Today’s post is a personal account shared by Elizabeth Viverito, a Bronx raised activist among many other titles, as she recalls growing up in our beautiful borough. If the last name rings a bell, it’s because she is the mother of New York City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Elizabeth Viverito’s Bronx Tale
My family moved from Manhattan to the Bronx in 1954. I was raised by my grandparents and we lived in a tenement on Hoe Avenue, near Southern Boulevard. On Saturdays, I would accompany my grandmother, Clara, in trips to the market at Simpson station, serving as translator between her and the meat and produce sellers.
The two schools that I attended were P.S. 75 and P.S. 123. I loved my years at these schools with my favorite teachers, Mrs. Lasher, who taught me English and that you couldn’t use a double negative in a sentence, and Mr. Mathes, who inspired in me an appreciation for science that has always stayed with me.
The building where I lived during ages eight to 15 was a six-story tenement with four apartments to each floor. I had Puerto Rican friends like Yvonne “Gunsmoke” Gonzalez on the second floor and Ivonne Velazquez on the sixth, with whom I played often in front of the building. Only in front, because my grandmother, who raised me with my grandfather, Juan de la Cruz, wouldn’t let me stray from her watch from the third floor window.
Our neighbors on the second floor, directly under us, were Mr. and Mrs. Weiss, but I rarely saw Mr. Weiss. His wife, on the other hand, always sat at the window looking down on the street where the children played and people walked to and fro. One day, I had to go into their apartment, where I was awed by the number of books I saw on shelves up to the ceiling in the hallway and living area. I saw so many different books and I remember seeing one on algebra and asked her if she knew it and to my surprise she said yes. I was floored! Mrs. Weiss looked ancient to me, but she knew something I was grappling with in school! That impressed the heck out of me and from that moment on, I liked her, even if sometimes she complained to my grandmother about the ruckus my brother, visiting cousins, and I would occasionally make.
I also knew another Jewish family on the fifth floor who occasionally on a Saturday, their Sabbath, would ask me to come into their apartment and turn on the electric range for them, and I would happily oblige.
There were other neighbors of different nationalities — Polish, Cuban, and African-Americans — who lived in my building. The latter were two young boys and their parents. The father was always elegantly dressed in a crisp, white shirt and pants with suspenders. There was a trumpet standing up on a table one day when I went visiting with one of the boys and I was told not to touch it, that it belonged to the boys, who were taking lessons.
I loved my tenement. Although I took it for granted at the time, I later realized it was like the United Nations with all its residents of different nationalities living under one roof, getting along amicably. That experience was such a valuable lesson for me in life in not just getting along with others, but also respecting their differences and needs. I learned the true meaning of the phrase “melting pot” there, for it’s not just living side by side —it’s knowing that each of us are all unique but similar, all wanting and needing the same things and having the same right to them.
Since those days, I’ve thought a lot about my years in the Bronx and I wouldn’t trade them for any other place in the world.
You can also listen to Elizabeth Viverito narrate her tale below: