was especially bad in Manhattan Valley and the side streets off Amsterdam Avenue in the eighties and nineties. Broadway in the seventies wasn’t burnt-out terrible, but it was far from today’s disneyground. Needle Park on 72nd Street was so named because of the used heroin needles that littered it, not its shape.
The area’s decline set in before World War Two, and that shows up in the census data. Two other things also show up. First, East Harlem’s fertility really was strange. Second, the rise of Adolf Hitler to power had a profound effect on this part of New York.
The first family listed at 317 West 77th are the Landers. Herman and Eve (49 and 35 years old) were both born in Russia. They both graduated high school. Herman’s profession is unclear — it’s listed as “propietor, furnished apartments,” with no wage income listed. He doesn’t own the building, though: the census has him down as a renter for $50 per month. (That’s $802 in 2011 dollars — half the market rate in the same building today, and for a place that was probably four times the size.) They lived with their daughters, Joy and Helene, 14 and 9 years old. They employed a live-in maid, Jennie Richardson, 20, a black woman born in New Jersey. Jennie had been living there for over five years, meaning that she worked for them as a teenager. Jennie didn’t graduate high school, but she is listed as having had three years. She earned $360 per year — $5,770 in 2011 dollars — for a 60-hour week. Room was probably worth another $420, judging from what lodgers in the building paid, but that’s still a remarkably low wage by modern standards.
The next family was a young couple, almost certainly refugees from the Nazis. Samuel and Mary Hirschaut were born in Germany and Russia, respectively, in 1914 and 1916. In 1935, Samuel lived in Germany and Mary was in Switzerland. Both graduated from high school; Samuel worked as a leather dealer on his own account — no wages were reported, but he is listed as having earned income from other sources. His wife modelled dresses for about $100 per year. Neither were working when the census was taken: Mary checked “yes” to seeking work, Samuel said “no” on account that he said “yes” to the question: “If not seeking work, did he have a job, business, etc.?”
The third couple are also German refugees: Solomon Frohwirth, aged 28, was born in Poland. His wife Lottie was born in Germany, and had the same age. Both had been living in Germany five years previously. Solomon was a fur dealer. Solomon had only a ninth-grade education, but his wife reported one year of college. Both the Frohwirths and the Hirschauts paid $35 a month in rent.
Next up were the Pustay brothers: Walter and Fred, aged 20 and 17, both from Connecticut by way of Hackensack, New Jersey. They worked as clerks, Walter for an oil company, Fred in “exporting,” for $910 and $256 per year. (In 2011 dollars, that’s a combined income of $18,700.) They supplemented their income by taking in three boarders. And by now the pattern in the building should be obvious: at least two of the boarders were refugees from Hitler. Max Weingarten, age 26, had one year of postgraduate education—it doesn’t say in what, but he worked as a motion picture importer. Max had been born in Poland ... but listed Austria as his place of residence in 1935. It isn’t hard to connect the dots. Ditto for the second housemate: Deron Wachenhum, a 48-year-old German man who had been living in France five years previously. He worked as a magazine reviewer for only $948 per year. (He was listed as having two years of college.) The odd-woman-out was Florence Black, a married 29-year-old Romanian woman who made hats for $1462 per year. She had been living in Manhattan in 1935, and so was not likely a refugee. There was no sign of her husband.
The Pustay brothers did pretty well off the lodging. Their rent was $45 per month, but each boarder paid $35 — a nice annual increment of $720. ($11,500 in 2011 dollars.) Plus ça change and all that.
Finally, we have the Gerschel family. Stanley (age 40) was from New Jersey and his wife Alice (age 31) came from Pennsylvania. Their monthly rent was $38. The couple had probably experienced recent downward-mobility: in 1935, they had lived in Baldwin, Long Island. Baldwin had experienced explosive suburban growth in the 1920s, going from 5,000 to 12,000 over the decade. (That’s a lot: the town covers less than three square miles.) It seems likely that they had been a suburban couple in 1935, and lost their home in the 1937 recession. (Conversely, many families lost title during the 1929-33 collapse, but weren’t forced to leave for some time thereafter: the Gerschels might have also fallen into that category.) Stanley sold dresses for $2,000 per year. His wife was listed as a dental assistant and did not say that she was unemployed, but reported no income. I’m not sure what to make of that: volunteer work? (She had one year of college, and so some training.) Pride? They lived with their 8-year-old daughter, Patricia, and a lodger.
Nicholas Vasilieff was not a refugee from Hitler. (By this point, I was surprised to realize that.) He had been born in Russia in 1906, but listed San Francisco as his place of residence in 1935. He had been unemployed for 26 weeks as of the census (March 24-30), but listed his occupation as dancer and claimed to have worked for 30 weeks in the past year — the math does not quite add up — for $1200 in wages. The Gerschels charged him no rent, so I suspect that he was a family friend or a distant relative.
It turns out that Vasilieff actually was a dancer. He performed in Laugh, Town, Laugh! in 1942. (Were dancers exempt from the draft?) He then moved back West to Portland, where he helped found first a dance school, and then in 1954 the Portland Ballet Society. He died in Portland in 1976. His son Nick Vasilieff currently lives in that city, as does his grandaughter Nikole.
When my father moved into 317 West 77th in 1982, it was divided into nine apartments: one on the first floor, and two on the four upper floors. In 1940 it only had five apartments: likely one on each floor. That would explain the boarders: the tiny one-bedrooms into which they been divided by 1982 could not have held five people in anything less than barracks-like conditions, which would not be consistent with charging $35 per month for the privilege, not given what you could rent for that money. (Rent control did not yet exist in New York City.)
The neighboring building to the east, 315 West 77th, had already been subdivided into 16 apartments. In some ways, it was more interesting than 317 West 77th. In fact, in some ways it seems like it could have been transported out of the 21st Century, except for the rents. The average rent was $28.16 — a astonishingly low $451 in today’s money, with none under $400 or over $584. (From here on, all figures will be in 2011 dollars — the 1940 number multiplied by 16.) The reason for the low rents, of course, was twofold: low incomes and few zoning restrictions.
First, it had no children in it. None at all. That shouldn’t be surprising. You wouldn’t be surprised at a Manhattan apartment building with no children in it today, when 18% of New York City’s population is under age 15. Well, in 1940 only 20% of the City’s population was under 15; not that different — and the birth rate today is higher.
Second, three units were occupied by divorced women. The first was Vada (sp?) Littlepage, a 35-year-old professional photographer from Forth Worth, Texas. The second was Ida Howe, a 48-year old nurse from England. The third unit was occupied by a mother-daughter team, both from Mexico, both divorced. The daughter worked as a manicurist for $260 per year — her mother was out of the labor force, but reported having nonlabor income. Mom was named Rebeca Sanders, while the daughter was named Amelia García, the implication being that mom had married an American, split from him, and then brought Amelia up when she split from her husband. Amelia, it should be noted, was 36, and both reported living in New York five years previously.
There were seven single never-married working women in the building. 25-year-old Geraldine Bordeaux, from Quebec (“Canada-French”), lived with her older brother Francino. Both were unemployed “artist models.” Dorothy Donnelly was from “Canada-English,” 26-years-old, and an unemployed saleswoman from a department store. 23-year-old Anne Allen was from New York (although she had been living in the apartment since she turned 18) and worked as a stenographer in a bank for $17,120 in today’s money. 26-year-old Evelyn Griffin from Illinois worked as a receptionist in a department store for $12,480. Nina Echeverría from Uruguay worked as a floorlady in a dress shop for $16,000 and 33-year-old Edna Dolan from Massachusetts — who reported living in Astoria, Queens, five years earlier — made $21,120 working in a key factory. 24-year-old Alice Maher, also from New York, earned $12,480 as a bakers’ assistant … but reported having dropped out of the labor force. I suspect that she had just gotten engaged, since the census-taker had written “M” under marital status before crossing it out and pencilling in “S.”
The four married couples consisted of a native New Yorker married to an Irishwoman (both age 36), two Irish immigrants (aged 41 and 38), a Spanish chef married to a Panamanian stenographer from Los Angeles (aged 37 and 31, and clearly married for less than five years, since they were in different states then), and a 30-year-old unemployed laborer from Massachusetts married to a 29-year woman from New Jersey.
Add in widowed Gertrude Weckler from Germany (a 66-year-old who fit corsets in a department store) and divorced George Pitscharer from Austria (a 50-old bartender) and you have the set of a modern sitcom.
A happier view of 1940 than the one from my building on 115th Street. Moreover, the view from 317 West 77th in 2005 was even more marvellous!
Next up ... well, I am not sure. Maybe the people who lived in the houses that were demolished to make way for 100 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn?