CONSTANCE GRUEN, 780 RIVERSIDE DRIVE
PAINTER, TEACHER, PARENT
RESIDENT FOR THIRTY YEARS AND COUNTING
Connie Gruen, artist and graduate of Cooper Union, moved to the upper reaches of Manhattan with her college roommate in November, 1980. Connie’s supervisor in her Teachers College graduate program put in a word with the building super at 780 Riverside, and “with a river view, on an angle from my bedroom, a view of the cemetery and the river from my kitchen…” she’s never looked back. Thirty years and counting in this neighborhood have added to Connie’s perspective as an artist and citizen of NYC. Her appreciation for the singular flavor and beauty of the neighborhood is summed up in her fondness for “friends, the Hudson River, the architecture, the trees, the museums, and the history.” Connie has a neighbor who “brings me food three times a week; she’s a damned good cook and she likes to share.”
A New Yorker
Connie grew up in New York City, with two sisters and a
brother, the children of Judith Milenbach, who operated a
children’s book store, and Arno Gruen , a psychoanalyst,
writer, and professor of psychology at Rutgers University.
One of her childhood memories brings her back to the
community: “I had a good friend who lived in 157-10
Riverside when I was nine years old. I used to sleep over,
see the view of the river, and run away from my father’s
apartment at various times. Although Jewish, I was not
observant, and met some orthodox Jews who lived in or
near the building. I knew I had a day off from school, but
wasn't aware of the meaning of the holy day, and so
wished the men a happy Yom Kippur.”
Connie had a long and varied teaching career in New York
City public schools. “I had a mixture of empathy and
creativity which made me a fabulous teacher.” She started
as a nursery school teacher and over the years taught
English, math, social studies, guitar, and in the last 20 years of her career, art – at different schools, including Evander Childs and John F. Kennedy High Schools in the Bronx, George Washington and Gregorio Luperon High Schools in Manhattan, and Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn. She “got results from believing, always knowing kids could draw, and they could.” Connie and a particular class of students, “beautiful, beautiful kids, now with their own kids,” meet for a reunion at Riverbank State Park – “a wonderful group, a connection that has lasted 16 years.” Connie’s husband, Harvey Rosenberg who drove a cab and was a butcher before he became a teacher, was, according to Connie, “a conscientious, devoted teacher, who really worked at it and got many special education students to pass the NY State History Regents exam.” Harvey and Connie retired from teaching after 28 and 22 years, respectively. Their daughter Zoe, a graduate of public schools (PS 75, The Center School, La Guardia Arts High School), is currently a student at Hunter College.
“There are three rivers of how I paint: Portraiture, cityscapes, and daydreams.” Connie acknowledges that day dreams take her in one direction so she strives to see more and do more in the real world to fuel her imagination. She once devoted a whole exhibition on the Republican National Convention. Throughout her long teaching career she kept at her painting in fits and starts, always returning to it. Her work has been exhibited at the Rio Penthouse Gallery, St. James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary, Blue Mountain Gallery, and the Village Gate Art Center in Rochester NY.
Neighborhood, Past and Present
Connie misses some things about how the neighborhood used to be, such as live music in the neighborhood – older men playing guitars, scratching boards and “sweet sticks.” She also misses The Museum of the American Indian; it was “very nice to drop into,” and she remembers the statue that used to be on the island opposite the Riverside Oval garden; she often saw a guy lying on top of it at night. Her daughter Zoe planted a garden of climbing vines and pansies around the fire box at the south corner end of 156th Street and the fire department knocked it down. “There used to be a supermarket on Broadway between 157th and 158th. We called it Ernie’s. There was also a dark, dive bar nearby. There used to be a post office opposite the triangular park.
One year there were a lot of homeless people living on 155th Street between Broadway and Riverside.” The Grinnell, in Connie’s opinion, is “beautiful, with large beautiful rooms. I’ve been in it two times. I love the space in there. I like space. One time it was falling apart.” Connie noticed the neighborhood “getting fancier in the 1980s,” and more young white people moving in. She attended a “wonderful” Miguel Zenón (saxophonist, local resident, MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient) concert two years ago in front of the Hispanic Society/Dia Foundation.
Go North and Go Forth
Always at home in the community, Connie has felt unsafe “not often, once in awhile.” Her husband Harvey has noted that “most of our neighbors, when they reach Broadway, don’t turn left or go north.” Connie’s response to a question sums up her comfort in and optimism for her beloved neighborhood -- “One time a man approached me at Zoe’s garden and asked, ‘have you noticed the neighborhood getting better?’ And I said, “It’s always getting better.”