News of the 9/11 tragedy found its way to me through the antiquated airwaves of a vintage Bakelite radio.
Only days before September 11, 2001, I had moved from the New York City I loved to one of its leafy suburbs. Without cable or satellite hooked up yet, there was no television service. Smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter were still years away. In a tech blackout, I temporarily relied on a collectible 1952 Motorola radio for up to date newscasts.
There was a deep poignancy to the manner in which I learned that sad news about the World Trade Center. That refurbished device had belonged to my cousin Max a long-time merchant on NYC’s all but forgotten Radio Row.
Long ago, the very land that the twin towers stood on had once been a thriving district known as Radio Row. This congested 13 block area in lower Manhattan contained shop after shop of mom and pop stores. Although there were other small businesses and residential property in the neighborhood, the streets were always teeming with electronic buffs and radio enthusiasts seeking hard to find items. From 1921-1966 it had been the largest such collection in the world.
My grandfather’s cousin Max had owned such a store on Cortland Street the very center of the district. A born putterer, he opened his shop in the early 1930s when radio was as booming as his business. This vital neighborhood that some called “a small village” was a mecca for the do it yourselfer, prompting the NY Times to call Radio Row “a paradise for electronic tinkerers.” There were over 300 identically cramped and cluttered street-level stores and close to a thousand shops on higher floors.
A childhood treat in the early 1960s was going with my family to Max’s chaotic store. Driving into lower Manhattan from our orderly suburban home on Long Island, my excitement was palpable. In this bazaar-like atmosphere crawling with haggling pedestrians sharing limited space with merchandise displayed on the sidewalks, the crush of people could be overwhelming for a five-year-old girl. But the reverberating bedlam thrilled me. Melding with the constant sound of city sirens the air was always clamoring with broadcasts of news, sports, and music that blasted from the storefronts.
Visiting that tiny dark, dusty store filled from grimy linoleum floor to dingy ceiling with high-tech tchotchkes of every shape and size was always an adventure for me, transporting me into a mysterious world of electronics. Cartons and crates lay open filled with a jumble of strange vacuum tubes, connectors, and speakers. Mystifying electrical military surplus gotten on the cheap after WWII were strewn about. Hobbyists, repairmen, and curious children like me could happily rummage for hours through box after jumbled box of colorful dials, knobs, and cryptic decals.
In this hodgepodge, there was order in Max’s head and every product had a card that listed all the information. Even with his vision clouded by cataracts he painstakingly hand-painted every single tag in orange tempera.
But it was the radios themselves that fascinated me. The gunmetal shelves groaned with all makes and models that Max delighted in identifying for me. The Depression-era wooden Cathedral tabletop models intrigued me but I was always drawn to the beauty of the colorful, Bakelite plastic ones. A streamlined, glossy maroon Motorola model with glowing amber dials was my favorite.
For 4 decades Max kept up with the changing times, selling record players, hi-fi, and TV parts but radio’s place in his affection was never duplicated. However, the death knell for these mom and pop shops was about to sound shortly and it wasn’t because of changing technology. Plans for a World Trade Center located in lower Manhattan had been in the work for years. By 1960 the Port Authority took charge of the project and began planning development along the East River. Objections from New Jersey changed the site to land along the Hudson River, which included Radio Row.
Along with other area merchants, Max was in an uproar vowing to fight tooth and nail to defeat the re-development plans. The World Trade Center would destroy this “small village.” Business that had taken years to build would be demolished. 120,000 would lose their employment and some their homes. Widespread demolition of small manufacturing and businesses around town was already changing the face of NYC against strong objections.
Banding together as the Downtown West Businessmen’s Association they organized a protest march in June 1962 which drew attention to their plight. My cousin joined the hundreds of other merchants, property owners, and residents protesting the eviction notices by conducting a mock funeral. Despite the heat, a huge crowd had gathered downtown to support the cause, including my family as we watched the marchers carry a black-draped coffin with a sign that read: “Here Lies Mr. Small Businessman. Don’t Let the Port Authority Bury him.”
Court battles ensued until finally in April 1963 the NY Court of Appeals upheld the Port Authority’s right of “eminent domain.” The World Trade Center was on its way.
Some merchants moved uptown, but many like Max just went out of business. By March 1966 demolition of existing structures on the site had begun and most of the stores on Radio Row were condemned. Whole blocks were being vaporized, toppled with the abandon and swiftness of a child dismantling his wooden blocks.
On the day we went to help Max close up shop, the sounds of destruction replaced the lyrical sounds of radio broadcast that usually filled the streets. The machine gun staccato sound of jackhammers, the bone-chilling blasting of dynamite and the constant thud of huge swinging wrecking balls followed by the crash of crumbling walls stayed with me years later. Soon there would be just a gaping hole where once stood commerce. In place of those century-old buildings, would rise new modern structures. The centerpiece- 2 soaring twin towers would ascend majestically from the rubble of Radio Row by 1973.
Max was destroyed. “These gonifs” as he called the developers, had bulldozed away his lifeblood. His sad watery eyes now seemed as dull gray as the few wisps of hair ringing his otherwise freckled bald head. A patina of sorrow tinged with bitterness clung to him like a fine mist of fog. Before we left his store for the last time, Max handed me the elegant maroon-colored Motorola radio I had so long admired. “For you, bubbeleh.” It was he said, to be a lasting reminder of what once was.
That plastic radio would travel with me from one home to the next throughout my life. Twenty-eight years later on a brilliant September morning, I could never have imagined how profound that lasting reminder would be.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Beautifully written Sally.
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and a later relic of Cortlandt Street — Century 21 — is now leaving but for a whole different reason
I didn’t expect this piece to go the direction it did, and that’s your skill as a storyteller. The best recounters cause us to sift through our own memories, and the journey can be painful when the nerve is shared.
Thank you for your kind words and glad the story took you to a place you didn’t expect. I agree wholeheartedly about recounting memories and the journey oy can take you on.
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