Susan Schwalb’s father was raised on the Lower East Side to immigrant parents, while her mother grew up on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Her mother’s family was German immigrants from the mid-19th century, and owned and operated restaurants. Her grandparents would sell their restaurant and move to Miami, but her uncle owned a famous restaurant in Manhattan that Schwalb would visit as a child. Her mother’s family was wealthy for the time, with extravagant birthday parties that once involved an elephant. Her parents met in the Catskills and Schwalb was born in 1944.
Schwalb grew up in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx. Because he mother’s family had lived in the United States for multiple generations, they were very secularized, even celebrating Christian holidays, until she got older and her father ended those celebrations and began to take them the shul. She found her own, prettier reform shul in Riverdale where she was confirmed. They moved to Riverdale when she was an older teenager. Schwalb attended the High School of Music and Art, which was a long commute. There was also the danger of drunk men on the streets in the morning, so she would run to the train. When she was younger, Schwalb describes going to the movies and playing games outside and dressing up for Halloween.
Schwalb is influenced by coming of age in the 60’s, in terms of music and becoming a feminist, attending a be-in, etc. She describes a meat-heavy diet because her father, a lawyer, would get paid in things instead of money, but also loving Italian food, particularly pizza. She attended PS 86 and JHS 115, an all-girls school. Being at Music and Art got her involved in the women’s art movement and later second wave feminism. Schwalb doesn’t remember any non-white students until high school, though there were non-Jewish students.
After high school, Scwalb attended Carnegie Mellon, and she is proud now of how many more women attend and teach at the school. While her mother was a semi-professional artist and substitute teacher, Schwalb became a professional artist, taught art classes at the university level, and organized women artists organizations and gatherings. She sometimes returns to Riverdale. The Bronx is remembered as a happy time, but was not beautiful enough, in terms of nature, and did not have enough art culture, which is why she would spend a lot of time in Manhattan.
Grand Concourse, food, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, High School of Music and Art, feminism, art, 1960s, 1970s
Maier Garcia, Sophia, "Schwalb, Susan" (2023). Bronx Jewish History Project. 20.