Back to School is no longer some distant date on the calendar or even perpetually “around the corner” as it is each year during late summer. For New York children, those dreaded words will materialize into classroom time and heavy duty homework in only a few days. For me, they transform into memories of a school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during one of the city’s most raucous eras.
The School of the Blessed Sacrament began welcoming New York City children in the early 1900s when Manhattan’s Upper West Side was still tranquil open country. The stretch of land between West 70th Street, where the school stands today, and the upper reaches of Broadway was so rural that Blessed Sacrament Church held its first Easter Sunday Mass in a stable that once stood on the corner of West 72nd Street. What a difference seven decades made.
By the time I entered first grade at Blessed Sacrament, the Upper West Side had long ago completed its transformation from countryside to residential area. At first glance it might have seemed that little of the past remained in the area or in the school but if one looked closely there were clues all around.
On the first day of school I stood on the sidewalk waiting with knocking knees for the school bell to ring. My mother stood at a distance catching my nervousness and curiosity on Super-8 film. I had plenty of time to look around and wonder why my school looked like a church. It’s interesting to read now that both Blessed Sacrament church and school were designed by an architect who borrowed inspiration for his plans from Sainte Chapelle in Paris, a small gothic chapel built by Louis IX in the 1240s.
My years at Blessed Sacrament coincided with New York City’s peak crisis years: the 1970s. Crime and mayhem had become part of the day-to-day experience of living on the Upper West Side. At times those tensions, sensed at home and experienced on the streets, burst at school, erupting in brutal fights and violent words, but those moments were always extinguished quickly. Strong teachers and tough-love nuns ensured that our days behind Blessed Sacrament’s gothic facade would be ruled by order, learning, caring and discipline no matter what was going on outside.
Recess at Blessed Sacrament took the form of simple games on the sidewalk or dodge ball and basketball in the gymnasium. Our school didn’t have room for a playground but we didn’t need one. Just being away from our desks and books was enough to send us pouring out of the building each day after lunch eager to create fun out of just being in open space. On rainy days, rehearsing plays in the auditorium, working on macrame crafts or playing “7-Up” were favorite activities.
Another pastime was more eerie. It involved sneaking into the school’s “creepy basement” where chipped and otherwise damaged statues from Blessed Sacrament Church were housed. The basement was dim, low-ceilinged and seemed ancient to our eyes since its appearance hadn’t changed since the school opened in 1919. The statues, with hands articulating emotion and eyes looking heavenward, seemed to come alive in the semi-darkness. We would take turns daring each other to see who could last the longest in the ghostly darkness before running up the stairs giggling and screaming.
As the years passed at Blessed Sacrament School, my interests changed along with those of my classmates. By fifth grade, going outside meant time to gossip, a chance to apply Bonne Bell lip gloss and talk about the latest cover of Tiger Beat magazine. We would style each others hair into flips or the Farrah. The boys were busy with Kung Fu moves, playing Star Trek and discussing the Knicks or they could be found making up songs about beating the Mets. All we really had in common was our fear of 8th graders and our shared fascination with things like Wacky Packages, the science behind Mood Rings (and Killer Bees, and the coming Ice Age and of course Big Foot) and being en pointe with the fashion trends of the era.
Even in uniform, green and plaid, we found ways to showcase our fashion savvy. Lucite “candy rings” were especially popular as were platform shoes with names like “Buffaloes” and “Marshmellows.” That’s where I failed miserably. In a fifth grade school picture I’m smiling through braces, hair hennaed bronze, aviator glasses tinted rose and I’m wearing a two-piece corduroy suit in rust. My turtleneck was a coppery shade.
Sixth graders at Blessed Sacrament enjoyed the privilege of moving between classes at each period. The windows of one classroom faced the back of West 71st apartment buildings and a portion of Blessed Sacrament Church. The other classrooms faced a seedy hotel on West 70th Street.
Classroom periods in the back of the building were peaceful, focused times. Open windows brought us sounds and aromas – choir practice, pigeon warble, conversations in echo, incense from morning mass. Classroom periods in the front of the building were punctuated by scenes and sounds far more distracting.
Before the Hotel Embassy became a magnet for shady characters and the eyes of curious children it was known as The Ormonde, an elegant residence designed in 1899 by Robert Nicke. It was once described as “A soldier in the battle of Broadway, bringing substance and scale to the boulevard.” By the time I reached the middle school years at Blessed Sacrament it was a hotel that offered us ringside seats to life on the fringe. Drug busts, arrests, attempted suicides were all part of the show accompanied by the whine of sirens. The Hotel Embassy is now rehabilitated and has settled into a proper old age as a doorman building with a roof deck and pet-friendly policies. The Upper West Side, meanwhile, receives children back to school in a few days with a much friendlier welcome.
More recollections on the way in Part II of Back to School in 70s NYC.