A friend of sixty years recently shared a photo with me. The picture of nine ladies and one gentleman sitting on a bench on a Broadway island was interesting and understood but not memorable, except for one thing. The couple on the left end were Black people. Surprised the heck out of me. It wasn’t memorable because I don’t recall any groups that large sitting on the 83rd Street version of this bench.
I have since learned that the photo was taken about twenty-five years after my first memories of this phenomenon (older people sitting on the benches) when they would have been all white people.
The islands and their benches I remember well, but not “elderly” ladies sitting in groups. My friend explained that this group might well have just come from tea and english muffins at the Metro diner on Broadway. The photo places this bench on 90th Street; the New Yorker theater is in the background. We can’t make out the movie title on the marquee so it is hard to date the photo but having found the photographer I now know it to be circa 1981.
Places for tea near West 83rd Street included Schrafft’s and The Tip Toe Inn. I remember the former as cavernous, the few times I ventured in with aunts or the grandmas of friends. I remember white tablecloths and napkins and waiters in uniform. Truly a different time.
There were other notable restaurants in the surrounding blocks: The Hungarian Rendezvous and Ho Sai Guy being the ones we attended. Most of the storefronts on Broadway were retail stores like Bostonian Shoes, Levy Brothers, Radio Clinic, RK Boutique, the driving school, Rappaports, David’s, Florsheim Shoes, and so many more. These small businesses thrived in those days. Many were passed from generation to generation.
I could walk into most of these businesses, with or without parents, and be greeted with a smile and called by my name.
Today is so different. So many “small” businesses are big and keep you anonymous. I try not to go back to those. But, admittedly, today I shop in places where I expect to be “lost in the crowd,” like Amazon.
The island on 83rd Street was a school crossing and was often guarded by a police officer. The only one I recall was Sam. He was a giant of a man.
If we crossed at 82nd Street instead of 83rd we walked on the north side facing Plymouth. It was a lady’s shop so I never went there; the windows were often of great interest to young boys.
The islands are still there, still have benches and are no doubt populated. They look nothing like the islands on Park Avenue; richly planted on a seasonal basis. But they are part of the West Side’s character.