The Riverside Oval Association, an Audubon Park organization that builds community through landscaping and local-history programs, sponsored an oral history evening at the Grinnell on January 30, 2008, preserving a videotaped record of the conversation, as well as a transcript. 

The Grinnell Centennial Planning Team is very grateful to the Riverside Oval Association for permission to publish the complete transcript of this oral history evening on our Centennial website; the conversation offers a detailed look at a difficult period in the Grinnell's life, told by people who were there and experienced it first-hand. 

For information about the Riverside Oval Association and its projects, please contact co-chair Vivian Ducat

Jan. 30, 2008

Connie Sutton
I have long believed people living in Riverside Oval have witnessed and helped promote important social andpolitical changes that have created a welcoming space for living together with racial, ethnic, and class diversity.   Their stories about their experiencing this happening are worth preserving for the future...  While the Grinnell was the first of the 3 pre-WWI large buildings in the oval, I look forward to hearing the stories from the Riveria and Audubon Terrace as well as from the buildings across the street.

We will begin the Grinnell oral histories with telling you when and why we moved into Grinnell, what it was like at the time, and what are key experiences we remember. After which we ask that you join in with your stories.  This event is being videotaped so that there can be follow-up and the material archived as a resource for historical analysis.

I will begin because I currently have lived here the longest, having moved into the rent-controlled Grinnell with my husband in the last month of March, 1963. I was pregnant, expecting in mid-April, but my son arrived early on April fool’s day, due to the move I believe. We moved into apartment 7J, a 9-room apartment with wonderful views both north and south, and a rental of $179, having gone up from $135!  I had  lived in apartment buildings all of my previous life and but had never experienced anything like what happened when we moved in –  namely neighbors whom I did not know came to our door with food and flowers — and to see what we had done to reconstruct the apartment which had not been touched for some 45 years, almost the same length of time I have lived in it now.

Why did we want to move into the Grinnell?  We had arrived in NYC in late 1954 and had lived since then on 163rd Street near upper Riverside Drive.  My husband was working at Pyschiatric Institute as assistant director of research in the Bio-Psychology program and teaching at Columbia U.  I was teaching anthropology at NYU.  When I became pregnant we decided to remain in the city rather than move to the suburbs, as did most academic colleagues when they had children.  I was determined to return to NYU the following semester.  So I searched for a large apartment that would accommodate friends and family and a live-in student to help when we both had to go out.

I had my eye on the Grinnell and the Riviera and was tipped off that an elderly couple had died in apartment 7J and it would be vacant. I was also fascinated by the Grinnell because of its history: Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby love scene allegedly took place in the building; and Daddy Grace, a black evangelist preacher owned the building in the late 30s and40s when no colored people could rent.  Moreover, I knew of George Bird Grinnell, a naturalist and anthropologist who wrote about the Cheyenne Indians, and learned that he was a member of the Grinnell family that owned the land on which the building was built.  They had also built the famous Museum of the American Indian, located on Broadway and 155th until the mid-1990s [where my son would attend Indian craft classes in the summer].

My husband and I had been involved during the past nine years in trying to racially desegregate the buildings west of Broadway, the color line at the time.  I was aware that the struggle was occurring in the Grinnell – my friend Alice Childress being the first black person to get an apartment in the building. She was the first black woman to get her plays professionally produced on stage in NYC, author of several books and the movie A Hero Ain’t Nothin’But A Sandwich.

I think that Ruth Johnson – director director of nursing services at Delafield Hospital, and her eight year-old daughter Robin moved in around the same time we did, making it the second non-white family in the building.  Some six months or so after we moved in the Pimentels from the DR moved in and I recall Francia, who was about 10 years old at the time, and her younger brothers coming to the apartment to look at our new baby....afterwards they would all play together, with Francia overseeing the younger ones.

In the fall of 1965, my friend Maya Angelou moved in with us and stayed while she wrote her famous I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings. And in the same year I was able to help Julian Mayfield, African American playwright, author, and key actor in the movie Up Tight, get apartment 6H where he would sometimes hold meetings with members of the Black Power movement.

The building was not only diversifying racially and ethnically during the late 1960s but the people it was attracting were writers, artists, educators, etc. It was a place humming with creative people. Many of us living in the building would have dinners together, go to city events together, including protest marches of the time. Grinnell was acquiring a distinct character and becoming a kind of an enclosed village.

I recently asked my son David what he remembers about living in the Grinnell.  His first answer was like that of all other friends I asked: the elevators often didn’t work and it was scary getting stuck in them; but he then went on to recall that he felt the building was like an extension of his own home could go visit neighbors in the building, the kids would play games in the open spaces and across the basement space of the two wings. He remembers the games going up and down the stairs to the Morgan Place exit, and the fun of going to the roof of the Grinnell and looking around. The Grinnell building was safe space he said compared to what was becoming less safe on the streets from the ‘70s on.  It was like your own community! This is also what Robin Johnson who lives on the lobby floor of the west side also said when I recently asked her the same question.

As an anthropologist, I concur with this...the Grinnell is a community -- a special and changing kind of a community with many ups and down but a community that has been significant to how we have lived our lives.
Our Stories: Voices from the Grinnell                                 Written by Connie Sutton, Apt. 7J 1963 – present
Our Stories:
(Click any name for individual stories)

The residents of 800 Riverside Drive celebrating community, a unique sense of place, and an architectural gem