When you are retired, and have time on your hands, you are almost obliged to look back on your life and try to find the narrative. Of course, that is the heart of this blog I started in Israel two and a half years ago. But on my recent trip to the US East Coast, visiting family and friends, I decided to go all the way back to my beginning; where I was born and where I lived in infancy.
Our family left New York City when I was six months old, only to return for a couple of brief vacations at my grandparent’s apartment on Northern Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. Adjoining and in front of the apartment, they operated a Hallmark card shop with the slightly misleading name of the “Mayfair Book Store.” Sure, Grandpa sold some books, but really, the books were more for his reading enjoyment as he sat behind the cash register. He was a lousy businessman, but an avid reader. The shop mostly took pennies from the few customers who managed to show up prior to birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays to buy greeting cards.
The Flushing neighborhood back then was Jewish and other non-Hispanic whites. Later, in the 1970’s, Taiwanese natives started to immigrate along with some South Koreans. Over the coming decades, Flushing became the center for Mandarin-speaking immigrants in the city. Prior to this, almost all ethnic Chinese in New York spoke Cantonese. Flushing’s “Chinatown” is now the most populated such place outside of Asia.
After picking up the rental car at JFK at the start of my two-week East Coast road trip, I drove immediately to Flushing to see the only place where I really have any NYC childhood association. The building that housed the Mayfair Book Store still stood but was unrecognizable from the front.
But from the rear, the red brick façade and paved parking lot was still intact.
I ran into an older lady walking in front of what would have been the Mayfair store and asked her if she knew a good place to get a sandwich. She suggested up the block was a Burger King. We started talking, and of course I mentioned that my grandparents had a store here, 50 years previously. She said that she had moved here about 45 years ago. I said I noticed a lot of Korean signage, and she assured me that the place was mostly Chinese. “Are you Chinese?” I asked. “Oh no… I’m Malaysian. Not many of us around here.” I decided to walk up and down Northern Boulevard taking in the ambiance and bought a turkey and provolone sandwich and soda at a local shop.
What a marvel is the power of time in an urban setting! “Flushing down” the history of Flushing indeed! So, while this visit was the beginning of my two-week trip, it was also the site of the end of my childhood connections to New York.
After the sandwich that afternoon I quickly left Flushing, visited with Westchester County relatives, and then went on to visits with other people and locales in three states (more on that in another blog entry). It was not until the last day of the trip, the last half-day really, that I returned to exploring my earliest NYC roots. I visited the only two locations that were significant in my first 6-months of my life – where I was born and where our family lived.
Horace Harding Hospital
J. Horace Harding was a financier and road-building enthusiast in the first half of the 20th Century. No relation to President Harding, he was an affluent, influential and self-aggrandizing friend of Robert Moses and Mayor Walker, and from many accounts, a bit of an opulent elitist.
Nevertheless, he got a park, expressway and hospital in Queens named after him. The hospital where I was born.
Up until research for this blog entry, I never looked into the personage of Horace Harding. My sole attention was to delight in the imagined pronunciation by a New Yorker of the hospital name. The alliteration always amused!
I was born in Horace Harding Hospital on May 13, 1955. Why my parents picked Elmhurst’s Horace Harding for my birth I’ll never know. They were living in Arverne, in the Far Rockaways, about 40 minutes away by car. There were no subways serving Arverne in 1955. Both my sisters had been born in Manhattan at Doctor’s Hospital. But like most urban origin stories, 66 years tells many tales of change and the hospital site on Queens Boulevard is no exception. In 1961, Horace Harding, a proprietary hospital (a term describing private-for-profit institutions), was bought by St. John’s Hospital, a Catholic non-profit. St. John’s had been housed at a smaller, less technologically equipped site and wanted to expand. And expand it did. From a hospital history:
“The 1980s saw complete renovation of St. John’s. Every room in the hospital was modernized. A new wing was added… The old part of the building received a new façade that not only altered its appearance completely but also provided space for a modern lobby and new patient rooms.”
In 2000, St. John’s merged with other Catholic Hospitals in the city to become part of St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers. This was soon to prove a disaster, as by 2005 the whole kit and caboodle filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was sold to another hospital chain which in turn filed for bankruptcy itself. In 2009, the Queens Boulevard property was sold to private developers and was turned into a mixed-use housing and retail site.
This last alteration – which was part of the elimination of several hospitals in Queens and the New York outer boroughs – had a most modern and deleterious epilogue. Elmhurst, Queens, was the epicenter of the world’s first and worst outbreak of COVID-19 outside of China. Bet having old J. Horace’s hospital still in the area couldn’t have hurt.
The Rockaways in New York were called the Far Rockaways for a reason. They were a beachfront peninsula distant from the center of the city. In the still more distant northeastern stretch of the Rockaways, in 1951, the New York City Housing Authority completed a massive public housing project called Arverne Houses. The area wouldn’t be connected into the NYC subway system until 1956, but perhaps the land was cheap, and the density the development brought would validate the mass transit investment.
It was at Arverne houses – called by our family “The Projects” – that Mom, Dad and my two sisters, Ann and Laurie, moved sometime between 1951 and 52. I have, of course, no memories of living in The Projects, being whisked away across the country at age 6 months to another housing development – this time the Shorewood Apartments in Mercer Island, Washington.
Below is a picture of our apartment in Arverne with our unit circled in green. I’m all but certain that that is the exact address and floor, because I have Google maps, my sister’s memory of placement in relationship to neighbors, and my birth certificate to prove it.
According to my sister Laurie, who was 6 years old at the time of our departure to Seattle, our family lived in modest circumstances. Mom stayed home with the kids, while Dad worked at a social services agency. His social work professional focus was on resettlement of immigrants and gerontology.
Across the hall from us and to the left lived the Dubrow family. Because they had an actual TV before we did, my two older sisters tried to snooker their way there as often as they could. Irving Dubrow held two jobs – plumber by day and truck driver by night. Laurie remembered that Irving looked like Bart Simpson, wore a wife-beater shirt (yes… that’s what they came to be called), had no neck to speak of, and had a gruff personality. My sisters were scared of Irving and tried hard not to wake him up. Because of his long work schedule, when they did interrupt his sleep, he could get grumpy. But Laurie also remembered that perhaps that was an unfair characterization, that anyone could get grumpy if you wake them up, and that Irving could be a stand-up guy. He may even have watched the girls when Mom and Dad sprinted to the hospital to get me out of the womb.
Irving’s wife Sybil was a traffic cop. Together, the two adult Dubrows made considerably more money than was allowed in subsidized public housing, so they hid some of their earnings. Laurie and Ann thought Sybil was very nice and enjoyed spending time with the two children in the unit; Linda, who was close to Ann’s age, and little Barry.
Laurie had a few pleasant memories of The Projects and one frightening tale. First the scary story.
Arverne by the Sea had a long boardwalk and broad, extensive ocean beach. One day Dad and Ann were wading out a bit too far and a rogue wave came and knocked Ann out of Dad’s arms. As Laurie described it “He grabbed and grabbed and found an arm and pulled her in. He lost his wedding ring, glasses and Annie. But he got Annie back. And he called it the most frightening moment of his life.”
Laurie’s happy memories include making chopped chicken liver with Mom using a mechanical aluminum grinder contraption. I too remember using that grinder years later in our Bellevue home. Laurie also recalled getting a box of oranges delivered from Florida. It was such a delight to make home squeezed orange juice. The two girls had a grand and tasty time.
And that’s it. A family’s beginning. A few scattered childhood memories. And questions that can never now be answered.
Why Arverne? It wasn’t close to work, or was it? Why The Projects at all? Did Mom work during that period, or was she solely a stay-at-home mom? What was life for five Farbers really like there in The Projects? Laurie and Ann needed to go over to the Dubrows for TV for a while but then the Farbers got a scratchy, marginal TV that one had to tune in like a radio dial to get a station. Family lore states that Mom saw Arlene Francis on The Today Show talking about Seattle and told Dad that “we need to move there.” Laurie’s recent research found that Arlene Francis wasn’t a regular on The Today Show. Sis discovered that, according to Google, “Arlene Francis, from 1954 – 1957, was the host of Home, NBC’s hour-long daytime magazine program oriented toward women, which was meant to compliment the network’s Today and Tonight programs.” So, Mom might have seen the Seattle piece on her show or a taped segment on The Today Show. Now THERE’S a mystery! And of course, then, there’s a mystery #2: Why is this Arlene Francis thing so important to me!?
If every writing needs a purpose and conclusion, here’s mine: Before it’s too late, ask your loved ones about their lives. And document it. It’s so rich and warming to patch together at least some fragments from your beginning. Even if you do this at the end of a heartfelt trip.
 The New York City parks department provides this biographical sketch: He served as a director for a multitude of companies; among them are the New York Municipal Railways System, American Exchange Irving Trust, Bronx Gas and Electric, American Express, Continental Can Company, Public Service Corporation of New Jersey, Southern Pacific Company, United States Industrial Alcohol, American Beet Sugar Company, and the Wabash Railway. Harding was also an avid art collector and he served on the Board of Trustees for the Frick Collection.
 I read a biography of Robert Moses called The Power Broker authored by Robert Caro. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was the most influential tome of my professional and intellectual life. Moses was arguably the most powerful public servant in America who never held elected office. He manipulated the “public authority” form of governance to change the face of New York City and State for close to 50 years. Parks, parkways, bridges, tunnels, public housing, power dams, expressways, the UN Building, and a couple of world’s fairs were all financed and constructed and maintained by a panoply of contractors, labor unions, insurance brokers, and of course, politicians, all bending to his will and whim. No doubt, my first residence in Arverne was constructed on his say so.