During this lockdown, I have a couple of daily routines: walking the dachshund in Snug Harbor in the morning (maintaining social distance, of course), Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefing, and Staten Island Advance food writer Pamela Silvestri‘s morning Facebook video. Pamela speaks from her kitchen just up the street from us, and talks about grocery shopping, which stores have what and which ones have early morning shopping for old people, and what Staten Island’s restaurants are doing to survive. She’s full of good, local information, and for us shut-ins, it’s a lifeline—that’s her in the screenshot.
Pamela also grew up in the same neighborhood I did, so we have that bond. It was an interesting place, and almost everyone I know of a certain age went on to have an interesting, non-mainstream for SI life. I bumped into Pamela a couple of times recently (six feet or more apart, it almost goes without saying), and both times she’s put in a request. She wants me to write about Holly Street and our immediate ‘hood. Pamela’s childhood home was on this little curvy road that snaked up the hill that Holly Street crossed, but I’ll grant her honorary citizenship.
So, Pamela, here you go. I’ll try to remember some interesting bits without getting too encyclopedic.
My first memories of the street and our house were as a three-year-old. My parents bought the as-yet-unfinished house, and my dad drove us in the old Pontiac to the construction site. It may have been raining; it’s unclear. I remember being impressed by all the trees—I was a Brooklyn baby at this time—and I can picture the wooden skeleton of what was to be a small Cape Cod style home. It was surrounded by woods and the street was a narrow patchwork through the woods. There were some older houses, but I don’t remember them.
We moved into the house in March 1960; the sale price was $16,500. It was a rainy day; my nervous young parents, both 30 years old with two kids, loaded the car. My baby sister, three months old, had a car seat. I was piled onto the back seat with all the groceries. I probably whined a lot; I remember resenting having to sit surrounded by cans and bags and Ronzoni spaghetti and macaroni boxes.
The next day was sunny. I have a distinct memory of taking a stick and stirring what looked like smooth brown melted chocolate—there was no garden yet and the house was surrounded by clay-like mud. It was paradise.
I’ll go faster now. We became part of the place; grass and trees were planted; flowers and tomato plants bloomed. Holly Street was a big steep hill and probably because of that, seemed like a self-contained universe. We ran free as kids, with no supervision. We hiked through the woods, we had elaborate tag/hide and seek games, we rode our bikes everywhere. There was no traffic so we got good as scooting down hills at automotive speeds. My dad put a speedometer on my bike, and it was normal to go down the hill at 30 mph. No helmet. I survived.
Remember, this was in New York City. An outer borough, to be sure, and it shows how rural the island was back then, with about half its current population.
Right: My mom and Noodles the wonder dog out in front, 1970s
One of the things that made the block special, besides the geography, were its residents. I don’t know how typical it was of Staten Island or the city at the time, but there were lots of recent, postwar European immigrants. My dad, for one, from Palermo, Sicily, the year before I was born. Mr. and Mrs. Tait across the street hailed from Scotland. Marie Mastroianni two houses away came from Naples. Sultry, with huge eyes, she was our version of Sophia Loren. There was Mr. Young, our neighbor’s father from Ireland. He had a strong brogue and would chase us with a stick if we wandered into his yard. That’s all I remember of him (anything to add if you’re reading this, Barbara? ) All of this meant that what might have been exotic to others was normal to us. And you can throw any accent my way and I’ll understand what the person is saying. (It also gave my sister and me a good feel for mid-1960s European camp, and I got a ride in a fast BMW long before they became luxury SUVs for people who don’t know how to drive.)
A later entrant was Paul Guglielmetti, a builder. He constructed four houses on a huge plot that were shockingly modern at the time. He came from Lombardia in Italy, the region that’s been hardest hit by Covid-19, and in his own house dictated a strict aesthetic. No crystal anything. Straight lines, modern lighting fixtures. I remember lots of big circles. I liked to babysit for their kids because the house was fun to be in for a kid used to less of a, um, refined sense of design.
About that big plot: We got our first taste of 1960s environmental activism with that chunk of land. It was forest for the first few years that we lived there. There were paths through the woods that probably dated from pre-European days, when the locals called the island Aquehonga. We played in those woods and knew every tree, every twist in the path. There was an old derelict well and it was our meeting place when we played hide and seek.
Sometime in…1964? 1965? a builder bought the site and filed plans to build garden apartments. The neighborhood was shocked. Was it zoned for them? Back then, a builder could probably get away with it even if it was. Men of honor, you know? The grownups had frantic meetings. They managed to get a restraining order but it expired. Fierce men showed up in trucks. A bulldozer appeared. It was summer, I think, and our mothers gathered up the kids. We were instructed to go block the tractor. We ran down the street. Some of us threw rocks at the tractor. The guy threatened to call the cops. We spread out so he couldn’t move. Some of us, probably aping what we saw on TV news accounts of civil rights demonstrations, threw ourselves on the ground. “Now come on, kid, you don’t want to be arrested.” We were all between 7 and 10 years old. Someone threw a rock. They left, vowing to return.
They did, and destroyed the woods, mowing down every tree. We continued to harass the construction guys. They laid down some foundations before a final court order stopped them, but the damage was done. The land stayed that way for a few years, weeds growing everywhere until Paul G built his mini-Lombardia.
Back to the people (and thanks for sticking around if you’ve come this far). I’ve written about Joe across the street. His full name is Josef Irlinger, and he comes from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. Joe has converted what was Mr. Murphy’s colonial house into a cozy piece of his native land. He’s retired and still lives there, and being retired means he’s had more time to turn the place into a great hangout. Joe kept up other European habits; every night at about dinner time, he made the rounds, visiting a bunch of families. For us, it usually meant offering Joe a glass of wine and maybe a taste of what we were having for dinner. We called him Seppe (everyone who visited our house was made an honorary Sicilian). If I’m driving near the old place I’ll drive down Holly Street, hoping to see Joe. (We have a VW, and he usually looks at the car and says, “I approve.”)
Back before the city paved the street, eliminating its patchwork quilt of asphalt and dirt, it barely bothered to plow it after a snowstorm. That meant sledding during the day for us kids (my dog would leap onto my back and ride down the hill but he never deigned to pull the sled up the street). At night, though, it turned into the Alps. Joe (left, with his wife Louise, or Luisa, as he calls her) would ski or pull out his toboggan; someone would distribute hot toddies. We’d be inside, sometimes in bed, listening to the chatter and laughter as these hard-working people finally got to enjoy themselves.
I’ll leave you with that. This has gone on long enough. I’ll scare up some more memories for another post, ok, Pamela?