Columbia University football field, Inwood section of Manhattan, Manhattan, New York City, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Park Terrace Gardens in Inwood, pianist, piano, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, the Big Apple, the Bronx, the Hudson River at the tip of Manhattan, The Marble Hill Projects, word press,

My New York City weekend excerpts: The Marble Hill Projects, Park Terrace Gardens, a reunion with my Sohmer upright, and a nostalgic walk along Riverside Drive

When I arrived in Newark Airport this past Friday evening at 10 p.m. I sped off in a spiffy air train on the arm of my protective brother. (He took a snapshot of me in my newly purchased, Calvin Klein leather coat) Surprisingly, most passengers on my plane, bound for Tel Aviv were flip-flopping around, scantily dressed. Was I out of step with the crowd?

Together, we whizzed over to Penn Station at 34th and boarded the no. 1 IRT north bound subway train, final stop, 242nd Street and Van Cortlandt Park. Known as the Riverdale section of the Bronx, this vast, rustic area has marked out horseback riding and walking trails, fresh air, beautiful foliage, mature trees, and elegant homes. Had we dozed off 10 or so minutes past the Dyckman Street stop we might have overshot our destination and landed in this upper middle class section of the borough. The nearby Fieldstone homes are some of the priciest mansions with long, scenic driveways.

Instead we de-trained while still in Manhattan, at 215th Street in the heart of Inwood by the picturesque Hudson River. Another stop north, across the bridge, would have landed us by the Marble Hill Projects, my childhood home.

Towering 14-story buildings with about 10 apartments to each floor sprang up in the early 50’s with veteran’s subsidies. Ironically a handful of these were given Manhattan identities if they were on the right side of the tracks. Others bore the less flashy Bronx addresses. To be sure, I hailed from the Bronx due to a fixed boundary line drawn between boroughs.

You can see our ninth floor apartment of 2831 Exterior Street in this photo view. For twelve years we lived in 9L and if I shouted out for ice cream money from down below, my mother would throw a dime and two cents carefully banded in folded paper that sometimes overshot the sidewalk and landed in the bushes.

Escaped parakeets dotted maple trees along the periphery– most never found their way back home. A few cats jumped out of apartment windows rather than be caught by Housing Authority police. Felines and canines were not allowed so most of our neighbors had guppies, turtles, finches, canaries and parakeets.

It was no surprise that my parents moved across the bridge from Marble Hill to the Inwood section of Manhattan after I graduated FAME’s NYC High School of Performing Arts. With two children off and running to college, they no longer needed 4 and 1/2 rooms. Their new pert apartment, in Park Terrace Gardens, sat atop a hill that bordered beautiful Isham Park and the Hudson. A breathtaking view from their living room window was thrown in for good measure.

Columbia University’s nearby football field invited animated cheers and the swells of crowds each month, enlivening the apartment space.

Looking down from the 7th floor, tudor houses, added a magic touch.

Sitting regally in the living room, my old Sohmer upright had weathered the journey from the Bronx to Manhattan but was never the same piano in years to come.

I took an opportunity to sit down and plunk out a few tunes. My once dearly beloved sounded like a harpsichord, having lost its voice due to excessive humidity, a nearby radiator, and wide temperature swings. It was a sad reunion.

The visit to NYC would not have been complete without my having taken the no. 1 IRT southbound train to W. 103rd St. with a short walk to Riverside Drive and 105th where I took piano lessons with the late Lillian Freundlich.

As it played out, Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist accompanied me to the neighborhood after we criss-crossed Central Park to take in an art exhibit at the Whitney. It was night fall when we stopped at 311 W. 105th for a few heart throbbing moments to take pictures.

The elegant townhouse looked the same, though as I peeped through the entryway, I observed that the staircase to the first floor had been stripped of carpeting, replaced with highly polished wood. A splendid display of chandeliers lit up the living room as seen from the sidewalk.

Irwin and Lillian Freundlich had three pianos– two Steinway grands, and a 1940’s Mason Hamlin that was used for piano lessons. It was an exquisitely refined musical instrument that I loved the most.


An additional Gallery of photos:

Another window view from my mother’s Park Terrace West apartment:

The Park Terrace West gardens:

The Marble Hill Projects:

The beautiful Hudson River at the tip of Manhattan, appreciated as well from the Bronx side of the bridge that divides the two boroughs.

Crossing the bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx:

From the bridge looking out on the Hudson River:

Carnegie Hall, Lewisohn Stadium, New York City, Patelson's music shop, Sohmer upright piano, the Bronx

Musical memories of New York City, and my impending trip back home

Today, I’ll fly back to New York City for my mother’s Memorial, and in a tight 4-day span I’ll visit the edifice of my High School of Performing Arts,

a designated landmark at 46th and 6th Avenue. Ironically, I recently unearthed a graduation photo that shows me holding a Music award in the presence of my late father, and dear friend, Setsuko Nagata, violinist.

Performing Arts Graduation 1

(Over the coming weekend I’ll join in PA reunion activities that happened to fall during my stay–a nice coincidence.)

I’ll be sure to hop the IRT subway to W. 103rd, and saunter over to 105th and Riverside Drive where I took piano lessons with the late, Lillian Freundlich, expecting more than a gulp of emotion.

Two musical friends live fairly close by, so I’ll spend time with them, and tickle the ivories.

The old Sohmer upright, that was my first “real” piano, and formerly housed in mom’s Inwood apartment was spared the dump after her death. A music teacher adopted it, though it’s a furniture centerpiece since the radiator in winter and excruciating humidity of summer swelled and contracted its soundboard to a point of no return. Forget the hammers, wippens, and flanges.

I recall dispatching a piano restorer long distance, who threw up his hands in futility at the very thought of refurbishing this once beautiful sounding instrument. (It had been owned by concert pianist, Lucy Brown)

My beloved parakeet, Tykie christened the piano leaving little droppings in his wake. He soared to the ceiling as I played Burgmuller’s “Harmony of the Angels,” and danced across the keyboard to “La Chasse.”

The violin I left behind:

A few years ago, my then 97-year old mother informed me that my violin, known as the
“cigar box” that was retrieved from my grandparent’s dusty old closet in very bad shape, was given away to a neighbor. Amazingly, he restored it to playing condition despite the fact that it never played well enough to be considered playable. I never would have imagined its rebirth.

The last exposure I had to my cigar box was in the Bronx, performing “Exodus” at a Junior High music festival on the eve of Yom Kippur, a poignantly sad occasion. Dr. Loretan,  from the Board of Ed happened to be in the audience, and came back stage to offer his sympathies. He arranged for me to “loan” a violin from the School District in Brooklyn. I thought it was a “Stradivarius” before my violin teacher, Samuel Gardner, took out his magnifying glass and clarified that it was a “copy.” My hopes and dreams were shattered.

Perhaps I’ll find time to visit the very area on W. 68th where I took my violin lessons, before Lincoln Center ate up the greater part of the neighborhood. I remember the rubble, carefully monitoring my footsteps as I walked along the route from the West 66th Street subway station to Lincoln Towers. It was the perfect backdrop for “West Side Story” which hadn’t yet made its movie debut….

Which reminds me of the evening I attended the Dimitri Metropoulos conducting competition at Avery Fisher Hall on W. 66th after the area was transformed by Lincoln Center’s presence.

Sejii Ozawa, one of the competitors prevailed, along with tied finalist, Claudio Abbado. As I was standing on the subway platform about to board the IRT back to my apartment, I caught a glimpse of Sejii looking like a teenager with his impressive shock of black hair. It was a memory I’ll always treasure.

Not too far from Lincoln Center is Carnegie Hall on W. 57th where I spent many evenings soaking up performances of legendary pianists, cellists, and violinists. Most memorable performers: Emil Gilels, Sviatislov Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rosalyn Tureck, Nathan Milstein, and Daniel Shafrin. At one of these I met my future piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich and the rest was history.

Carnegie Hall better

Perhaps I will walk over to Carnegie, and ponder the space its former neighbor, Patelson’s Music House occupied. A hub for serious musicians seeking Urtext editions and rare manuscripts, it sadly closed its doors in 2009. Marsha Popowitz Patelson, an alumna of the High School of Performing Arts during the years I attended, was its owner and champion after husband, Joseph, passed away.

Patelsons music store

Patelson’s had such a homey atmosphere, like Wurlitzer’s where violinists gathered to try out Strads and Amatis that were hanging in rows. I always spotted a famous musician over there as I was looking to purchase a decent set of Italian made strings, and I never failed to solicit an autograph.

How shall I preserve the memory of being taken to Lewisohn Stadium in the Bronx to hear Van Cliburn play the Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1 in Bb minor following his momentous victory in Moscow?


Will I have time to travel away from Manhattan? I wonder if this outdoor concert hall still exists? I recall having heard Marian Anderson sing there as well.

I think she narrated Copeland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” which tied into my recollection of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts,” one of which I attended in Carnegie that made an indelible impression. Actually it was a rehearsal along with one conducted by Stokowski and the American Symphony. Those were the days.

I’ll be lucky to make three nostalgic visits if weather permits. In Spring New York City is very lovely, but you can feel the winds gusting up now and then. It gets people going. I notice the pace of steps in the Big Apple is brisk. The same quickness of meter is mirrored here in the Bay area. Watch out, or you’ll get mowed down at the Bart station.

Robert Levine, one of my relatives, wrote a book about this very geography of time, and included my quote about “tempo rubato” as part of the volume’s introduction. He traveled the world counting footsteps and came to conclusions about cultural differences in time perceptions. Very fascinating.

I don’t think I’ll have time to mark my own walking rhythm or that of others in the Big Apple. I’ll be lucky if the trains run on time so I can take my journey down memory lane without too much inconvenience. Wish me luck.