Pope Francis’ magnificent Encyclical on planetary stewardship, Laudato Sí (24 May 2015), triggered a host of personal recollections about how New York City and its environs have changed since the 1930s. My father, a native of northern New Jersey, eventually moved to Connecticut, my mother’s home state, following their marriage, but he never lost contact with the other side of the George Washington Bridge (opened in 1931), which I remember crossing with him and an uncle countless times in my earliest recollections. Bridgeport was our home then, and daily excursions from Fairfield County were still affordable on the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The Great Depression had begun the year after I was born, but Bridgeport remained part of the triangle that encompassed Fairfield County, New York and northern Jersey. Besides, my mother’s sister and her husband had settled in Queens, another frequent stop in my boyhood peregrinations.
The point is that the entire New York area was so different back then. Travelling the subway (prior to air conditioning, I recall) to the Bronx Zoo, or to Central Park, or to Battery Park, was a pleasure. Radio City Music Hall, which had only recently opened (1932), was likewise a joyful adventure.
As a youngster, I was magically drawn to the famed Automats for lunch. (Isn’t one still open in lower Manhattan, where it had been in the late ’30s?) Again and again, my father introduced me to Manhattan’s great museums: the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan, especially. And on very warm Saturdays, we used to stop again and again for a glass of an orange drink sold on almost every block.
And what about the baseball we saw in the Bronx, especially at the old, old Yankee Stadium, and also at the Polo Grounds, featuring Giants like Mel Ott and a young Willie Mays (whom I later saw play at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park)?And I also saw the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
When I look back on the ’30s I also remember my first trip to the newly opened Jones Beach (1929) in the ’40s, my first trips to the old Metropolitan Opera (“Lohengrin,” “Aïda”) and Broadway (“Oklahoma!,” “My Fair Lady”). And there were countless trips on the Staten Island Ferry whenever we closed the day in Jersey (or else to Grand Central, heading home by train).
New York to me, then, in the 1930s and 1940s, seemed so magical. It was crowded, yes, but alive.
One key reason was that New York then seemed less like a race for dollars and more like a quest for historical and cultural meaning. The meaning was readily seen in the churches and places of worship. We rarely visited the City without making a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My father also introduced me to some of the other celebrated Catholic churches of the City: St. Malachy’s Chapel, where the Broadway actors worshipped; famed St. Peter’s downtown; St. Agnes, adjacent to Grand Central, etc.
At least I can recall a city that was then first taking shape as a megalopolis, and while beginning to show some signs of deterioration (e.g., the South Bronx), still nonetheless a city of dignity, openness and, to a large degree, compatible with the environment.
Another side of my Fairfield County background derived from my grandmother’s large dairy farm, as much beloved by me in youth as New York and Jersey. Again, the Great Depression was raging; summer often became periods of sojourning on the farm, especially when my father, a superb high school teacher, was unable to find meaningful supplementary employment until the schools reopened in September. The farm constituted a dramatic contrast from the incomparable vitality and rush of New York City. There was no highway leading to it; only country roads. While still a boy of 7 or 8 years, I experienced, and have never forgotten, a hill on the way to the farm when suddenly the atmosphere changed from the ordinary air of the city to freshly blown breezes, clear of all pollutants. I recalled this experience while reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the stewardship of the environment. There was a time, as recently as the 1930s, when the air was pure and clean, even in Connecticut. We can at least try to restore what it was like, not only on the farm, but even, to a large degree, city environments.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.