August 19, 2011
Austin Street Memories: Growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, New York
By FRANK BARNING
For those of us who grew up in Forest Hills soon after World War II, Austin Street was an interesting place to spend time because of the variety of interesting shops. Most of our needs and those of our families could be satisfied between Ascan and Continental Avenues.
My family lived there until late 1954 when I was 12 years of age. Both my mother and father moved to Forest Hills in the mid-1920s, in their early teens. Three vintage postcards are shown above.
This was a time long before large shopping malls and huge Wal-Mart-type super stores. Mom and Pop businesses still reigned supreme. Sometimes you developed a friendly relationship with store owners and their employees. People called each other by their first names, unlike the often impersonal method of doing business in today’s world.
We lived 73-20 Austin Street, in the Tilden Arms, a six-story apartment house named for the famed tennis star and child molester, Bill Tilden. Our building was on the southwest corner, adjacent to Ascan Avenue. Across the street was Sutton Hall Pharmacy, a famous hangout for many years. Hy the soda jerk was a local celebrity.
My childhood pal Bobby Taylor lived in the Tilden Arms and he has vivid recall of the shops. According to barrister Taylor, “Going out the front door from 73-20 Austin Street, turning left and proceeding west towards Continental Avenue, the first stores you passed included Jones' Candy Store, Budde French Cleaners Roth's Hardware, Henry's Superette (aka The Dirty Deli) and Lou Portong Millinery.”
Taylor also remembers Cushman's Bakery, Glindeman's Deli, Peter Reeves grocery store, Famous Fashion, Pinsky's Stationary, White Rose Market and Woolworth. Most of us referred to Woolworth as Woolworth’s.
The official name was F.W. Woolworth, named after its founder, Frank Winfield Woolworth. In 1910, Frank Woolworth commissioned the construction of the Woolworth Building in Manhattan. This building was entirely paid for in cash. It was completed in 1913 and was the tallest building in the world until 1930. But I digress.
Also on Austin Street were Ralmi’s, M. H. Lamston (a rival of Woolworth), Womrath’s and a few steps from Continental Avenue on the north side was Seven Master Barbers. I remember the big picture window and being able to see the white-uniformed men cutting hair. My barber was Tommy who gave me my first professional haircut.
Larry Bender, a P.S. 101 classmate of mine, has memories, too. “My favorite shoe store was Stride Rite which had a fluoroscope machine that produced an x-ray of your foot to make sure the shoe fit properly,” he mentioned. “It might have been called Walter's at one time. I think it was closer to Woolworth where you could get a bag of pretzels, potato chips and M & M's for a quarter.”
Woolworth was a great place to buy candy before going to the nearby Forest Hills and Midway theatres. “Those were the days,” said Bender who now lives in Southern California. The L-shaped Woolworth had entrances on both Austin Street and Continental Avenue.
Jeff “Cap” McGann has his western end of Austin Street mercantile remembrances. The Forest Hills Sports Center was his favorite. “They kept jockstraps under counter so as not to scandalize any debutante who might wander by and happen to see the box they came in,” he stated. The box was labeled “Athletic Supporters”. How shocking!
McGann, now living in Vero Beach, Fla., also remembers Beau Brummel Macleavy's Gym above Peter Reeves. “They had machines running up and down oversized butts.
Peter Reeves was good place to hock peas to use in peashooters.”
Another memory is of Walter the Our Lady Queen of Martyrs crossing guard/beat cop used to hit on the buxom counter girl. Charley Miller, the ringleader of the Neely gang, taunted “Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar” and she would chase him and his pals down the street. “Walter, Walter” was a song made famous by Gracie Fields, who also wrote the lyrics. The song is familiar to me because my mother used to paraphrase it with, “Frank, Frank, lead me to the bank.”
Also memorable after all these years is the shoe repair shop (While u Wait). It had booths with little swinging doors to sit in while shoes were repaired in the window for all to watch.
Other Austin Street venues included the Ray Lipschitz Candy Store, Paul’s Luncheonette with its delicious but greasy hamburgers, Hamburger Express, The Blue Candle, Ida's Millinery and Chapeaux, Louisa Brown, Wu's Chinese American Restaurant at 71-32 Austin Street, the Rexall chain’s Towne Drug and White Rose where grocers tallied purchases with black crayon on bags. Perhaps this was the forerunner of current scanning system.
Villmonte's Bakery was owned by a big Swiss/Austrian baker who bellowed to customers when they complained about high prices. “I don' mek hosssheet! You vant hosssheet? Go to Cooshman's.” Cushman’s indeed had inferior goods, but were much less expensive.
Thinking about those stores, probably all long gone, reminds me of some of the great fragrances I have ever experienced. The smell of the ice cream and candy at Ralmi’s was intoxicating, and so is the recollection. The odor of baseball gloves at the Forest Hills Sports Center brings back memories of Carl Furillo, Alvin “Blacky” Dark and Allie Reynolds, among other New York/Brooklyn area heroes of that era.
Certainly not as appealing, but still a strong olfactory memory is the odor emitted from the shoe-repair shops. I vividly remember the smell of the leather and rubber in such stores in the days before synthetic materials began to be used. I can hear the tapping as shoe repairmen hammered new rubber heals and soles on shoes from which we wanted to get additional wear. Now we seem to throw everything away with repair shops being few and far between.
And few foods in my lifetime were as satisfying as freshly baked rye bread, heavy on the seeds, from a bakery. My mother, a Forest Hills girl, would send me to the store for a loaf, and by the time I returned home to the Tilden Arms, many slices would already have been consumed. It sure beat Wonder Bread.
It’s easy to remember all the good stuff from a childhood spent hanging out on Austin Street. The downside was the lack of air conditioning, the soot spewed by the apartment house furnaces that blackened our necks in the days when coal was still burned and trash still incinerated, and the occasional theft of a bicycle carelessly left unlocked.
One of the best things for me was that while strolling Austin Street, I constantly crossed paths with kids I knew. We weren’t home playing video games or surfing the internet. We were outside getting the sometimes fresh air, communicating, and unconsciously working on our physical fitness. There weren’t many fat young people back then, as least not around Forest Hills in those days soon after World War II.
This was originally written for the Forest Hills Club newsletter.