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]