Boy Scout Prone to Mischief

View of 160 West 65th Street from South.  Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive.

Boy Scout Prone to Mischief

by Claudie Benjamin

Born in Puerto Rico, Nestor Cataquet never knew his father. For his first few years in New York, he lived with his mother, sister, and two brothers at 160 West 65th Street. The family managed on public assistance. “[Our building] was right across from Commerce High School (155 West 65th Street) Nestor recalled. “We didn’t decide to move. We were moved,” Nestor said recently. He was referring to the forced displacement of thousands of San Juan Hill residents, and hundreds of businesses along with churches, and social services, along with that monumental Commerce High School to make room for Lincoln Center.

Nestor and other former residents wrote comments in response to a 2014 Ephemeral New York post about the lost neighborhood. The UWS neighborhood was obliterated for sure. And, the comments posted make it clear that profound love for San Juan Hill remains in the hearts and minds of Nestor and the other 70+ year-olds who shared their childhood memories.

Nestor has an outstanding memory and a gift for evocative detail. A standout recollection he shared recently was that he was a Boy Scout. His troop met at the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on West 66th Street. “We sold chocolates door to door to get the money to buy our uniforms,” he said. Nestor remembers wearing his uniform and marching with his troop as a part of an early 1950s Veterans Day parade along West End Avenue. Today, a photo of Nestor in his uniform is posted on his Facebook.

My little sis and I were in mass once and when it ended someone left a wallet on the pew… 

Nestor went to the School of the Blessed Sacrament at 147 West 70th Street. He described lingering guilt related to his time at Public School. “At PS 77 we sliced the auditorium’s huge curtain, and minutes later the vice principal came to our electrical shop searching for the vandals and I was scared to death. He graduated from Chelsea Vocational High School in 1961.

For Nestor as for many in the neighborhood, religion was a guiding influence with local churches providing many social services and sponsoring recreational events. “My sister and I made our first communion at the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle and on Sundays, we went to mass and went to confess our sins on some occasions. After the hood was uprooted we never attended mass or confessions again, but tonight I want to confess. My little sis and I were in mass once and when it ended someone left a wallet on the pew and we took it, went to a bodega, bought groceries, especially a loaf of bread, and went home. We told our mother and she did not agree with what we had done. We got punished for our sin, though, ‘cause inside the bread, there was a dead cockroach. For our mom, it was religiously terrible.” 

Boy Scout Nestor Cataquet

Image Courtesy Nestor Cataquet

Though the Robert Moses’ crowd wrote the neighborhood off as a slum, Nestor holds a key to some of the daily joyful experiences in and around the streets of the West 60s before Lincoln Center. Pre-air conditioning and television, area residents enjoyed socializing, and rooftops provided more room and space than offered in crowded apartments. Here again Nestor’s memories are vivid. Speaking about families getting together, he remembered how his family and another neighborhood family would go to the rooftop to hang out. “The senior would send me to buy The Daily and give me a tip.” Families gathered on rooftops and children found ways to explore the edges of the neighborhood on the banks of the Hudson. Nestor remembers going down to the railroad tracks with friends to eat apples. Apples? “Yes. There were some apple trees down there.”

Pre-air conditioning and television, area residents enjoyed socializing, and rooftops provided more room and space than offered in crowded apartments. 

Nestor is still an Upper West Sider, and unequivocal about his fondness for his old neighborhood. “Whether it was a slum or not I don’t care. Critics, it was my remembering neighborhood, where I learned how to be mischievous and opened my eyes: stickball, skating on yesterday’s skates, bicycle riding, swimming in the YMCA’S two pools and in the dirty water of the Hudson River, being a Boy Scout, going to the community center (in Amsterdam Houses, 64th Street) seeing movies at the Tivoli (839 Eighth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets), and Chelsea theaters, playing in Central Park and sneaking on the carrousel and having to run so as not to be caught. Nothing lasts forever, people.”


Most quotations in this article are from comments following a 2014 article “A West Side Neighborhood before Lincoln Center” from Ephemeral New York.  

Additional comments are from a September 2022 conversation with Nestor Cataquet.

Claudie Benjamin is journalist who writes for LANDMARK WEST!

Let's Keep in Touch!

Let's Keep in Touch!

Want the latest news?
Care to share about something in the neighborhood?
Be the first to hear about upcoming events?

Join the LW! email list!

You're Subscribed!

Share This