GROWING UP AMERICAN: LAURELTON IN THE 1930’s
By Annette Henkin Landau
Ó 1985, 2008
(Not to be copied without permission.)
What reckless impulse made my parents, in 1931, the darkest year of the Depression, leave our safe cliffside apartment in the Bronx and strike out for the alien wilderness of Queens, I do not know. I still have a brochure advertising our development on heavy shiny paper, deeply folded, depicting what I had thought was the longest Tudor castle in the world, but which turned out to be a whole block of houses attached to each other. Our house and our cousins’ house next door were “semi-detached,” a small but significant social point.
We had a fireplace, something I had read about in Dickens and Alcott, and an enormous oak tree whose branches almost touched the windows of my bedroom. We never figured out what to do with the fireplace, which eventually acquired glass coal and a wavering orange electric light, but when I was in bed the tree tapped mysteriously on the slate roof and formed leaf pictures in a thoroughly satisfactory fashion.
Laurelton! The very word is like a bell. Founded in 1907 by a former state senator, rumor had it that it once was an exclusive Wasp enclave, but during the Depression the religious barriers were beginning to break down; Jewish and Catholic families were finding their way to Queens where, if you had a job and could manage a down payment, it was cheaper to own your own house. Surely, the elegant English cottage railroad station with its formally landscaped garden and its chummy potbellied stove gave evidence of Wasp prosperity past , and a large development of California style houses, known to us as “the Spanish homes,” had recently been built on what had been a private golf course. Some of the older streets had larger houses with larger lawns in which unfriendly natives still held out against us invaders. We called these houses ‘the mansions.” Between them newer, smaller houses, bungalows, Tudor styles, and Colonials were eating up the land.
Some of the most desirable streets had elliptical malls down the middle of them landscaped with lilacs, rhododendrons, and azaleas. We called these plazas “islands.” My own street, Mentone Avenue, which ran parallel to the Long Island Railroad Track, was too narrow to have such a mall, but it did have ancient oak and sycamore trees whose branches met and formed a green arcade running straight down to the most beautiful “island” of all, the large traffic circle where five streets came together near the railroad station.
Laurelton in the thirties was a beginning suburb in a part of Queens that was still almost rural. Our fathers were the first commuters. I remember sitting on our brick steps waiting for my father to come down the street from the railroad station, rhythmically slapping a folded World-Telegram against his thigh, very much the suburban householder, but enough of a city boy to cross the street when a neighbor’s dog barked at him. The subway had not yet reached Jamaica, so we were tied to the Long Island Railroad. The conductor’s cry became a refrain of my youth: CE-dar Manor, LO-cust Manor, HIGbie Avenue, LA-A-AWRELTON! All vanished now except Laurelton.
Although the streets were laid out in classic grid style there were open fields between them which we, city-fashion, called “empty lots,” although they were far from empty. They were wooded with wild cherry and crabapple trees, filled with the fragrances of daisies, asters, Queen Anne’s Lace, a treasure of wild flowers. How I came straight from the Bronx knowing the names of so many of these spiky, spiny, hairy growing things I do not know, but many of their names I did know and those I didn’t I made up. There is a certain little cream yellow roadside flower, rather like a tiny snapdragon , that for years I called “lady’s slipper” only to find now that other people call it “butter and eggs.”
There were other unscientific facts I knew as well. That a buttercup held under the chin told whether you liked butter, that the petals pulled off a daisy told if your love loved you (but not who he was), that goldenrod gave you hay fever and that you could tell the time by blowing forcefully on a dandelion gone to seed (it was always wrong).
It seems to have been safe in those days for children to roam, and roam we did, my cousin Lenny and I, girl adventurers together, fearless explorers, as brave as “Ruth Fielding at the War Front” or Huckleberry Finn.
Adventure lay in every direction. On Merrick Road, heading east, past the movie theater (“the Itch,” of course) the grocery and hardware stores and the German bakery where iced buns were two cents apiece (a penny for plain) and the proprietor was falsely accused of being Fritz Kuhn’s right-hand man in the German-American Bund, was Captain Engerer’s wild animal farm where the Captain, who had lost his arm in the service of either Clyde Beatty or the Bengal Lancers, trained attack dogs and also, it was rumored, wolves. Beyond the kennels was Herman’s Pansy Farm where three gentle Amish people, a brother and two sisters, could occasionally be glimpsed in what we assumed was the dress of mad eccentrics.
Further on, north of Laurelton itself, were truck farms. Sometimes, when we explored that way we put salt shakers in our pockets in hopes that we would find tomatoes growing close to the road. One of our teachers at PS156 , Mrs. David, was the owner of what seemed to me a vast and wealthy farm in north Valley Stream. A stout, ruddy-faced woman who taught us what she insisted we pronounce “poi-try,” every year had a field trip to her farm. I remember rows of pale green lettuce in the chocolate brown earth and the steamy smell of horses in the barn. Sometimes arrowheads could be found there.
Going south you had to pick your way across two parallel sets of Long Island Railroad tracks, the Babylon line and the Far Rockaway line, which of course we were not allowed to do. Alongside the tracks wild strawberries and huckleberries grew and we filled tin pails with them. Hobos sometimes dropped off the freight trains to pick them too and one day one of them, a large man dressed all in black, came to our back door. My mother handed him a sandwich through the window so as not to unlock the door. I understood that she was performing an act of charity that was making her very nervous. Shortly afterwards, a luckless commuter, taking a shortcut over the tracks, was struck by a train. The gory pieces of him were scattered all over the field and for months we heard stories about odd pieces turning up. It was enough to scare me away from the tracks forever and I was happy when the field was mowed down and houses built across the street from us.
The best part of Laurelton was “the woods,” remnants of an immense forest that once stretched across the south shore of Long Island, down into the peninsula and east almost to Montauk, the legendary tribal grounds of Americans even more native than the ones who lived in the “mansions.”
Laurelton was rich in woodlands, the “Springfield woods “ to the west, on the way to Springfield Gardens, the “Rosedale woods” on the eastern border. The Springfield woods were closer to our house, best to hide in, to run away from home in, to have a temper tantrum in or a fit of romantic melancholy, They were thick woods, jungle-like, as much swamp as woodland. Wet things grew there, pond lilies and watercress. The air was dank and swarming with chiggers, smelling of leaf mold. The green water of the sluggish streams was still and opaque. Except for one place where there were stepping stones you had to wade barefoot to cross them. You could sink into the marsh to the top of your shoes. “Quicksand,” we whispered to one another, “It pulls you down over your head and they never find you.” It was a gloomy and mysterious place.
The Rosedale woods were more than a mile long and half a mile wide. The forest floor was drier there; footpaths were visible and “Indian trails.” Brooks and rivulets ran noisily between steep banks and someone at some time (could it have been the City of New York?) had built rustic footbridges over the streams so that you could stroll from Laurelton to Rosedale without getting your feet wet if you didn’t want to. We almost always wanted to.
On the endlessly long hot summer days I think of as the landscape of my childhood,
I often walked through the Rosedale woods on my way to Rosedale’s storefront public library. (Laurelton did not have a library yet.,) Sometimes I stopped to pick speckled wild lilies which would always be disappointingly closed up by the time I got home. There were oaks, maples, and sumac in those woods, and woodland odors, spicy and fruity, dry and moldy all at once.
Sometimes Lenny and I walked to the northernmost edge where the woodlands ended at two large ponds, the Twin Ponds, one on either side of Merrick Road, and from there over the magical boundary to the first place I had ever heard of that didn’t belong to New York City. Intrepid, we ventured into Nassau County, the first Jewish girls to set foot in that unexplored territory. O, pioneers.
There were places in Laurelton that we sought out because legends or rumors clung to them. On 223rd Street was a house where either Two-Gun Crowley or Baby-Face Nelson was supposed to have had a shootout; on 226th Street was a house in which a disgruntled waiter was said to have hacked up his wife. We never found out if either of these stories was true, but it gave us a cold shiver just to walk past those houses.
Laurelton had a brand-new public school, PS 156, by the time my family arrived there. Before it was built Laurelton children walked or stole a ride on the train to a wooden school building, built before the Civil War beside the railroad track at Higbie Avenue, where the Principal served tea in her office and the fire escape ran down the outside of the building. My husband, whose family had moved to Laurelton in 1928, attended the Higbie Avenue school until the new school was opened and I always envied him his memories.
By Higbie Avenue standards the new school was palatial, but by the standards of a smart-ass kid from PS70 in the Bronx which had a swimming pool, a roof garden, and real footlights in the auditorium where I had played the title role in “The Clown of Doodle-Doo,” it was a decided comedown. A swimming pool! What a liar! I soon stopped bragging, but I think I would have stopped sooner had I known what I learned recently, that pools had been installed in certain New York City schools because educators thought our immigrant parents did not know enough to bathe us!
Once, when I was waving my hand a bit too frantically to answer a question the teacher asked me where I came from.
“I thought so,” she said ambiguously, but not so ambiguously that I failed to get the point. Among the Carters, the Andersons, the Kellys, the Schmidts, school was not such a competitive ball game as it had been in the Bronx. You didn’t get points for knowing the answers, but for other things, being polite, hitting home runs, standing up straight, having neat penmanship. In my class in the Bronx there had been one little girl, Clara Hansen, who was Lutheran. I never spoke to her, nor, I think, did anyone else. In Queens I was Clara Hansen. I made one Protestant friend, Elizabeth, who invited me to her house to see her Christmas tree, the first one I had seen outside of a department store. I was very uncomfortable in its presence. My friendship with Elizabeth petered out.
Friendships in Laurelton, in those early days, proceeded on safe ethnic lines. We more or less consciously sought out “our own” and, although our neighborhood was ethnically mixed, I cannot recall socializing with kids who were not Jewish. The only black family in town, a high school principal’s, lived in a large handsome house, one of the original “mansions,” and was notoriously snobbish. Around the corner from us, in a house just like ours, lived an Irish family named Mahoney. Their son Larry and I shared a double desk in school. When intelligence tests were given it turned out that we two had the highest scores. (Why we were told our scores is still a mystery to me.) I assumed, of course, that Larry had copied from me . How else could an Irish boy be as intelligent as a Jewish girl? Many years later I read an extensive obituary in the New York Times of my old classmate, a distinguished Professor of Law at Fordham University, and was shamed by my girlish bigotry.
My new school was not, however, totally a disappointment. Instead of a schoolyard it had a real field where sandlot baseball was played. Across the street was a heavily wooded area you could bicycle through and a hollow tree where we left coded messages for our friends. In the summer we had a garden club which grew vegetables in the school’s front yard. We used lots of manure, took turns weeding, and at the end of the summer received a commendation pin, which I still have, and all the green peppers, string beans, radishes and spinach we could carry home. Laurelton in the ‘thirties was not very different, I think, from Idaho or Indiana. It was New York City’s version of the middle west.
One early Spring day, around 1936, I set out with my arms full of books to return to the Rosedale library. I decided not to walk through the woods but to go by way of the overpass that ran parallel to the Sunrise Highway. When I arrived at the overpass I was stunned by what I saw. Bulldozers were mowing down the Rosedale woods from the Twin Ponds to the overpass. Cracking, splitting, groaning, the whole woods was going down into a mass of mud. Everything I had loved there was being murdered. The woods were in their death throes, and I, a skinny kid crying without a handkerchief, had been appointed chief witness. Robert Moses was building Laurelton Parkway to connect the Belt with the Southern State. Nobody had thought to tell me it was going to happen.
Many years later I lived in Nassau County on the Babylon line. Whenever I took the Long Island Railroad into New York City I passed through the Laurelton of my childhood. Although the tracks had been elevated and the elegant station house torn down I could still see Mentone Avenue and the windows of my childhood bedroom. Some of the streets of Laurelton still managed to retain their aging charm but the scandalous sewer installation of the late 1940’s destroyed the green arcade that shaded Mentone Avenue and took my oak tree with it.
It was no longer possible to see where the Springfield woods had been. Streets and garden apartments had nibbled them away. The landscaped traffic circle at the five corners had shrunk to half its original size. The sewer contractors had promised to restore the “islands” but they all went to jail instead.
I used to drive sometimes on the Laurelton Parkway. As parkways go it is quite a handsome one. A few trees and a pretty little dammed up lagoon were all that remained of a forest that had stood for centuries. I have been told that the Twin Ponds are still there.
My husband, Philip Landau, also a Laureltonian, died in 1987. Once, many years ago when I was thinking of writing this memoir, I asked him what he thought about when he remembered growing up in Laurelton. His eyes grew dreamy. He remembered winning a model airplane contest; the prize was a three minute flight in a Gee Bee Sportster with Major Al Williams, the World War One Ace. The flight took off from Curtis Field, now a shopping center. He remembered one snowy morning when the milkman picked him up in his horse-drawn wagon and drove him to the Higbie Avenue School, milk bottles rattling all the way. He remembered many of the things I still remember. “It was an idyllic childhood,” he said. “I think of it as an American idyll.”
Annette Henkin Landau Email Address: email@example.com
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