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The (Good) Old Days in Yonkers Weren't So Bad After All

Updated on December 7, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU in 1964. Worked in NYC for 2 years in public relations then as reporter and editor before retiring from The Hour newspaper.

Early 20th Century Main Street in the 'City of Gracious Living'

Ella: Notable Yonkers Resident

Statue in Yonkers, N.Y., honors Ella Fitzgerald, known as 'The First Lady of Song.' She is among the city's most famous former residents.
Statue in Yonkers, N.Y., honors Ella Fitzgerald, known as 'The First Lady of Song.' She is among the city's most famous former residents.

Hudson River Museum

Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue  Yonkers, N.Y. Museum complex includes six art galleries, the Andrus Planetarium, and Glenview Mansion, an historic house museum of 1876.
Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue Yonkers, N.Y. Museum complex includes six art galleries, the Andrus Planetarium, and Glenview Mansion, an historic house museum of 1876.

Yonkers, N.Y., was a bustling community in the '30s and '40s when I grew up in what my folks told me was "The City of Gracious Living." Recently, however, I read in the New York Times that it's now referred to as "Beirut-on-the-Hudson."

Yonkers had its share of corruption and crime in those days, but, as kids, we roamed every neighborhood -- from the Hudson River to Mount Vernon and the Bronx to Hastings-on-Hudson -- freely, without fear.

Poor, But Happy

Ours was a poor neighborhood, aggravated by the depression and suffering -- along with everybody else -- from the effects of World War II. We were poor, sure, but we were happy.

When I look back at those "good old days" I muse about the times we expropriated the forbidden fruit from the trees and vines all over town, the times we tied the trolley ropes -- so that when the car hit a depression in the road - the rope wouldn't feed out, thus stopping the trolley car dead in its tracks.

A few from our depressed neighborhood turned out fairly well, a few didn't. In any case, most of us -- somehow -- grew up to be honest, upstanding citizens.

A Runyonesque Flavor

Although some of our street-corner conversations in those days had a Runyonesque flavor, we weren't bad kids.

We were city folks; no one I knew owned a car. The trolley took us everywhere we wanted to go. We didn't own our homes, either; we lived in rented flats in aging apartment houses. We rarely worried about money. How could we? We had none to worry about!

Fibber McGee & Molly

There was no TV in those days, only radio. Everybody listened to the radio; it offered a cornucopia of shows ranging from such scurrilous entrées as Fibber McGee & Molly, The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Lights Out ... the list goes on and on.

I look back now at that time as the halcyon days, days when everybody on the block knew one another, days when it was safe to walk the streets at any time of day or night, days when it was safe to leave the apartment door unlocked.

When I look at how the world has "progressed" over the last few decades, I can't help but be concerned about our future.

Our Finest Hour

The Great Depression and World War II were great tragedies, sure; we had financial disasters ... we had Hitler (and Tojo) and Mussolini. But, in many ways, it was our finest hour.

Our tourists back then didn't have to worry about being accosted, mugged and murdered at every turn; we didn't have Los Angeles-style "race riots;" we didn't have mass murderers around every corner; nor did we have religious freaks creating havoc.

Let's put our heads together and find a way to make our streets safe again.

Let's help the downtrodden, get our kids off drugs and into schools or good jobs, and create a better quality of life for everyone.

Let's live our lives in peace and comfort, and set things right for those who've been left behind.

Rodney King asked, "Can't we all get along?" I think we can, if we want.

This column was written as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on May 8, 1993.

Are the 'Good Old Days' gone forever?

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The Last Trolley Ride in Yonkers in November 1952

A sad day in Yonkers in November 1952 when the trolleys made their last run on routes throughout the city. They were immediately replaced by buses following the same routes. Source:
A sad day in Yonkers in November 1952 when the trolleys made their last run on routes throughout the city. They were immediately replaced by buses following the same routes. Source: | Source

Yonkers Today: Daylighting of the Saw Mill River at Larkin Plaza

Strolling Down Warburton Avenue in Yonkers Late '40s/early '50s On Our Way to Genung's Around the Corner On Main Street

Helen Hogan Torpey With Son William F. Torpey and Our Pet Toy Terrier named 'Toy.'  Copy of Picture Taken About 1948 By a Commercial Street Photographer.
Helen Hogan Torpey With Son William F. Torpey and Our Pet Toy Terrier named 'Toy.' Copy of Picture Taken About 1948 By a Commercial Street Photographer.

Yonkers Resident Ella Fitzgerald: 'Someone to Watch Over Me'

Historic pictures of Yonkers, New York

More Pictures of Yonkers -- North Broaday, Getty Square

The Good Old Days by a Yonkers Favorite: Bing Crosby

The Andrews Sisters Sing 'The Ferry Boat Serenade'


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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 11 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your comment, Mary Beth Frye. I was privileged to obtain a Class A education at St. Peter's grammar school in Yonkers and had great respect for the Sisters of Charity, but I was never religious. I believe people are inherently good whether they be religious or not. In my opinion some religious people take their beliefs too seriously and become extremists. Goodness, in my opinion, comes from the heart, not religious beliefs.

    • profile image

      Mary Beth Frye 11 months ago

      I read all of these comments, but, nowhere was the fact that "church" was an important factor in families in the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's. The question of the day used to be, "what parish are you from?" Families had a Mom and a Dad, you went to perhaps the local Catholic School, which in my opinion, is the best education you can get, and we all went to Church together on Sunday. Even if you were playing, 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon was "confession" so you could go to Communion the next day at nine o'clock Mass with your class. Today, Catholic Churches are closing and their schools are non-existent. Take away God in the U.S. and take away respect for religion, and what the leader of Russia said at the UN in the 60's, "we won't have to fire a shot, to take you over, you will ruin yourselves." I see it coming true.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree!

      Times change, Tim, but let's hope they'll change for the better.

    • profile image

      Tim 8 years ago

      There's definitely an aspect of our common culture that exploits insecurities. Growing up in the contemporary era, we're constantly told and instructed to compare ourselves against those around us. I don't know if that's reversible, and I think it's a complete shame considering we should be appreciative for the things we have now more than at any other time in history. There might also be a side-effect to mass media. Are we more aware of what's available now than at any other time? When we're able to see the lives of the wealthy and powerful, does that roll around in our minds more than what should be healthy? When growing up, my family still told an old story about when my Grandfather came home one day with a brand new Studebaker. A car was something he'd been saving up for years to purchase. The way it was told (legend or truth), the neighbours came over to look at it, taking it for a drive etc... I can't think of a single anecdote of my own where my family (or neighbours) came together to take pride in one of our flock achieving something great. Whether it be a car, a new job. Hell, anything short of someone winning the lottery is barely worth mention these days to anyone.

      I think the only occasion that could be seen as similar is if a friend or particularly artistic family member is showing a talent of some type. I mean photography, comedy, music act etc.. I suppose, in a way that has more merit, but its still not quite the same.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      It's my view, Tim, that the "not-giving-a-damn" culture you refer to stems from the rise of corporatism, which puts money and power ahead of all else. It is weakening our political system and democracy while breaking down our social structure. The old neighborhoods are gone, replaced by social climbers whose major concern is making money. I believe it's all based on fear -- fundamentally, fear of poverty. There was a lot of poverty in the early 20th Century, but no one felt debased by that. I agree that people then had more pride however it was not only pride but a feeling that they were a part of the community and equal to anyone else not matter how much money, influence or power they enjoyed. Everyone had lots of friends and neighbors, and they were all in the same boat.

    • profile image

      Tim 8 years ago

      The irony of a political landscape where those attempting to retain an equitable society are being accused of Communism, while those same people are creating an oligarchy.

      I digress. Going back to your original column, I'm not certain if its just legend, but it seems pre-1960's people took a lot more pride in their appearance and behaviour. Most of my adult life has been in the 21st century, and I've got to say, the most exhausting part about this era is the culture of not-giving-a-damn. I'm not saying people should be model citizens, just a little more civic minded. I just re-read Kurt Vonnegut's "Man Without A Country." I wish our leaders would stop attempting to pit all of us against each other for their trivial gains.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Your comments and questions are very welcome, Tim. But the answers are extremely complex. It would require a relatively large tome to give an adequate and complete response. I think disgraced former Sen. John Edwards said it best in his "stump speech" when campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. He said there are two Americas: one for the wealthy and privileged and one for the hard-working common man. In my opinion, there's a great divide in America between the wealthy (and the wannabe wealthy) and the poor and middle class. It's epitomized by the views of the two major political parties,Democratic and Republican. Democrats generally want to lift all members of the American society and assure everyone of the basic needs of humanity: fair employment and wages, adequate health care, equal opportunity and respect. Republicans generally want to protect their assets and social standing and feel threatened by the poor and middle class. They still oppose the Roosevelt "New Deal" and what they call the "socialist" and even "communist" programs urged by Democrats over the last several decades. There remains a great deal of racism in America, which is manifested by the panic over "illegal" aliens, religious differences and the so-called "war on terror." The failure to address the problems of the inner cities and the reluctance to rebuild New Orleans is complex as well, but is unquestionably related to the differences of opinions about the path to prosperity in America. These differences are not narrowing, but rather they are widening as demonstrated by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that takes the earlier ruling that corporations have "personhood" one large step further -- giving corporations and unions the right to spend as much as they want to influence elections under the guise of "free speech." All this affects every aspect of "the concept of community." The battle between the two sides is under way, and the outcome is uncertain.

    • profile image

      Tim 8 years ago

      I'm Canadian by the way, but we spend a good majority of our time looking at our neighours and wondering how events are going to effect us. It usually does for better or worse. I was reading through FDR's second bill of rights. When did it become dirty to want social programs in America? Also, Whenever I visit, I notice how much cultural segregation still exists in many states. When I ask white friends the response is always "its just always been like that" and when I ask black friends, they generally don't want to talk about it. But I've never witnessed anything like it. So is this just an outsiders bias? Or is this really how a portion of American society functions? More than that, looking at cities like Detroit and New Orleans. These are entire cities, largely destroyed for different reasons. Why is there no substantial support to rebuild? Again, am I missing something? There's still huge tracts of New Orleans where there is no re-development at all. I had thought (maybe I'm just being ignorant) that one of the greatest parts of American culture was the concept of community. I mean no insult by asking, I'm just curious.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      American society has lost its way, Tim. Since World War II, when women entered the workforce in large numbers, corporations began breaking up families by moving south to find cheaper labor and break the unions; fathers and mothers had to find jobs in faraway cities and states; as children became workers they had to go where the jobs were; with friends and neighbors always on the move, the concept of neighborhood was no longer viable. Today we don't know our neighbors, and if we do become acquainted with them, either they or we will be moving elsewhere to find employment or to live nearer to our children. With the economy the way it is, we have little choice but to go where we can earn a living wage. We've lost most of our manufacturing jobs where large numbers of people worked for similar wages in the same neighborhood. Now those jobs are in China, India or elsewhere where corporations can make ever bigger profits. Economists like to say that we are moving on to a service economy and longer need manufacturing jobs where we can make money with our money. We no longer need labor and industrial skills when we can make more money by financial Ponzi schemes on a worldwide basis. We're not only heading for financial disaster (or, perhaps, have already fallen into it) but for social disaster as well. If we don't return to sanity soon, it may be too late to recover.

    • profile image

      Tim 8 years ago

      I've been looking for someone's insight into the recent past for a long time. Seems these days there's plenty of everything, but only a few have it. There's no society anywhere. I don't know any of my neighbours and I don't live in what could be called a neighbourhood. No one talks about progress any more either. When I ask people about the future, its only ever about their own future. No one says the future of our country, or society. People look at their associates as rivals, not partners. Looking at old photographs of small towns and cities alike, the streets are clean, buildings might be shabby but are kept up. People had pride. I think that's what's missing. No one has pride for anything other than themselves any more.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I couldn't agree more, gwendymom. We rarely look ahead to avoid problems. It inevitably takes a tragedy to get us to do something that should have been done long ago. The whole world was on the same page after 9/11, but we failed to keep that spirit of cooperation alive. Will it take another 9/11 to get it right? I hope not.

    • gwendymom profile image

      gwendymom 9 years ago from Oklahoma

      maybe in times of hardship people grow closer to one another. Maybe for reassurance, a shoulder to cry on. I had only witnessed this phenom in the days after 9/11, things seemed to change overnight, and Americans grew closer to one another, but of course it did not last and after a few months things went back to the way they were, It's sad really that it takes a tragedy for people to realize the need each others support, for a kinder, gentler point of view.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I'm sure you would've liked the old days very much, Tirisacha. Even during the great Depression and World War II daily life was pleasurable for us kids. I suppose the older folks worried about the troops overseas or finding some coins for our next meal, but we kids played stickball on the streets or softball and baseball in the parks, skinny dipped in the Hudson River or road the trolley cars all over Yonkers. It was nice, indeed. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Tirisacha 9 years ago

      I wasn't around in the old days, but sometimes I wish I was! Sounds nice.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I'm glad you're enjoying my hubs, terenceyap07. I love writing about the old days in Yonkers, where I lived until 1952. Thanks.

    • terenceyap07 profile image

      terenceyap07 9 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you for sharing this hub and a part of your life's rich exeperiences with all of us, my friend!


    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Bob. I think there was no better time to live than the first half of the 20th Century, despite the fact that the period suffered two world wars and a Great Depression. Nevertheless, we all knew our neighbors, who were usually also our friends, and our families weren't scattered all over the country.

    • profile image

      Bob 10 years ago

      Bill, Your tallents are waisted at our post. You should be writing for the newspapers again. God knows they can surely use someone that doesn't write nothing but Anti-American editorials. I too loved those days, and they were less crime ridden, but those were also the days when a cop seeing you misbehaiving could kick you in the butt and tell you to move along. If you complained to your Pop , he'd kick you in the butt too. Nowdays , the kid would go to court and complain , the cop would lose his job and your Pop would be locked up for child abuse. Give me the 40's anytime.


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