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Memories of the Five Towns in the 1960s

Gayle Kirschenbaum on the porch of her family

Gayle Kirschenbaum on the porch of her family home as a teenager in the late 1960s or early 1970s in North Woodmere with the sheepskin coat her mother bought her. Credit: Gerald Kirschenbaum

While visiting my eldest brother in August, I came across his Lawrence High School varsity jacket from 1963. Blue and gold. I put it on. Memories of growing up in the 1960s in the Five Towns came back to me.

First, a little history: The villages of Lawrence, Hewlett, Woodmere, Cedarhurst and Inwood took on the identity of the Five Towns when a Community Chest for local charitable causes was created in 1931. As more people moved in, areas including Hewlett Harbor, Woodsburgh and North Woodmere, where I grew up, fell under the informal Five Towns label. Some considered neighboring Atlantic Beach the "sixth town" as it shared the same schools and stature.

When my parents and two brothers and I moved from Bayside, Queens, in the summer of 1960, North Woodmere was still under construction. Buyers chose among the Colonial model, the ranch and the split-level. We had the three-bedroom Colonial. Branch Boulevard, which connected North Woodmere to Cedarhurst, did not exist.

Many newcomers had once lived in apartments in the boroughs and now were eager to broadcast their financial gains.

According to my mother, Mildred Kirschenbaum, “People were landscaping the front of their houses with marble statues, water fountains and high-end shrubbery even though they couldn’t afford to buy steaks. If asked where you lived, you didn’t mention a single town, you said the Five Towns. It’s a sign of prestige. By the way, even if you say you came from the Five Towns today, they say, ‘Oh!’ in awe.”

One of the many status symbols was a Cadillac. We were a Pontiac Catalina family until my father, Gerald Kirschenbaum, a funeral director in Brooklyn, made the leap to a Cadillac Sedan DeVille.

Shopping for many Five Towners was done on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, where you paid full retail and then some. Popular shops were Jildor Shoes (still there), Pants Patio for jeans and Sisteen for clothing.

Cost-conscious families like us went to the Green Acres Shopping Center in Valley Stream. Mom bought my shoes at Bakers and Miles, and clothing at S. Klein’s. We munched on warm, salted, doughy pretzels as we walked the open plaza. I loved when the giant Santa Claus statue went up. We also frequented the Green Acres bowling alley, the Sunrise Drive-In on Sunrise Boulevard and the House of Chang restaurant off Mill Road.

We wore our latest fashions to synagogue for the High Holy Days. Some women accessorized with chic hats. Seventh grade was party time, with many bar and bat mitzvahs with lots of dancing and food.

The public elementary schools in District 15 were Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. I was bused to No. 3 on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst.

We enjoyed our summers in Atlantic Beach, specifically at Capri Beach Club. It was huge. You had to walk by three pools before you got to the beach. Once we hit the sand, it was a long walk to the water. We dug up steamer clams in the sand. Mom cooked them in a pot in our cabana and we feasted on them. 

I left for college in 1972 and returned only on vacations, eventually making my life in New York City. Of course, the Five Towns area has changed over time, but it holds special memories for me. As I returned my brother’s varsity coat to the closet, I smiled.

Gayle Kirschenbaum lives in Manhattan.

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