West Park Memories of Michael McGannon
I was born in 1943 at 3320 West 162nd Street, between Munn Road and Edgecliff Avenue, with lots of other war babies and four subsequent younger siblings: Lance, Patty, Mark and Laura. The neighborhood was mostly Irish-German Catholic with big families and kids running from yard to yard.
There was the O'Brien family with Mary Ann, Kathleen, and Vincent. The Hildebrandts – Joanie, Janie and Tommy. The Farrells – Maureen and Jane. The Shultz girls. The Lawlers – David. The Arthur Rutt family next door, with Nancy and all her great cousins. The Mahoneys across the street with Peter and Eddie. Lloyd Wolfe, Teddy Pries, and the Patton family lived up the street. As well as the Miller girls, whose dad was a pharmacist. They were the only Jewish people I knew as a child.
There was very little traffic. I remember as a toddler running to the front window and calling “here comes a car” when that exciting event would occur. There were very few fences and even fewer “get off my lawn!” neighbors. What a wonderful neighborhood.
Every summer a man with a pony would come down the street to take photos of kids sitting on the pony dressed in our best cowboy outfits. A man in an ancient truck would drive slowly down the street calling “Straaawberrieeees”. Another ancient truck with open wooden shelves sold fresh produce. We had the Dairymens milkman, the bakery truck, the laundryman and the treasured Good Humor man. The Rutts next door would get coal deliveries through the coal chute by our driveway. The nearest shopping was at Kamm’s Corners. A treasured memory is of our dad pulling Lance and me to Kamm’s Corners by sled for provisions when roads were closed by a big early 50s blizzard.
There were tiny neighborhood groceries at West 159th and Fisher Road, and Rocky River Drive and Narragansett Avenue, but nothing else nearby until the big opening of Warren Village Shopping Center in 1950 with Gray Drug, complete with lunch counter, Neisner Brothers dime-store with parakeets, tiny turtles and paint-by-numbers kits, and a new A & P Super Market.
Between West 162nd, Munn Road, and Edgecliff Avenue the land was all undeveloped wild space for us kids to explore. Where Norway Avenue is now was a field of tall grass and bushes. Paths led to deep woods in the area which is now Stillwood and Norway Avenues. I vividly remember finding jack-in-the-pulpits and searching for wildflowers in the dense shade. One path led to a large smooth-surfaced glacial rock at the foot of present Stillwood and West 159th. We called it “The Big Boulder.” Perfect for climbing, it was a major monument to us!
Sadly, in the early 1950s the fields were cleared and the beautiful woods were cut down except for a few trees left in backyards. Builder Sam Constanzo put up ranch homes on the new streets of Norway and Stillwood. West 159th was extended from Edgecliff to Norway. We wondered what would become of The Big Boulder. Builders had an old Italian man build a big fire under the boulder, then pour ice water over it causing it to crack apart. I suspect this was the last tract of pristine ancient woods to be cut down in West Park."
The good part for us kids was years of construction to watch and play in. The sewers were dug with a massive, very old steam ditch-digger which huffed and puffed liked a metal dinosaur. We played in the trenches, the big pipes, and the houses under construction. When it was all completed we had a bunch of new neighbors and new kids to play with. Including the O'Neil, Eiben, Ryback, Thomas and Frindt families.”
The neighborhood was initially part of Our Lady of Angels parish where I attended kindergarten. But all the new families led to the founding of St Mark’s parish on Montrose Avenue where I was in the first first grade. In 1952 our family moved two blocks, from the house where I was born at 3320 West 162nd Street, to a new house at 3218 West 159th Street across from the woods which would soon become Impett Park. My siblings and I attended St. Mark School on Montrose Avenue at the northern border of the planned park.
Across from the school was a dirt road leading to “Old Man Impett's farm.” Soon the old house and barn were torn down and the farm was cleared for playing fields with a parking lot where the house and barn used to be. The eastern entrance to the park became a wide path but, before that, a large trench was dug for sewage pipes. From a kid’s perspective, the pipes were huge. Big enough for us to run through them before the line was completed and buried.
From St. Mark School to Warren Road was all fields until Montrose Avenue was cut through from West 159th to Warren. The present single story houses were built at the same time in the early 1950s. When construction began there was still a tiny creek just to the east of the St Mark convent. It seemed like just a drainage ditch but we found crayfish in it. I realized it had been there for a very long time and that the construction would cover it up forever.
Across the street from our house on West 159th the woods were wonderfully unaltered with old trees, lots of undergrowth and well-defined paths. Perfect for secret spots and playing. After a number of years someone thought it prudent to cut away most of the natural undergrowth. The woods between West 159th and the playing fields are now markedly thinned.
Tommy Holan, Clark Fitzgibbons my brother Lance, other kid adventurers and I would often walk three blocks over to the “Cowpath” leading down into Rocky River Valley. It was used by everyone in the neighborhood for access to the valley. We would go over the “Broken Ford” to the island, play cowboys-and-Indians, find arrowheads and fossils, fish in the river, and risk our lives climbing the shale cliffs.
In winter, we'd clean snow off the river with a broom and play hockey. When I was little, older kids would sled on the Cowpath until a very nice neighbor boy, Michael Patton, was killed doing so. (Michael Anthony Patton, 8 years old, passed away on March 19, 1949.)
On the hill crest where Stinchcomb Monument now sits was a stable from which we could ride horses down into trails in the valley. Coming up from the Cowpath on blazing hot summer days it was a treat to stop at the little neighborhood store on Narragansett Avenue at Rocky River Drive (Riverside Drive) and luxuriate with ice cold Coke or Bireley's Orange pop from the metal cooler. There is now a fence where the upper entrance to the Cowpath used to be.
I now live on Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco, surrounded by ancient redwoods but they don't make the delicious music of the wind in the oak trees in my old backyard on West 159th Street.
Michael McGannon, MD. Aptos, CA., June 2016