Thursday, 24 February 2011

"What neighborhood?"

Nobody’s just “from Brooklyn.”  When people tell me they’re from Brooklyn, that’s not enough information.  “What neighborhood?” is my immediate question.  The borough is so big, its neighborhoods so distinct and diverse, that it’s a necessary question.  Of the many Brooklyns, this was mine: 71st Street in Bay Ridge.

This photo was taken almost 25 years before I came along.  It’s 1915.  That’s my mother (at left) and a friend at the corner of 71st Street and Narrows Avenue, a half-block from Mom’s house, the same house I grew up in.  Behind Mom, one block in the distance, is Shore Road; beyond Shore Road, the Narrows; beyond that, Staten Island.

The 18th century etching below, scanned from a book about the American Revolution, shows Lord Howe’s ships entering the Narrows in an attempt to trap and defeat General Washington’s ragtag army.  (He failed.)  I can see the familiar outline of Shore Road.  I can almost pinpoint where we lived, a block and a half from the shore.

My mother’s family must have been among the first Jews to settle in Bay Ridge.  Her father was a civil engineer who helped design the tunnel for the Fourth Avenue subway line leading to that almost-rural section of Brooklyn.  The area appealed to him, and he moved the family there around 1910.  When I was growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, the neighborhood was largely Scandinavian-, Irish-, and Italian-American.

The block across the street and to the right in the photo is now the site of Xaverian High School.  When I was a kid, there was nothing there, not even those rickety houses.  It was an empty lot, one square block’s worth of weeds run wild and dead, decaying trees.  In one corner was a tiny cemetary with tombstones from Revolutionary days.  I wonder if any of the Colonials buried there were spectators the day Howe’s ships sailed into the Narrows.  During and after World War II we called our lot “the jungle” (having seen too many war movies) and spent many a Saturday morning there, manfully fighting the Axis Powers.  They built Xaverian on our jungle.  The high school opened in 1956, the year I went away to college.  I see on the Xaverian website that its first graduates, class of ’61, are about to hold their 50-year reunion.  Yipes. 

I’m happy about where I was born and when I was born.  I’m not sure whom to thank for placing me in my particular place and time.  Mom?  Dad?  My grandfather, for settling in Bay Ridge?   I guess I should also thank Washington, for cleverly escaping Howe and making the whole thing possible.  Way to go, George.


  1. What a wonderful blog and what a memory you have. I wish I'd grown up in Brooklyn rather than a suburb in Long Island, which was extremely dull.

    Oh well, escaping to Manhattan has made up for it--mostly.

  2. Terrific blog, from one Brooklyn expatriate to another! Or should I say, from a Marine Park expatriate to a Bay Ridge expat..

    Mind if I mention you on my blog?

  3. Not at all. And thank you, Marine Park!