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

Gwen Gilyard
I’ll tell my story about when I first met The Grinnell, or knew about The Grinnell.  I had just come from Africa and I had to room with a friend of mine who was in 788.  And she said to me, “Be careful when you pass that building down on the corner, at Edward Morgan Place and Riverside.”  And I couldn’t understand why she said it, and I asked her, I said, “Why?”  “Because those White people just stare at you all the time from there.  I only see White people going in and out of there.”  She had never been in there, and of course I had just - I only stayed with her for three months. 1968.

Of course there were some Black people here then, at least two families, but I didn’t know it and she didn’t know it because they weren’t the ones who were standing on the outside and going into the doors and were probably giving her funny looks.  So she said, “Be careful when you go there.”  Little did I know that I would ever be living here, so I followed her advice.  When I would pass here going to the store I would go on the back, or I would just walk a little fast.  Because people didn’t look friendly, to be perfectly frank with you, those who were standing around, they didn’t look friendly.  The building looked very exclusive from the outside.

Well my family was growing by one, about to become a second, and Manny decided we’d have to find someplace to live.  And as daring as he is he said, “Okay, I think I like this area.”  So we came over here.  And because of the fact that he speaks Spanish, some anyway, he speaks some Spanish – as as far as I’m concerned it’s a lot – he he spoke with the super who was Latino and he got the apartment like that.  So he had me come over, brought me over to look at it.  I liked it, you know, the same outside, it looked rather impressive.  But the moment I walked into that courtyard I said, “What is this?”  A dingy-looking thing.  And it remained that way until 1989 when the walls were cleaned and some other things were done.  Because I don’t know how many of you knew, it looked terrible except to those of us who lived here, really terrible.  I felt very depressed.  What is this he’s bringing me into?

We went into the lobby, we saw some antiquated furniture which I liked, and then we went on upstairs.  And then my impression changed because I saw the big rooms and the light from the windows and all that.  And it changed even further when I met the neighbors, the Gordons were very friendly, and we’re still friendly to this day.  We opened our doors, our door and their door, and the kids went in and out of the apartments backward and forward, we didn’t lock the doors.  In the summertime we opened the doors and the breeze just blew through.  Next to us in F was the movie director who directed Gloria, I believe he directed Gloria, Cassavetes.  [Note: The resident in 5F was Sam Shaw, a friend of John Cassavetes and the producer of the film Gloria.]  He had lived next to us.  His daughter had the apartment then; two lovely children she had there.  And on the other side of us were a private order of some nuns.  Some people say that some of us might have influenced those nuns because one of them babysat fairly frequently for us, and another of them got married to one of the – I guess he was an ex-monk, got married.  He had been a monk, the one that she married.

Well when we came here I was seven months pregnant with my last child, who was born in January.  Believe it or not the elevator was out the night I went into labor, and I had to walk down the stairs.  But I suppose what it did was that it made the labor shorter, because it was shorter than it was with the other kids.  It could have been for other reasons, too, but definitely I had to walk down those stairs from the fifth floor.  And the fifth floor really means the sixth floor, right.  And no banisters to this day, thirty-four years later still no banisters.

Anyway, the neighbors were really very good.  It was a tradition that you welcome people when they come in on the floor, so we were welcomed very well.  And it remained that way, you know, with the people who were there, the ones who came in later.  And it’s that impression that I had when I first walked in here started changing.

And then there were things that other people were doing on their floors.  They were having “Meet the Neighbors,” when people came in they were having “Meet the Neighbors” nights.  And then we had annual “Meet the Neighbors” in the courtyard.  And I will never forget Ninon [Omura] and her Japanese lanterns, Rose Omura, she had those Japanese lanterns, and it looked good out there.  We stopped it, I’m not sure exactly why we stopped doing it, but it was really a very wonderful thing to do.  And I always felt that it was something that we really should keep up, because you get to meet people on a different level.

And we came in here to the problems.  Not at the moment it wasn’t, but later on it got to be that there was no hot water, there was no heat.  Joel came down to our house once and he said, “Where’d you get heat?”  We didn’t have heat. It was the sun, because we were on the south side, we were in 5G, and the sun made it warm.  But we had to go to our friends in The Bronx to take a shower, take a bath.  And today if it happened of course we could go to Riverbank and swim and then take a shower.  We didn’t have a Riverbank at that time.

But I remember that winter in the latter part of the ‘70s I just stayed cold – during during the middle of the ‘70s rather – I just stayed cold.  The reason I stayed cold is because I couldn’t even go to work and get warm because the Board of Education where I taught you know I taught with the Board of Education, they had a limited amount of oil that they could use.  I think they shut the school down at a certain time of the day and all that.  So I’d go to school cold, remain cold, come home and would still be cold.  And it’s a wonder to this day I don’t have pneumonia or TB or something.

The part I thought Richard was going to do about what happened to change all of this, I know that we in the community in The Grinnell did demonstrations, we hung out banners, we had T-shirts, and we had fairs within the building and out in the streets as well.  Would you believe it that we had a fair once on the first floor on the west side?  And what did we have at the fair?  We sold food, we had music, we had artists and craftspeople as vendors, and we also did it in the lobbies, in each lobby, the west side lobby and the east side lobby.  And we got notoriety because we had the banners hanging and we had people coming in.  There’s a television channel – I don’t remember which one it was – but came and took pictures of what was going on.  And that was publicized because I couple of people spoke to me about what was going on.

How much that had to do with our winning our case I don’t know, but it certainly brought us together, the people here in the building were brought together with all of these activities. I’m going to go on, because I am looking at this from a very personal impression.  Because there are things that you can get on a level from how it affects you personally that you just can’t get the other way.

Anyway, there were other organizers I want to mention, like Vera Sims, Marilyn Nixon, and Roberta Gaddis.  They were some of the people who organized a lot of these activities that were being done and they led the children in doing them.  Mark Gordon was one of the people who took the children to the library and made a stamp club.  He and Barbara also had a peace group, and they took the kids to the Soviet Union.  They did marches here in the States and they took the kids to the Soviet Union.  And all of this has an impression on how you feel about the building, and what happened.

Later on Vera Sims and I had a rites of passage group, and we were assisted by some other people here.  Mrs. Zamora ran an official nursery.  And several of the children in the building went to her nursery.  Janet Olsen was the piano teacher.  Ruth Johnson had a farm in Wallkill, New York, and she had different families who would drive those two hours, right? – hour and a half, to do cooperative farming which gave the children an opportunity to see what farming was like and see what it’s like to put your hands in the dirt and how food grew. The community ballet teacher as Aren.  Almost everybody around here went to Arun [Rivingston] for ballet.

And there are many other remembrances that are connected with the building and the community, like the Easter egg hunt that was given by the Church of the Intercession.  Ernie’s, our main supermarket, where if you went there you’d see somebody you knew from some building in the community, and which we no longer have the opportunity to do that anymore.  Ernie’s is where El Mundo is now.

And one time there was a big snowstorm and the cars got stuck out there in the snow in front of our building, and all the kids and their fathers went out and pushed the cars out and got them started.  And of course they laughed about it; it was a lot of fun for them.

And nobody charged money.

Gwen Gilyard
No, nobody charged money.

And I think I mentioned the “Meet the Neighbors” nights.  And the food co-op, which was really wonderful.  Of course you shared in the purchasing of the food, we shared in the hosting and the selling of the food.  And I wonder if anybody remembers that Dr. Omura always liked to buy carrots.  He bought more carrots than anything else.  I don’t know that a man can live by carrots alone, but he certainly bought a lot of carrots.

And Vianna and Rose Omura used to lead the Christmas caroling outside of the giant Christmas tree in the courtyard that Lefty [the superintendent] always put up.  We knew Lefty was the one who was responsible for that.

And then there’s the gardening that Janet Olsen started, and Manny Gilyard and his committee continued and perfected, and helped to make The Grinnell a showplace in the community.

And some people may not agree but the Jeri Curl boys did something, of course other than selling dope.  When I first came into this community you could not walk away from Broadway without being mugged sometimes.  But when those guys started hanging around the low class muggers stopped.

Many people, men and women:
We had a higher class of muggers.

Gwen Gilyard
They didn’t mug you, they were out for the big stuff.
Anyway, that’s it.
Our Stories: Voices from the Grinnell                                 Written by Gwen Gilyard, Apt. 5G / 6H 1973 – present
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