Posts Tagged ‘East 93rd Street’

Harpo Marx: a poor street kid on East 93rd Street

November 21, 2011

As many New Yorkers know, the Marx Brothers, including Adolph “Harpo” Marx, grew up in a crowded tenement at 179 East 93rd Street, off Third Avenue.

That’s in upscale Carnegie Hill today. But in the 1890s, during Harpo’s childhood, it was “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the South in Yorkville,” he writes in 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

His recollections offer a glimpse into life as a poor Manhattan street kid circa 1900, when ethnic background determined everything.

“If you were caught trying to sneak through a foreign block, the first thing the Irishers or Germans would ask was “Hey kid! What Streeter?” he recalls. “I learned it saved time and trouble to tell the truth. I was a 93rd Streeter, I would confess.”

“The worst thing you could do was run from Other Streeters. But if you didn’t have anything to fork over for ransom you were just dead.”

“I learned never to leave my block without some kind of boodle in my pocket—a dead tennis ball, an empty thread spool, a penny, anything.”

Life in New York at that time wasn’t all about being bullied. After quitting P.S. 86 when he was eight, Harpo watched tennis games in Central Park, went sledding with a dishpan, and swam off the East River docks.

He also dodged the ticket takers on trolley cars so he get around without paying the fare, and he watched Giants games for free at Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds near 155th Street.

And he learned to tell time by “the only timepiece available to our family, the clock on the tower of Ehret’s Brewery (above) at 93rd and Second Avenue, which we could see from the front window, if Grandpa hadn’t pulled the shade.”

[Image of Ehret’s Brewery: Beerhistory.org]

The Marx Brothers’ Yorkville tenement home

June 1, 2009

In 1890 the Marx family—father Sam, who worked as a tailor on Lexington Avenue, mother Minnie, brothers Harpo, Chico, and Groucho, plus Minnie’s parents and a female cousin—moved to a tenement apartment building at 179 East 93rd Street.

Once brothers Gummo and Zeppo were born several years later, 10 family members were stuffed into one apartment, which they paid $27 a month for, according to Groucho’s autobiography, Hello I Must Be Going.

Marxbrotherstenement

At right is the Marx Brothers’ building today, more or less part of the affluent Carnegie Hill neighborhood. Back in the 1890s, however, it was in the middle of gritty breweries in working-class Yorkville. In his book, Groucho recalls his neck of the Upper East Side around 1900:

“We were surrounded by three breweries where we lived. When I went to school I could smell the malt. We used to go over to Park Avenue, where old man Ruppert lived in a big house with a fruit orchard, and we’d steal his apples and pears. There was a spiked fence about eight feet high, and dogs. We might have been dog meat, but we were very young, and we sure did like those apples and pears.”

Old man Ruppert was the owner of Ruppert’s Brewery, which spanned four blocks in the East 90s and is now the site of Ruppert Towers apartment complex. 

Today, neighborhood preservationists are trying to extend the Carnegie Hill Historic District so it includes the Marx Brothers’ building and isn’t vulnerable to demolition

Marxbrothersearly

An early photo of the Marx Brothers. That must be Harpo on the left, but it’s hard to tell for sure who the other three are. Groucho on the far right?