Sam Goodman: A Bronx Tale

Sam Goodman spent the first 15 years of his life in the Bronx.

But in 1966 his parents read a New York Times story. “Grand Concourse: Hub of Bronx is Undergoing Ethnic Changes” described white flight from the borough, as African Americans moved in.

Sam’s mother Blossom took the article to her congressman, James H. Scheuer. His advice: move.

Three months later, the Goodmans bought a house in Westport.

The Bronx was certainly changing. When Sam became a bar mitzvah in 1965, his temple had 3,000 families. Three years later it was sold to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, for less money than it cost to build — in 1924.

His father Arthur called himself a “Bronx refugee.” Not only were people urged to leave, Sam says. “Police were telling people how not to be victims of crime. Garbage was picked up less often. The city abandoned the parks.”

Bronx borough seal

It was, in New York Housing Commissioner Roger Starr’s famous phrase, “planned shrinkage”: the deliberate withdrawal of city services to blighted neighborhoods, as a means of coping with dwindling tax revenues.

Between 1970 and ’80, Sam says, 303,000 people “disappeared from” the Bronx.

Most people know about the fires, he continues. But most do not realize that landlords paid money to have them set. The insurance they collected was far more than the buildings were worth.

Sam found Westport to be “absolutely amazing — great. People were friendly and outgoing. They enjoyed life. There was a lot of space.”

Coming from an apartment, he thought he lived in a huge house. In retrospect, he realizes, it was small for Westport.

Sam made friends fast. He thrived at Long Lots Junior High School, then Staples.

High school was where he learned to think, and develop a philosophy of life. Principal Jim Calkins encouraged students to stand up for what they believed in.

His parents, and Temple Israel’s Rabbi Byron Rubenstein, were enormous influences too.

The Temple Israel confirmation class of 1969. Sam is 4th from left in the top row, next to Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein.

Sam’s involvement in Project Concern (bringing Bridgeport youngsters to Westport schools) and the Staples Governing Board (a unique, powerful collaboration between administrators, teachers and students) taught Sam about the importance of being a citizen. Done right, he says, “government works.”

At Kenyon College, Sam majored in political science. After graduation he returned to Westport to take care of his mother, who was sick. He drove school buses, Minnybuses and MaxiTaxis.

Sam earned a master’s in urban management and municipal planning from the University of Bridgeport, then spent 10 years as executive director of the Westport Transit District.

As Westport Transit District executive director, Sam Goodman was in charge of the Minnybus system. The hub and transfer point was Jesup Green.

But Sam could never forget the Bronx — or the political policies that had obliterated it.

In 1995 he got a job as an urban planner for the Bronx borough president. He’s been in that position ever since.

But it’s his side gig — Bronx tour guide — where Sam really shines.

He leads tours for the Municipal Art Society, Art Deco Society of New York, New York Adventure Club and Einstein Medical Center (for new pre-med students).

The tours cover history, architecture, urban planning, the politics and finances of rent control, and more.

Beautiful architecture remains in the Bronx.

As Sam talks, fields questions and shepherds groups in and out of buildings, they’re amazed. “People know pieces of the story,” he says. “But they’ve never heard it all connected. It gives them a new perspective. They can really appreciate what happened.”

Of course — the Bronx being less than an hour from here — Sam has Westporters on his tours.

One woman grew up there, but had not been back in many years. “She wanted to learn,” Sam says. “People told her she was crazy to go the Bronx.”

That’s a common stereotype. But, he notes, folks on his tours “see how pretty it is, and how friendly people are.” One man regularly invites Sam’s groups into his apartment — and gives them chocolates.

The Bronx today.

The “stigma hangover” lingers, though. “People still imagine it as it was in the 1970s and ’80s,” Sam says.

“The median income is low. There are many challenges,” he admits. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place. It’s cleaner. There’s less crime than ever. People here are striving for something beautiful.”

His own co-op — of which Sam is treasurer — just spent $1 million to restore the lobby. Many other apartment buildings are being renovated.

His 1-bedroom is 900 square feet. He has parking, a doorman, and can get to midtown in 20 minutes. You could buy it for $300,000.

Sam Goodman in his Bronx apartment. A poster from Westport’s bicentennial celebration hangs on the wall behind Sam.

Prices like that attract young professionals from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Their mortgage and maintenance is half of what they pay for a small studio there.

Yet if you can’t take the Bronx out of Sam, you can’t remove Westport either.

He still owns the home he inherited from his parents. (He rents it out. A few years ago, he says proudly, his tenants’ twin sons were Staples’ valedictorian and salutatorian.)

Occasionally he takes the train here, rents a car and drives around. Westport, Sam says, “gets more beautiful each year.”

The Bronx tour guide — and one of its biggest boosters — concludes, “Westport still lives inside of me. It gave me the chance to grow into the person I am today.”

That person is a proud Bronx booster. There’s a lot more to the borough than just the Yankees.

Sam Goodman can tell you all about it. Just ask.

Or take his tour.

(Hat tip: Susan Thomsen)

23 responses to “Sam Goodman: A Bronx Tale

  1. Rabbi Robert Orkand

    Since retiring and moving to the Boston area I I look forward to each day’s “06880.” So, Dan, thanks for allowing me to keep in touch with a town and community I grew to love during my 31 years living and working in Westport.

    I really don’t mean to nitpick but I was struck by a phrase in the story about Sam Goodman which says that he was “bar mitzvahed.” I would point out that Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a proper noun, not a verb. It is something a person becomes rather than does. So, to be correct, Sam became a Bar Mitzvah.

  2. I heard about Sam’s tours from a people who run the Art Deco Society of New York. They told me he does a fabulous job.

    Sam, I hope I’ll be able to do one of your tours some day.

    Also, there is a second Westport connection in this story. I am pretty sure Roger Starr owned a home here decades ago,

  3. Susan Siegelaub Katz

    I recently met Sam at his wonderful apartment. He gave me a great mini-tour of the building and the Bronx as well as a terrific education. I’ll be selling an apartment in Sam’s building in the early fall. What a great friend! And in the confirmation picture I’m on the far right, second row from the top!

  4. Great article- keep them coming.
    I never met Sam
    I graduated in 1966…
    Jan Frost

  5. Loved this article! I lived in Riverdale but never had the opportunity to explore the Bronx which Riverdale was a part of before moving to Australia. Bronx was scary back then. I plan to do go back and tour with my grandson this summer. Coincidentally, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s program on the Bronx this weekend and it sure opened my eyes to everything that borough has gone through and also, has contributed to NYC. Today’s post was the icing on the cake! Thank you!

  6. Sharon Paulsen

    Wow, what an amazing article!

    There’s so much to unpack here … and I’ve learned so much from this story.

    I zoomed in to read part of that NYT article … a stark reminder of the level of racism. Just awful.

    I love that last pic of Sam with apparently all his his feathered friends?!! I bet there’s whole other cool story right there!

    Thanks Dan! Great stuff.

  7. I live in the Bronx now, in Riverdale above Van Cortlandt Park and love it.

    For those who are interested in the history of the Bronx’s demise in the 70s I highly recommend the recent documentary “Decade of Fire” . It tells the story from the point of view of a daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants who grew up in the Bronx and it details the multiple causes of the Bronx’s decline and, most sadly, the way Bronx natives were blamed for its demise by the powers that be. At the time there was a great deal of press coverage of the poor youth who were paid to torch buildings by greedy landlords but never a mention in the press of those landlords who paid them.

    • HEY JOHN – THIS IS THE FIRST I’VE SEEN YOU MAKE A COMMENT ON DAN’S BLOG.
      AND I JNOW YOU HAVE A GREAT DEAL TO DELIVER . . .GOOD SHOW

  8. Andrew Brenner

    Dan- what a great article. Sam is one of those people that will always make you smile. I haven’t seen him in almost 40 years but I can still hear his voice and his passion in your article.

  9. Dorrie Barlow Thomas

    For six years in the late 70’s/early 80’s, we lived in the Greens Farms area, near the Goodmans. I never met Sam, but had met his dad a few times. As a young kid, I was impressed and intrigued by two things about those Goodmans:
    1) Sam’s dad seemed to be quite a character, with big eyes, a big smile, and wild, Einstein-esque hair
    2) they lived on a private lane behind our house (theirs was the only house on the road) and they had a giant working streetlight just down from the entrance of the road.

    • David Squires

      Great Article Dan, i remember Sam from Back in The Day. Glad to hear he promotes both Westport & The Bronx. I too remember his house, but seem to recall a real Traffic Light on the property.
      Sam would be happy to know, I married Bronx Gal who also believes The Bronx is the next Hip Spot for NYC commuters….

  10. Wendy Crowther

    I first met Sam when I got a job as a swim instructor/counselor in the 1970s at the Singing Oaks Day Camp in Weston (now long gone). Sam, who was also a camp counselor there, may have first honed his driving/tour chops way back then. Sam would pick up campers (and me), in his own car to deliver them to/from camp each day. I’m not sure if he did this out of the goodness of his heart or whether the parents paid him. I know that my ride was free. He was an interesting guy back then, full of energy and enthusiasm. I’ve never forgotten him, even though we only had that one summer’s worth of exposure to one another.

    Sam, I’m glad to hear that you’re still on the road and loving where you live (and lived). Great job, then and now.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      Oh wow … I was a young “camper” at Singing Oaks back in the 70’s!

      I remember that there were a whole bunch of drivers who would transport 2 to 4 of us at a time to the camp grounds, from all over the place.

      What great memories you’ve conjured up in me! 😁

      • Sharon Paulsen

        Oh, and for anyone who may not know, that camp has been turned into a cookie cutter mini-McMansion “community”.

        Many years ago (maybe like 10 yrs or so), I had an inkling to drive up there and see what became of that really cool camp ground.

        I actually was quite surprised to find that the overall land shape and roads were not changed all that much, and that the “pond” where swimming and boating lessons were taught, still remained. But many trees were felled to make room for the homes, although not as much as would be expected by developers, so that seemed positive to me at the time.

        Anyway, going down memory lane here … it’s fun!

      • I was a counselor there one year. We were expected to drive campers back and forth every day. I can’t remember whether we were paid extra or not. It certainly seems like something that would not happen in today’s more litigious age.

  11. Patty Mraz Graves

    Make the time to go into the Bronx and take Sam’s walking tour. What a great story teller Sam is, he takes you back in time and shares fabulous nooks around the Grand Concourse that you would not have access to. We are very glad we made the trip. Sam even had time to go for lunch with us in the neighborhood.

  12. Sharon Paulsen

    Oh, wow Dan, that is so cool to learn that you were a camp counselor there!

    I loved that place as a kid.

    That camp experience was so unique, as I look back on it now.

    Small, small world, and it all seems to cycle back, over and over again.

    Good “stuff” happening on your blog here, to be sure!

  13. Being the son of an avid Bronxite, I love the fact that people like Sam are moving back. I must add, however, that the political story in this piece is mostly left-wing myth. (And it certainly defames the late Arthur Goodman to imply he fled the borough because he read in the NY Times that blacks were moving in!)

    NYC in 1966 was run by progressive mayor, John V. Lindsay, who launched an era of decline marked by transit and school strikes, abandoned buildings, burned out cars, graffiti everywhere, and police instructed to negotiate with gang leaders, rather than stop crime.

    The very first to move were middle-class folks in the outer boroughs, and not because they were all racists, but because their safety and quality of life were in decline.

    The fact that the middle class is coming back — and a 900 SF 1 BR apt could fetch an astounding $300,000 — has much more to do with the quality of life improvements made under Giuliani and Bloomberg, and the overall “gentrification” of the city, despite the fact that it probably pains Sam to admit it.

  14. It’s also worth reading the NYT article shown, because it’s a much more nuanced account than that told by Sam here.. It reports, for example, that Congressman Scheuer — an activist Liberal, by the way — was not urging middle-class Jews to leave, but actively seeking ways to keep them. (They were his constituents, after all.) And it mentions that middle class blacks, too, worried about the problems brought by poor families moving into adjacent neighborhoods.

    Many of the Jewish families sought the space and greenery of the suburbs, not necessarily their “whiteness.” And the city’s own housing developments — especially the massive Co-Op City at the Westchester border — drove much of the exodus, with the draws of new construction, parking and recreation facilities.

    https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1966/07/21/96975687.pdf

  15. Susan Thomsen

    Sam’s tour of the Grand Concourse is fascinating! I recommend it highly.

  16. Needless to say I am overwhelmed by the response to this article. Thank you Dan for writing it as folks I haven’t heard from in years have reached out to me. I also feel compelled to respond to Peter Blau’s comments. In fact my parents never imagined having to leave the community we lived in for so many years. Still, as my folks knew a number of elected officials (including Congressman Scheuer) from our Bronx community and also knew people who worked on the Rand study the city undertook as a means to determine how to cut fire houses in The Bronx, everyone was unanimous…it was best we move. A recent documentary called “The Decade of Fire” reveals in even more graphic detail how city “policy” prompted the arson fires that consumed countless units of privately owned housing during the 1970’s and 80’s. Knowing this is why I am an urban planner today and have dedicated my professional life to my old Bronx community. Still it was in Westport where I came to understand why we all must do what we can to make the places we love better…not just for ourselves, but for everyone. Again,I thank you all for your thoughtful comments

  17. Sam, the Rand study on NYC firehouses was dated 1972; wasn’t this 6 years after your family moved from the Bronx?

    Might I suggest a more potent incentive for the middle-class flight: violent crime? Here are relevant homicide counts. They were certainly on an upward trend before Lindsay, but they skyrocketed during his 8 year term.
    -1955: 306
    -1960: 482
    -1965: 634
    Lindsay administration begins:
    -1966: 654
    -1967: 746
    -1968: 986
    -1969: 1043
    -1970: 1117
    -1971: 1466
    -1972: 1691
    -1973: 1680
    Lindsay administration ends

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