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

Richard James
I don’t have prepared notes.  I’ve thought over these past three weeks, we met and talked, should I prepare notes or should I not prepare notes?  I decided not to for a variety of reasons that I won’t share, it’s not necessary to share with you.

When I moved in in 1972 I was married, I am not now.  My wife and I then had a young child, one, who is now thirty-five, who’s a wonderful, wonderful son.  And so for these - I’ve moved out and moved back in and I’ve had a wonderful affair with The Grinnell.  And the reason I describe it as an affair is because what we’ve done with The Grinnell has been a remarkable story, an incredible story.  And by the same token it has been an incredible dialogue of the McCoys and the Hatfields; it’s been so difficult and so tough.  And I’d like to share some vignettes with you and some personal experiences with you, and then have you ask questions.
But before I do that there are just two gentlemen sitting in the audience who are personal to me, actually three people in the audience who are personal to me in terms of what I experience.  One is Joel Rothschild, sitting right here, if the camera could swing to him.  The other is Manny Gilyard, this gentleman right here in the front.  And Doris Innes right up here.  And the reason I do that is because we pass each other in the neighborhood, some of us are recent visitors and persons who live in the neighborhood and others of us pass each other and we don’t know who we are. 

So let me begin with Joel.  This building could not have come on board and done what we’ve done in terms of developing it in terms of Joel.  But the irony of life, the irony of life, in terms of our expectations and our politics, our philosophies, our racial identity, is that Joel and I used to be, thirty years ago, bitter enemies, bitter enemies.  Joel and I did everything that we could do to each other to destroy each other, almost everything.  I’m exaggerating to make a point, I am, I’m exaggerating to make a point.  I don’t know what it is, but I can go over to his house, have a glass of wine, sit and talk with him, commiserate, reflect, talk.  He’d come over to my house, he has many times, reflect, and that’s been a healing experience for me and a learning experience in terms of how to get something done, it really has.  It’s remarkable.  The same thing with Manny, with Doris.  No, no, not [an] enemy, Doris, [but] just in terms of understanding the dynamics of what’s going on and sharing and participating.  We’ve had our differences and we’ve had similarities.

I don’t know about all of you – I’m sixty-four, I grew up in this neighborhood, I have left this neighborhood a couple of times.  The first time I left this neighborhood [was] when I was seventeen and a half, eighteen, I moved down to the Village - I’m a graduate of NYU.  I never took any of Connie’s courses, [I] didn’t know Connie was a professor at NYU.  I’m a graduate of NYU, I have an English degree from NYU, and I’m also an attorney.  But the first time I came into this building was around 1955-56, maybe ’57.  I was a Boy Scout, I was thirteen, fourteen years old, and I was afraid to come to the west side - I was afraid to come to this building in particular, but I was afraid to cross Broadway.  That is not an exaggeration. 

So before what I was saying, I was exaggerating in terms of Joel, but I’m not exaggerating now.  We’re talking about ’54, ’55, born in 1943, I’m at thirteen, fourteen, in ’55, ’56, I’m a Boy Scout and the lone White Boy Scout that we had in our troop lived in this building.  And I had the assignment to come to this building to talk to him.  And you say, “Well Richard, what’s his name and who was he?” and I don’t have the vaguest idea, I couldn’t tell you, but I have that as a living memory that I want to share with you.  And so there was a kind of a point of demarcation between Broadway and going west, Riverside Drive, and Amsterdam, and Edgecombe and that area.  You’re talking about a migration of predominantly Black people – now it’s Dominican and Latino people, but predominantly then in my generation of Black people.  I came into the building and I don’t even remember if there was security the way we have it, went up to the apartment, and I was just blown away.  This kid who’s going up and trying to induce this young man to join the Scout troop.

As I remember - I haven’t thought about this a lot, but I think the troop number was 703 or something like that.  But that was the connection, my first connection and memory of this building.  And then my former wife and I moved into this building in 1972.
The neighborhood is a remarkable neighborhood.  I would say in terms of its resiliency, its energy and stuff, it’s kind of the place to live, the west side.  But it’s not made for everybody, this west side neighborhood.  I think I would advocate…argue that we have kind of the best of the best.

Now my background.  I practiced law for twelve years; I’m an English teacher now  I teach at a high school in The Bronx and I teach three subjects, I teach African-American history, I teach journalism and I teach English, and I love it, love it, the kids, the vibrancy of the kids and stuff.  The population of kids that I teach is predominantly Latino kids, Dominican, by and large African-American and so forth.  So the position that I come from, why I identify so strongly with this building, is because I think the identity, the energy of this country and the resilience of this country is incorporating immigrants into our society and being accepting.  That’s the energy of this country. 

If this country is exclusive, as some would have it, and there are many ways to define exclusivity, we can define exclusivity by color, which we have traditionally done.  We can define exclusivity by income.  I would say many of us, not all of us, have good incomes, or with husbands and wives we struggle and make good incomes, we could define it that way.  Property ownership - I don’t care how you define it, but the important thing here is that we need to really find a common denominator to accept all of us in this tent that we’re under.  Muslims, different denominations of Muslims.  I’m not Muslim.  I have the most screwed up family that you would ever want to have in your life, I really do.  Unfortunately they all have since passed.  My sister was Jewish, [the] sister that brought me along was Jewish.  My younger sister who died in this building was Muslim.  I was raised as a Roman Catholic.  My mother was raised as a Baptist.  Whoa!  Hello!  Does that set you on fire?

More seriously, I can talk from different perspectives, and we can answer specific questions about the building.  The fact that this building has come as far as it has come is a testament of God’s love, God’s love?  I don’t know.  The intelligence, ambition, I don’t know.  This building has been a cornerstone in this man’s life, this man’s life, that lady’s life, this lady’s life, that woman’s life, this man’s life, my life, and some others, Robin, Robin’s mother, other people.
Our Stories: Voices from the Grinnell                                 Written by Richard James, Grinell resident 1972 – present
Our Stories:
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The residents of 800 Riverside Drive celebrating community, a unique sense of place, and an architectural gem