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POTOMAC PLACE

Long Island City - With or Without Amazon It's Still A Changing Place

Much has been said and written in the past few days about Amazon throwing in the towel and backing away from the conundrum of whether its plans for 25,000 high-paying jobs and the further improvement of what was once a desultory industrial area along Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City were in the best interest of New York taxpayers and the local residents.

 

   I know the area well. I once worked there in a sweat shop two blocks from the proposed Amazon site. It was my first job out of high school in January 1954. I stapled veils and artificial flowers onto women's hats for 75 cents an hour.

 

   Once the largest light-manufacturing area in the world, it was the home to many household products including pasta, chocolate, bread, chewing gum, sugar, Pepsi Cola, ice cream, staples, Qtips, paint, soap, furniture, electrical supplies, hardware and just about anything you could find in a home or business. These businesses relied on freight trains to deliver the bulk of their products. The supplies and end products moved in and out of the Sunnyside freight yards that stretched for miles from the East River to Woodside Avenue near Northern Boulevard. It wasn't a pretty place, but it employed tens of thousands at good wages for most of the Twentieth Century before transitioning into a back office area for the financial industry. As rents rose in Manhattan, developers discovered that the best view of Manhattan was from Long Island City, and now, high rise apartments line the Queens' shoreline.

 

   In the last ten years the development and improvement in Long Island City has moved at an extraordinary pace. The sky is seemingly the limit as these high-rise pencils-shaped dwellings quickly rise soaring above the once gritty landscape surrounding Queens Plaza. Moving at a similar pace is the migration into the surrounding neighborhoods of Queens, particularly Astoria, Woodside, Sunnyside, and Jackson Heights of well-educated and civically active millennials who sought out the affordable housing available in these neighborhoods. Most importantly, they vote. On the surface, the politics of the area appears radical reflecting the voices of these newer residents. The new, however, have given voice to the older residents and the well-established Hispanic American community who dominate the population of close-by Jackson Heights. The new arrivals are resisting gentrification for fear of change in the form of higher rents and all that goes with it including paying more for groceries or a meal at a local eatery and other amenities and services.

 

   One thing is certain. Things will continue to change. The question is how quickly the eco-politics of the situation will allow. Long Island City will continue to improve, but there was a time in my life when I never thought it would, when I worked for the Skogel Hat Corporation. Take a trip back with me to 1954 in this excerpt from my 2012 memoir, 1954 Adventures in New York.

 

 

Making Ladies' Hats

 

This has to be the coldest place on the face of the earth. My body struggled to cope with the bone chilling wind as it surged up 44th Road from the East River that January morning. The blast of artic air funneling down into the 23rd and Ely Street subway station shocked me as I stepped off the train and made my way to the street. Dad had given me his warm jacket that January morning. Warm jacket my ass. I was ill prepared to face the elements.

   I had ridden the subway with Bella Clark's oldest son, Pete, who worked at the Board of Education warehouse, across the street from my new job.

   "I never heard of Skogel Hat Corporation," Pete said as we neared the top of the stairs, "and I've been working here for almost a year." He adjusted his collar and put on a pair of wool mittens. "It's freezing. Don't you have any gloves?"

   "Yeah, but I couldn't find them this morning." I stuffed my hands into my pants' pockets and rubbed them against my thighs to keep warm.

   "Hey, Neal, how about 'Jolting Joe' Di Maggio marrying Marilyn Monroe?"

   "Bet he's jolting her right now."

   "Jeez, it's cold, I'd love to trade places with him."

   "Who wouldn't?"

   Pete agreed that Di Maggio was in a much better spot that morning, as we struggled in the quarter-mile walk from the subway entrance to Vernon Boulevard, the gusts from the river forcing us to walk backwards to protect our faces from the stinging wind. The temperature was fifteen degrees, and the wind upwards of twenty-five miles per hour. Our ears were numb and our faces felt like they were going to crack open. As we slowly made our way to the river I wondered what this job would be like.

   Pete's place of employment, a huge, white, concrete building, loomed ahead as we trudged towards Vernon Boulevard. "The City of New York, Department of Purchasing & Bureau of Stores" fronted Vernon Boulevard and backed up to the river's edge. Just across the street from Pete's building, at the corner of 44th Road and Vernon Boulevard, was a dingy four-story red brick building, which housed the Skogel Hat Corporation.

   I said goodbye to Pete, entered the building, climbed the linoleum-covered stairs to the second floor, and found myself in a turn-of-the century sweatshop. A neatly dressed, gray haired man introduced himself as Mr. Skogel. He assisted me with my coat, and then took me to meet my fellow employees. In contrast to the weather outside, the office was dark and dismal, but warm. There was a symphony of sounds - radiators hissing steam and clanking from air blockages, sewing machines humming, a stapling machine thumping as it shot steel clips into hat forms, adding machines clicking away, and lead keys sharply hitting the paper in an ancient Underwood typewriter. The sounds combined with the low murmurings of the workers to give Skogel Hat Corporation a voice of its own.

   Taking in the depressing surroundings - bare brick walls, exposed ceiling joists and rafters dimly lit by light bulbs hanging on loose ceiling wires - I wondered how I could extricate myself from this place gracefully without pissing-off my father, who had arranged for this "prestigious" position?

   Mr. Skogel made hats for the so called "Five & Dime" stores, particularly Woolworth's and Kresge's, now the slightly more upscale K-Mart, which is part of Sears. Every day, various colors of hat forms, liners, artificial flowers, and netting were delivered. I unloaded the trucks, loaded and operated the freight elevator, and moved the boxes of hat materials to their appropriate location on the plant floor.

   In the rear of the darkened factory eight men and women sat at ancient Singer Sewing Machines inserting liners into the hat forms. I noticed tattoos on the underside of their left forearms. They were Nazi death camp survivors. The images from Life Magazine picturing emaciated prisoners displaying similar tattoos flashed across my brain. An uninformed sixteen-year old brought up in an intolerant neighborhood, I didn't comprehend their situation and was puzzled by them, failing to understand why they isolated themselves from others, by how they stuck together at lunch, and didn't encourage conversation. Yet, they hummed in unison as they listened to classical music from a nearby radio. Maybe they wanted to be left alone.  Their actions only encouraged indifference from their fellow workers. It never occurred to me that they stuck together out of fear. 

   I couldn't begin to appreciate what my co-workers had experienced, fathom how they had survived, or continued to live knowing what had become of their relatives and friends. At that time, neither the U.S. Government nor the Catholic Church had fully acknowledged their failure to assist the Jews at critical points in Hitler's rise to power, or even to publicize what actually happened. Though we had seen newsreel clips of the liberation of the concentration camps at our local theatres, it would be years before the full story began to unfold. The tattoos indelibly marked their experiences as survivors of horror and inhumanity, a constant reminder of their debasement and dehumanization by the terror and insanity of man.

   I tried to reach out to them, always smiling as I delivered materials and picked up their finished work. I greeted them warmly every morning and said good-bye when we closed at the end of each day before they made their way home together to their tenement apartments in Williamsburg.

   One day, I thought I recognized the classical music they were humming and began to whistle along as I approached their work area. They stopped humming and looked up as if insulted. What's with them? I thought. Can't I enjoy the music, too? I was soon told that they were not humming, but reciting the Jewish Scriptures, and from that time on I respected the sanctity of their working area. For me, it became a sacred zone of silence. 

At Skogel Hat they worked away with little time to reflect on the recent past.  Also, given their suffering, they may have overlooked their exploitation as cheap labor. They didn't complain about a warm place to work, even for a marginal wage.

 

Long after I left Skogel Hat, I received a complaint form from the Wage & Hour & Public Contracts Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. Apparently, someone was cognizant of their plight because the form posed questions about the working conditions there, including my operation of the elevator, (The labor laws then in effect prohibited anyone under the age of eighteen from operating dangerous equipment such as a freight elevator.) and the loading and unloading of trucks. I was unable to respond on a timely basis as the letter arrived while I was in the Navy some months after a response was required.  

 

Making hats became second nature to me. Once the hats were lined, I sorted them by color and moved the boxes to the stapling machines. This is where Mr. Skogel's creativity determined how the hats would be most attractive to his five and dime clientele. He'd gather a selection of artificial flowers, hats, and veils, and seek out a clean window with northern exposure - something of a feat in that dingy environment. Utilizing the purity of the light, he would conjure up the right mix of colors for the veil, hat, and flowers. It took only a few minutes and he'd return with the flowers and veils pinned to the hats. Then it was my task, using a foot operated stapling machine, to carefully and expeditiously attach the nets and flowers to the hats. And, it was critical to the operation that the staples not be visible.

   Once my tasks as an apprentice hat maker were completed, I assumed my shipping department responsibilities by wrapping the finished hats in tissue paper, packing them into boxes, sealing and addressing the boxes, and stacking them on the freight elevator. Later in the day, I carried the boxes almost a half mile to the Post Office near Jackson Avenue for mailing to their ultimate points of retail sale. The whole process of sorting and emptying boxes, distributing hat shells and liners to the workers, stapling, wrapping, and packing became a boring routine.

   The only break came at noon when I walked to the local diner on 45th Road and picked up Mr. Skogel's standing lunch order - an American cheese sandwich on white bread with mustard and a cardboard container of tea - a gourmand he was not.

   In my young mind I was convinced that I had mastered the hat business, since I could predict with precision Mr. Skogel's color selections of hats, flowers and nets. Empowered with this new ability, I made the mistake of anticipating his choice and started to assemble a box of hats before he returned from his moment of inspiration at the north-facing window.

   He quickly expressed his disapproval. "What customer wants those hats?"

   "Does it make a difference? All the shipments seem to be the same." 

   "The orders may be the same, but the colors of the hats, the flowers, and the veils could vary. That's why I always look at the colors in the true light." 

   Yeah, sure - like it makes a difference to an old woman buying a cheap hat, designed by a guy who eats American cheese on white bread every day, and made by a sixteen-year old kid in a Long Island City sweat shop.

I nodded my acceptance and carefully unfastened my fashion mistake and applied the veils and flowers pursuant to Mr. Skogel's prescribed color schemes.   

   After almost two months of this daily tedium, my life changed, as did that of Vic Raschi, the great New York Yankee pitcher.

   On the subway that morning, Pete Clark startled me awake. "Look at this," Pete said as he nodded towards the sports section jabbing at the article. "The Yankees sold Vic Rashi to the St. Louis Cardinals for $85,000."

   "You're shitting me." I couldn't believe the Yankees would give up their stalwart pitcher for any sum.

   "Honest, look at this."

   I grabbed the paper from him and read the article with incredulity, shaking my head in disbelief. "Jesus, Pete. The guy averages fifteen wins a season and they want him to take a pay cut because of one off year."

   "Don't forget. He won twenty-one games three years in a row."

   "What do the Yankees want, blood?"

   Yankee General Manager, George Weiss, wanted Raschi to accept a twenty-five percent pay cut after he posted a 13 and 6 record in 1953 and Raschi refused. By today's standards, such a record commands a three to five million dollar annual salary. The city was soon in an uproar, given that Raschi posted a 120 and 50 pitching record and never missed a start in his eight-year career in New York.

   That night, Mother handed me a letter from the Equitable Life Assurance Society offering me a position at a weekly salary of $42.50 plus overtime - a twenty-five percent increase above my Skogel Hat pay. Though it was only 55% of the national average annual pay of $3,960, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. 

   The following day, while picking up Mr. Skogel's lunch, I called the Equitable Personnel Office from the diner, accepted the position, and my life began to change exponentially, though little did I realize I was destined to have a better year than the Yankees and a far better year than Joe Di Maggio.    

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