This article was just published in Hard Crackers #8 (Summer 2021) with a companion article by Mike Morgan.
I once heard that 1 out of every 12 people in the United States had been born in Brooklyn. I am one of those. I am at the terrible disadvantage of writing about Brooklyn after living all but three and a half years of my almost seventy-three years here (I spent a few years in the Bronx while going to college). Worse still, with the exception of three years in Greenpoint, a neighborhood on the edge of Queens, I’ve only lived in Sunset Park, Park Slope and Windsor Terrace–three adjoining neighborhoods within boundary lines that stretch no more than two and a half miles by a half mile. When you talk about parochial, you talk about me. So, I have no distance, no perspective, only experience and memory.
I’m a regular world traveller. From 1948 to 1950, I lived on East 2nd Street near Beverly Road (on the edge of Windsor Terrace)); from1950 to 1952, on 50th Street, off Second Avenue; from 1952 to 1965, on Fourth Avenue and 51st Street (both of them in Sunset Park); from early 1966 to 1969, in the Bronx; from 1970 to 1973, in Greenpoint; from 1973 to 1982, in several apartments in Park Slope; from 1982 until now, in Windsor Terrace. Since 1970, I’ve lived with my wife and, since 1978, our kids in three of those places.
You should also know something about rents and what they tell us about the history of Brooklyn. I only remember some of them. In my parents’ apartment on Fourth Avenue, the rent was $38.80 a month but my father was the super and the owners deducted $25 a month for his services (and eventually some of mine). In Greenpoint, my wife and I paid $83 a month; our first Park Slope apartment was $150; the second was $225; the third was $400. In the last case, we learned that the owners of the building were planning to turn the apartments into co-ops at a price we couldn’t afford. Then we bought a house in Windsor Terrace with another family. The current likely sale price of that property is excessive by any measure. Current house sale prices in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace amount to almost thirty times the prices of forty years ago. I’ve checked a couple of online sites and, at the moment, it’s hard to find a rental apartment (even a small one) for less than $2,000 a month
Sunset Park was the defining neighborhood in my life–an almost classical instance of a mixed-use neighborhood–a mixture of factories, warehouses, docks, small retail stores along Fifth Avenue, small tenement buildings, two and three family homes; a few larger apartment buildings. It was the same neighborhood where my father grew up and it looked all but exactly the same as it did when he was a boy. My father lived there for virtually his whole life–except for the years he spent in the navy. I learned how to swim in the same city pool where my father had learned thirty odd years earlier–except that he became a quite good swimmer and I never learned how to breathe properly. The more I swam, the worser I got.
I also went to the same grammar school that he had–Saint Michael’s. My first grade teacher taught my father. The school enrolled 2,000 or so students; one of my sisters tells me that there were sixty and more students in a class. It was free–until the year that my youngest sister started when the tuition became $2 a month. The reason for free tuition was that most of the teachers were nuns, who were paid nothing–other than some sort of stipend for their living costs. It’s also worth a mention that some of the teachers who were not nuns–all women, so far as I can recall–were among the most cruel, doing things like opening all the classroom windows during freezing cold winter days with the kids in shirt sleeves and the teachers wearing coats.
So far as I know, my father spent most of his childhood and adolescence in an apartment on Fourth Avenue between 44th and 44th streets. When I got to know the place, the ground floor was a bar called Barry’s. During Prohibition, it had been a speakeasy and the remnants were still there. Inside the vestibule, there was a door on the side into the storefront with a sliding peephole. It was not at all evident if the peephole was used to keep the cops out or to let in the ones who were on the take.
My grandmother, who lived right above the bar, is someone worth remembering. I visited her often enough and she would give me money to go buy her the newspaper and some ginger ale. She’d sit at the front window of her apartment shelling string beans for what seemed like hours on end and passing mostly negative judgments on anyone and everyone who was walking by. She was a terrible hoarder–with newspapers stacked up all over the apartment. I confess that I may have inherited some of her bad habits.
There were several centers of life in the neighborhood–the churches (of which there were many); the bars and the Fifth Avenue commercial strip which was continually filled with shoppers. My mother would go up to the “Avenue” to run in and buy one thing from Woolworth’s and not come back for two hours. She probably had spoken to dozens of people. My father often said that she was so friendly that she’d talk to the sidewalk. The neighborhood made her do it.
The neighborhood made us all do a lot of things. For those of us who were kids, it made us play–all the time. I lived on a block of five eight-family tenements; it was on a relatively busy main avenue for traffic. My best guess is that there were at least fifty kids on the block who were of play-age (to coin a phrase). And we were joined by kids who lived on the side streets of 50th Street and 51st Street. Perhaps a hundred all told. So we could play all kinds of games, especially during the summer months when the days were long–punchball, stickball, handball, kings (a kind of handball with individual players stationed in the boxes made by cement lines), skelsy (way too complicated to explain, but worth playing for hours–see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skully_(game)), hide and seek, and ringolevio. During the summer months, ringolevio games could go on for hours. I may be making this up but I think that one time the other players simply forgot that I was still “out” and I had to give up and go home without being caught.
There was a Carnegie library just across the avenue from our apartment; it was magnificent–the steps were made of marble. (I hadn’t yet heard the song about the banks being made of marble). I went there day after day and found lots of things to read–often a book a day. Some of it turned out to be worthwhile; lots of it was probably worthless. But, still it helped me become a reader. My mother was often infuriated with me when I didn’t answer her call to come while I was reading. I hadn’t heard her. I was in my own world. And there were movie theaters within walking distance–with double features on Saturdays for 30 cents. I remember matrons in white uniforms walking up and down the aisles with flashlights–looking, I guess, for teeenagers engaging in unbecoming behavior. And my sisters and I were early recyclers–picking up newspapers and bringing them to a collector on Third Avenue for pennies on the pound.
But even when it seemed that everything was going to stay the same, the warning signs were blinking–factories were closing and moving to the South. Robert Moses tore down hundreds of homes in the neighborhood to widen the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to prepare it for the additional traffic that was to come when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964. For those unfamiliar with Brooklyn, that was the bridge where Bobby G fell off in the 1977 Saturday Night Fever movie. Tony Manero, the John Travolta character, got it right when he was asked if Bobby had killed himself: “There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself.”
I knew the under ground better than the above ground. We didn’t have a car so we took the subways. I could tell you all the stops on the trains we took from Brooklyn to Washington Heights in Manhattan (where one of my grandmothers lived) but I didn’t know a whole lot about what was overhead. I remember going over the Manhattan Bridge and seeing the last little bit of Brooklyn as the N train left it behind and of southern Manhattan before the train went back underground but I had no idea what I was looking at. A bit later, when I had a Lionel train set, I learned how to go into 23rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan and buy new installations for my train board.
Eventually, when I went to high school, I got to see other neighborhoods where friends lived or where other high schools were located. (As a sign of how terribly innocent some of it seemed to be, Friday night dances at different schools were called “sock hops”. Because the dances sometimes were in the gyms, you had to take off your shoes). In any case, I never really learned what much of Brooklyn, let alone the rest of the city, looked like until I started driving a taxi in 1970.
I am, of course, not the only one who’s nostalgic for old neighborhoods. But, a good number of nostalgic accounts, many written by very talented journalists, often fail to acknowledge the downsides of the old days, like the consequences of rigid segregation. Blacks who entered white neighborhoods were risking their safety, if not their lives, until at least the 1970s. In the 1960s, reactionary whites in Brooklyn provided clear evidence of their views when they founded SPONGE, the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything, to oppose school integration.
Brooklyn was not an easy place. My uncle once told me why he didn’t drink–he remembered countless Friday nights where his older cousins fought bloody fist fights with each other after getting drunk. His stories reminded me of what James Farrell had written about Chicago in Studs Lonigan. There were gangs of sorts in my neighborhood. One was called the Junior Irish Lords. I don’t remember much that they did other than marking up buildings with their slogans. Members or not, there were scary people out on Halloween–throwing eggs and using socks filled with powdered chalk to beat up on younger kids.
Novelists have captured some of the underlying realities. Norman Mailer wrote a horrifying tale set in a Brooklyn Heights rooming house in the late 1940s titled Barbary Shore. Later, Hubert Selby wrote two novels of misery and despair about Brooklyn–Last Exit to Brooklyn (set in South Brooklyn) and Requiem for a Dream (set in Coney Island), both of which were made into quite good movies. In 1970, Paula Fox published an excruciatingly painful novel about the manners and lives of the earliest gentrifiers in what’s now called Cobble Hill. The title was Desperate Characters and her characters were all quite desperate.
So where did the old Brooklyn go? There are neighborhoods that remain homes to many hundreds of thousands of regular people. This is more true the farther you get from Manhattan and is less true in the neighborhoods that are closest in proximity to what was a large industrial belt that stretched all the way from Sunset Park to Astoris in Queens. Those neighborhoods are the land of gentrification. Gentrification, by which I simply mean the movement of relatively better off folks into neighborhoods that had previously been characterized by stable social relations and relatively stable rents, thereby driving up rents and house prices. And the world that I grew up in is under attack, if not defeated.
An interesting aspect of gentrification is that its emergence was part of a larger opposition to urban renewal, a process that had been devastating to many poor and working class communities. As James Baldwin famously said, “Urban renewal is Negro removal.” In 1970, early gentrifiers organized a protest against a proposed Atlantic Avenue expressway–a classic instance of what might be categorized as Robert Mosesism. Over time, when buying real estate became an investment, the gentrifiers either played the game well or became its unwilling co-conspirators–tracking house values and “flipping” them at the right moment–only to once again buy low and sell high. In this account, urban renewal was the first assault wave and gentrification the second.
There is a cruel irony. The most well-known warrior against urban renewal and its manifestations in highways was Jane Jacobs. A couple of years ago, a really good documentary movie, Citizen Jane, was released about her life and work. As I recall it, the last episode in the movie celebrated her defeat of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jane Jacobs had saved Little Italy and SOHO. But, the movie makers never acknowledged that she had saved them for those who were waiting in the wings to make those neighborhoods over into something very different from what they had been.
A Whole Way of Life
This is not just a story of Brooklyn. A whole way of life was destroyed over the last period of time (which you can start as early as 1950). For some reason, I have been drawn to Don DeLillo’s Underworld to make some sense of what was lost. Close to the end of the prologue of that novel, which was about the epochal baseball game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers in October of 1951 which ended with a home run by Bobby Thomson, DeLillo wrote:
Russ [a baseball announcer] thinks this is another kind of history. He thinks they will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to a memory with protective power, People are climbing lampposts on Amsterdam Avenue, tooting car horns in Little Italy. Isn’t it possible that this mid-century moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses–the mapped visions that pierce our dreams? Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe and some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells–the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. and fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren–they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.
That world was lost. It was not just Brooklyn, not just Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. It was neighborhoods and small cities all across the country that had the same assortment of neighborhoods–with churches, bars, libraries, bowling alleys and street cars that made a common life possible. Much of it was threatened when the factories were shuttered and the work moved far away. And then, in many places, that whole way of life was destroyed–replaced by boarded up buildings and empty lots and despairing people.
In many places, what replaced the old world was more or less nothing. But, in a handful of places, what replaced the old was what we call gentrification–fueled eventually by the infusion of untold billions of dollars from around the world and the dominance of a speculative capitalism. There would be no new common life; there would instead be a kind of make-believe community inhabited, often enough, by desperate characters.