Exclusive: Living Treasures
Part three of a series
Irma Berkley gazed out the second-floor window of the Glen Cove Senior Center at the bustling Monday-morning traffic on Glen Street. She thought about a time when there wasn’t a parking lot and rows of shops across the street. She tried to recall what her sister might have looked out on from that same window nearly 100 years ago, when her family lived in an apartment in the building before Irma was born.
Berkley, 88, could easily declare herself a Glen Cove historian. She has a sharp memory, and effortlessly recalls details of the city and her life in it. She was born in one of only two houses where the McDonalds and CVS are now on Glen Street.
Her father, Bill Stehling, helped build the first Glen Cove High School, where the middle school is now. Her cousin William Cocks was the first city judge.
Berkley described Glen Cove as rural when she was growing up. She lived with her family for 10 years on Cedar Swamp Road, above the Orchard neighborhood, next to an old Polish Church (now closed). The Stehlings then moved to McGrady Street, where Berkley lives today.
“We were outside all the time — we didn’t have the things that the children have today,” she said, though she does now have an iPad. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but nobody else did, either, so none of us really knew that we were poor. But we had a great time.”
She reminisced about playing in fields reached by dirt roads that are now Midwood Place and Valentine Avenue. “We would go out into the woods and we would climb the trees,” Berkley recalled. “We would play out in the streets. We would play baseball in the streets if we had no field near us.”
Children flew kites, played a variety of sports, and at night shined flashlights into cars along Midwood Place, a.k.a.
She can still remember walking home from school with friends, passing the stream that runs behind the senior center and drinking from a cold, bubbling spring.
Glen Cove, a retail hub
Before Roosevelt Field and the Hicksville Broadway Mall opened, downtown Glen Cove was a shopping hub on the western North Shore. “Grant’s was on the corner down here, on the corner of Bridge Street and Glen Street,” Berkley said, recalling now-defunct five-and-dimes. “In the middle was Woolworth’s, and then down at the other end, near Henry’s, was McLellan’s.”
After the larger shopping centers were built, however, customers steadily dispersed and, one by one, the stores began to close. “It was so sad, because when I was a kid, my mother would say, ‘We’re going downtown,’ or ‘We’re going to the village,’” Berkley said. “We’d be down here and you’d bump into all your friends, and my mother would bump into all her friends. It was a thriving community.”
She said she believes that the Village Square project, an RXR Realty revitalization plan for the downtown, is a good idea that will help bring people back to the area. The project features a central, public plaza surrounded by ground-floor retail stores and restaurants, topped by apartments.
Sixty-eight years of marriage
Berkley and her husband, Bill, met on McGrady Street when they were kids. They married in 1949, right after Irma graduated from high school. After Bill graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, his job in technology took them to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Ohio, but they always returned to Glen Cove.
After living upstate, near Niagara Falls, the Berkleys came back to Glen Cove for good, moving into a relative’s house on McGrady Street.
Before the senior center
The Glen Cove Senior Center holds a special place in Berkley’s heart. “This place … has a special meaning to me,” she said. “Not only because I belong to the senior center, but because my mother, father, sister and brother lived here.”
The building was split down the middle, with one apartment on each side. Underneath was truck storage for what Berkley said might have been a telephone company. After it moved out, a pants factory called Pretty Please Pants moved in, and Berkley would buy pants for her two oldest children right below where her parents used to live.
The senior center today
When the kids were old enough to take care of themselves and her husband was still working, Berkley did not want to stay home alone. So, in the early 1990s, when she turned 60, she and her sister joined the senior center.
Since then, she has been active there, taking tai chi, leading discussion groups and helping to organize trips. She and Bill sang in the center’s Golden Voices Chorale.
While Berkley still lives at home, her husband moved near by to a nursing home. Even though some members of her family have died and have long ago moved out of the building, going back to the senior center helps Berkley maintain a connection to them. “There’s a feeling that I get, because there’s a memory,” she said. “I wasn’t here, but I’ve been told the stories. So I have a feeling for this building.”