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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Too Late to the Party

 First, a bit of housekeeping. Are you reading this in its original EastFlatbushMemories.blogspot.com ?

If you went to high school in the late fifties or early sixties, you may have missed the real Brooklyn. Our parents were invited to the party; we weren’t.
Brooklyn , the real Brooklyn, the Brooklyn celebrated in film and in novels had already changed by the time we came on the scene.  

At best we merely prolonged its death by trying to keep the memories alive. But to have grown up in the post-war years, the Eisenhower era, was to be cheated of the real glory days of Brooklyn.
The Dodgers had already abandoned Brooklyn; their home leveled to make way for a high-rise apartment house. Coney Island’s fabled Steeplechase had closed; Lundy’s was suffering through its last days. Ebinger’s would soon shutter its doors, taking with it the best black-out cake ever created by man (or woman); Brooklyn College embarked on a misguided open-enrollment policy guaranteed to fail. The subways, just beginning to be unsafe at night, required the presence of a uniformed cop on every train.
 
Closer to home, the Rugby Theater – on its way to oblivion - was first converted to a two-screen theater; ‘For Rent’ signs became more prevalent on Utica and Church and Flatbush Avenues and if lucky, the stores were finally rented as dollar stores; and Brooklyn’s Church Avenue trolley - the last line in the last borough to operate trolleys - had its swan song in October, 1956.
By the mid-sixties, New York City public school education, which had served our parent’s generation and us so well, was no longer the key for upwardly mobile kids like us. We were the last. The families of the kids following us moved upward – or more accurately, outward – to the suburbs, to Long Island or New Jersey. The move sent once-solid East Flatbush into a tail-spin from which it has yet to recover.

That was the final straw. Once urban flight took hold in the sixties, the last vestiges of our parent’s Brooklyn disappeared. I watched in amazement as six high-stooped attached houses on Rockaway Parkway near Linden Blvd displayed for-sale signs at the same time. I was too naïve to truly understand the ramifications of that sight, but to this day when I think of the one most significant thing that represented this abandonment of Brooklyn, and specifically my East Flatbush, I think of those ‘for sale’ signs on Rockaway Parkway.
 
By that time the streets and especially the subways had become unsafe. Until then we had been insulated from the Pigtown and East New York gangs; from the drugs; from the poverty. Having already given up teaching, first at Meyer Levin and then at Tilden High School, I too, became part of that flight as my young family moved ‘to the country’ from Avenue H.

Current residents can claim they know our East Flatbush, but it’s a different neighborhood they're describing.
 
Brooklyn, and specifically our neighborhood, had lost many of its 'institutions' by 1970:
Garfields on Flatbush and Church – gone
The Tower of Pisa on Utica and Vincent’s on Church – gone, gone
The RKO Kenmore, Loews Kings, the Carroll theaters – gone, gone, gone.
Even Tilden – gone.
 
But Brooklyn's most important loss in this period was a loss of confidence. In the 1950's alone, the borough lost more than 135,000 residents.  They were buying the hype about the suburbs, they were buying cars, they were moving out to the 'sticks'.  Filling the housing vacuum in our neighborhood were, for the most part, first generation Americans from the Caribbean islands seeking the same good life, a better tomorrow, that our grandparents were looking for when they moved here.
 A drive down Church Avenue reveals only a few vestiges of the Church Avenue of my youth. A ride up East 57th St from Beverly Road to Kings Highway bears witness to the change. The typical East Flatbush homes built in the years just before and after World War II– the attached, brick, high stoop design - now include the obligatory wrought iron gates and window bars. 

The Brooklyn that brings us to websites such as this one is the past, recorded on curled black and white photographs with scalloped edges, faded slides, brittle home movies and clouded memories of innocence, childhood, family and above all – a safe place and to think back on how life had once been in Brooklyn.

From the vantage point of a half century later I realize the neighborhood of my memories no longer exists. It, too, is gone.
 
Brooklyn is the precious thing we’ve lost. And for a lot of us, that's how Brooklyn ended.
 
I welcome your response.
N.Berger                             nberger1@outlook.com


8 comments:

The Kid said...

Wow this is a great blog! I didn't live in your East Flatbush as I am in my early 20's. I also attended Meyer Levin and Tilden, and even though the neighborhood has changed there's still a handful of white people here who have never left.

EngTchr said...

I have a friend who heads up the alumni affairs department for a unit of the CUNY system. She says it is virtually impossible to get recent graduates (i.e. people in their 20's) to get involved in things related to their Alma mater - so why this fascination with a four-decades old high school life that in reality may not have been as great as we now remember it to be? I am not taking a holier-than-thou attitude. I'd be the first to admit that I'm caught up in the hype - maybe more so than most. But, what is the draw for someone who is currently living in the area, who relatively recently, graduated from the schools mentioned in this blog?
I've received responses from people with whom I share a common history and a few from former students and we write about the 'good old days' but it didn't occur to me that younger readers would be able to identify with the history.
I'm encouraged by your response. Thanks for writing. Bloggers are not unlike late night disc jockeys who wonder if there's anyone out there listening.
Hey, do they still use Delaney cards?

The Kid said...

They used them earlier this decade. That's how they checked attendance.

I've always been fascinated with history especially in my neighborhood.

Ken said...

A good story... from the heart and very clear.

All of Brooklyn is forever changed and changing. When I moved in 1952 to Avenue C and East 4th Street, my Dad, who had grown up 3 blocks distant, lamented how the area had changed since his youth.

Maybe Brooklyn residents of more recent times see their Brooklyn as different from ours but it is still their Brooklyn.

The change keeps happening and you can't go home.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on 59th and Snyder (a block up from Tilden HS). I claim my fame to be...graduating with Willie Randolph and Al Sharpton. Al was actually a quite guy in school and we chatted a few times. I left Brooklyn in my second year of college. Most I the time I wish I never left.

Anonymous said...

The wonderful Brooklyn you remember is still there. It is just different. What it was to you -- it means more to others. I too went to to Meyer Levin and Tilden, in the early '80s though, and I have some of the same fond memories. Brooklyn transcence race and national origin. It's bigger than you and me. It has it's purpose. And with regard to the schools, they have always been great!! Good teachers!! Its just that some of the students refused to learn. I welcomed the education that I could not get from my native caribean island though. Today, I am a lawyer.

Sandy Andina said...

Whoa, there, pilgrim--all was NOT gone by 1970--now, perhaps, but not then. I spent my first 12 years in Brownsville (PS 183, Somers JHS--the latter across the border in EFB), moved to the corner of Kings Hwy & Church (nominally “E. 58 St. but we were right next door to the car wash), graduated from Tilden ’67 and Brooklyn College ’71 (marrying & leaving for Seattle 3 wks later, now settled in Chicago). Tilden stayed open as Tilden into the first decade of this century, though it’s now some weird Outward Bound College Preparatory Expeditionary School. (Do they train kids in wilderness skills, so that being air-dropped into the middle of the Adirondacks will somehow prepare them to ride the subway to B.C. or NYU)?

I can tell you too that Garfield’s was still there while I was at B.C. Never went to Vince’s, but B’nai Israel (the Reform temple we couldn’t afford). Grabstein’s Deli, Kwik-Kleen Kar Wash, Waldbaum’s (what a pathetic grocery!), Vernola’s hair salon, Ike’s Toyland, Silver Rod Drugs, the Italian joint kitty-corner from Grabstein’s, and the beloved Ices Queen were all still going strong when I decamped for the Northwest & Midwest. As was the tennis club on Whitty Lane & the Hwy.

Now, of course, not only has Tilden morphed but Somers is now a charter school and PS 183 stands empty. Meyer Levin is now an I.S (grades 6-8 rather than 7-9). No more “2-yr S.P.” And everyone enters high school now as a freshman (back in the day, only the parochial school alums did--we got to enter as sophomores).

Though my childhood was in Brownsville, I attended Tilden Day Camp from age 7-12 (and spent the rest of my summers there till I got married as first a jr. counselor and then an asst. lifeguard at the Tilden pool. So though I graduated from Somers, I was as well-acquainted with Meyer Levin as was my kid sister who attended it once we moved into the Tilden neighborhood. I remember the spooky Victorian house next door to ours (it seemed to to us back then to have been on a hill, sort of like Collinswood Mansion in "Dark Shadows," but it really was more like on a mound of dirt. Until some condos were built, between it & Tilden was an empty lot we used as a shortcut to school--and on July 4 the cops would come around and shoot off cherry bombs and M-80s so we didn’t blow our own fingers off.

I still miss stuff like Spaldeens, Fli-Back paddles, candy stores that were also newsstands and luncheonettes, two sizes of fountain sodas, bialys, good pizza (Chicago pizza is not pizza), sauerkraut and Gulden’s mustard on a good kosher frank (RIP, Coney Island Joe’s), decent knishes and real egg creams. Gotta make them at home here in Chicago--and carbonate the heck out of my Sodastream bottles to get them anywhere near as fizzy as real seltzer that was allowed to go flat. Hershey’s instead of U-Bet. Oh, the humanity!

Richard said...

As your former student from 40 years ago, I disagree. I think the neighborhood is just as good now, if not better. Really, it is better in your memory than in reality.

If you go to old school hip-hop shows featuring classic East Flatbush rappers like Smif 'n' Wessun or the great Busta Rhymes, they too are nostalgic for the East Flatbush of the past -- the past in their case being the late 80s and early 90s.

All nostalgic is pathetic poison to me. I learned that from my English teachers. I live in the present and look forward to whatever future I've got.