In 1939, Bronx Jews who went to the World’s Fair – and who didn’t? – returned to their candy stores and walk-ups talking about an exhibit, a scale model of the city of tomorrow: “Parkchester,” a low-income housing development near Westchester Avenue, the commercial Bronx artery in the zebra shadows and rumbles of the elevated subway trestles. You should have seen the Parkchester in the old days, kid; talking in the sunlight, walking leisurely from shul, past flowers, gardens, and playgrounds. If this wasn’t Heaven, at least you could see it through the well-spaced buildings taking up only one-fourth of the development’s 129 acres.
Despite apartments so poorly constructed it was more than 30 years before the electrical wiring could handle air conditioners. However, The New York Times predicted Parkchester was “bound to be one of the show places in the city.” Equally optimistic, Macy’s opened a Parkchester branch, the first Macy’s outside of Manhattan. People went there for the air conditioning.
Today, who remembers? Forgotten promises and faded neighborhoods rarely get a social history all their own, but Jeffrey Gurock has written a riveting and challenging one, “Parkchester: A Bronx Tale of Race and Ethnicity” (NYU Press). A Yeshiva University history professor, Gurock, 70, who lived in Parkchester for his first 25 years, traces Parkchester’s evolution from an Irish Catholic haven, where Jews were a substantial minority, to its current incarnation as a home for blacks, Latinos and Muslims.
Despite being aimed at low-income residents, Parkchester was as elitist as a country club. When it opened in the 1940s, and for years after, renters had to submit, writes Gurock, to “a close investigation of… behavioral and economic backgrounds,” even though most residents were expected to have Depression-era incomes near $4,000. Applications poured in from clerks, salesmen, subway conductors, civil servants and firefighters. Blacks needn’t apply. The original owner, Metropolitan Life Insurance, refused to rent to blacks, and it was not until 1968 when new owners, Helmsley-Spear, agreed to rent 12 out of 39 available apartments to non-whites.
We meet a young Modern Orthodox couple, prospective tenants Julius and Irene Horowitz, he a pattern cutter in the Garment District, she “a homemaker.” A Met Life social worker, writes Gurock, “came with white gloves to see if there was any dust on the floor,” then interviewed neighbors to determine if Julius and Irene were “neat and self-respecting or careless and uncouth; decent and quiet folk or likely to be loud and cantankerous neighbors.”
Gurock raves like a rental brochure about Parkchester’s “magnificent Metropolitan Oval,” named after the insurance company, “where, in summertime, people have sat out in the shade on park benches and admired the beautifully landscaped area while catching breezes from the sculpture fountain.”
In 1940, Helen and Kalman (Kelly) Winkler — like Horowitz an Orthodox cutter in the Garment District — hosted a founders meeting with Horowitz for a new shul, the Young Israel of Parkchester. They wanted a shul of their own, for a younger crowd. No one had money, so a bare-bones shul took eight years to build. In the interim, they rented the basement of the Ellis Avenue shul while Young Israel’s membership grew from 24 to 186 families. There were no pews, and just as well. On Saturday nights, folding chairs were pushed against the wall as the Winklers and Horowitzes “double-dated,” with young couples dancing until late in their basement ballroom.
As one resident told Gurock, humble circumstances had its benefits. There were no rich people to live up to, and with no air conditioning “it was so damn hot during the summer that people would keep their doors and windows open for cross ventilation. People got to know one another.”
Gurock recalled davening with the teens while “Mr. Winkler would walk up and down the aisle. If anyone was talking he’d snap his fingers, everyone got quiet. If you stepped out of line, Kelly Winkler would give you a Sonny Liston stare that could melt you to death.”
Young Israel would have a regular Youth Shabbos, led by teens coached by Winkler and Horowitz. Sometimes a Ramaz girl — “pre-feminism,” Gurock told me — “would give a dvar Torah [a brief talk on the week’s reading].”
After the shul was sold in 2001, Gurock returned to look around the empty space. He remembered how after every bar mitzvah, Winkler wrote your name on an index card, kept in a green box, marked with the date when you last got an aliyah. “It used to be right there by the [ark’s] curtain,” Gurock told us. “I reached behind the curtain – and the box was still there!” Not much else was.
Once, no one moved away. In 1962, a Louis Harris survey found that “people who get into Parkchester tend to stay there until the undertaker comes.” In 1965, Anna Batterson, a Parkchester resident, wrote on the occasion of Parkchester’s first quarter-century, “I [hope] to live here until I finish my time here on earth. … It seems so safe here.” Then everyone left — though Gurock never quite says why. The Winklers moved away, and the Horowitzes’ son, Bernie, who married and was raising a family in Parkchester, moved away, too, because “there were simply few other Jewish children around with whom [our] children could play and few Jewish adults with whom to socialize.” There are dozens of honorable reasons why people move away from any neighborhood, but why Horowitz’s peers all moved away is never explained.
Unlike earlier eras, when Gurock explores the roots and the resolutions of other ethnic tensions in the 1970s and ’80s, with the racial and ethnic makeup of Parkchester undergoing wholesale changes, his storytelling becomes coy. He tells us there were muggings, but never mentions a mugger’s race or ethnicity — although the book is subtitled “A Bronx Tale of Race and Ethnicity.” Vandalism became common. Gurock writes that crime “seeped into the area,” but blame was “not laid on its newest residents.” Jews, moving out by the hundreds, blamed no one? Gurock, whose family left in 1974, blames “invaders” from other neighborhoods: “Yes, there was crime in Parkchester, but criminals did not come from Parkchester but from the surrounding area,” he said. “Criminals, I’ll say, ‘invaded’ Parkchester. That caused people who were older to become frightened. People were knocking down old people and stealing their money, things of that sort. … They weren’t going after the Jews, they were going after the elderly.” And then, there were no Jews but the elderly. By 2007, the average Jewish age was 78.
Gurock doesn’t offer statistics to indicate whether the fear of crime was illusion or fact, but according to the Bronx Historical Society, assaults in the Bronx jumped from 998 (1960) to 4,256 (1969); burglaries, from 1,765 (1960) to 29,276 (1969).
“I don’t accept that whites were driven out of Parkchester,” Gurock told me. “Driven out of the Grand Concourse, yes, but not driven out of Parkchester.”
Gurock finds hope in Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, leader of a Parkchester mosque that in 2011 offered prayer space to Jews who lost their shul. Drammeh’s kindness, writes Gurock, came at a time when “Muslims were routinely characterized as hostile to American values, let alone to Judaism.”
Were Muslims hostile? When I spoke to Sheikh Drammeh in 2012, he told me that his own Muslim congregants were indeed hostile to his neighborly courtesies to Jews: “90 percent of the people that used to come [to the mosque] left when the Jewish people came,” said Drammeh, and 22 children were pulled out of Drammeh’s school. He said he moved the Jews from a first-floor prayer room with a window to an upstairs windowless room, because Muslims told Drammeh that they didn’t like seeing Jews through the window, believing that such a sharing of space to be “anti-Islam.”
Gurock delights in meeting a helpful Parkchester teenager, Tamzidul Islam, who graduated from Bronx High School of Science and shovels snow outside his mosque, just as Gurock graduated Ramaz and shoveled snow outside the Young Israel. The teen’s “friendly demeanor and behavior,” writes Gurock, “reassured me that Parkchester continues to house ‘the right kind of people,’” as Met Life characterized yesterday’s tenants.
Statistics disagree. Compared to similar areas, Parkchester has more than its share of dangerous people, according to official city figures. In Community District 9 (Parkchester and adjacent Soundview), in 2018 there were 100 assaults that led to hospitalization (per 100,000 people) and 603 incarcerations, compared to 53 such assaults and 243 incarcerations in Community District 10 — the Co-Op City area — another private low-income development where there is still a Young Israel. In Woodside-Sunnyside in Queens, with a poverty rate only 6 percentage points lower than Parkchester, there were only 19 hospitalized assaults (per 100,000) with 163 incarcerations.
Parkchester has changed, writes Gurock, “but in some crucial respects it has remained the same special place.”