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40th Anniversary

Brooklyn Revisited

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Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, today.  

In my 1969 article, there were fragments that make amusing reading now. “It is still possible in Park Slope,” I wrote, “ … to rent a duplex with a garden for $200 a month, a half-block from the subway; still possible to buy a brownstone in reasonably good condition for $30,000, with a number of fairly good houses available for less, if you are willing to invest in reconditioning them.”

And in another part of the same 1969 piece: “Then Park Slope started to open up; the boarding houses were bought for as little as $14,000, cleaned out, rebuilt and rewired. That was only four or five years ago. Today the prices are slowly being driven up, and the great fear is that the real-estate people will take over this place, too.”

Today, there are dozens of real-estate offices along Seventh Avenue and more on Fifth Avenue, and many houses were going for $2 million and more. There is little movement these days, while the financial mess on Wall Street plays out. But if the retrieval of Park Slope from decay had only been about the value of real estate, then the efforts of my friends all those years ago would have been for nothing.

Their truest legacy can be seen by all. The place is now classically beautiful, free of ostentatious gaud, restrained, whispery (except for the occasional Obama poster in a window, and even it doesn’t shout). The streets of Park Slope as they rise toward Prospect Park are more stately and imposing now, the trees taller and fatter. And yet when I walk those streets, they are largely empty. On blocks once festive with neighbors, even in the bad times, I don’t see many kids on the stoops or in the front yards. Maybe they’re off on “playdates.” Or, more likely, they are hunched over computers, deep into virtual childhoods. I hope I’m wrong.

“It is still possible in Park Slope,” I wrote in 1969, “to rent a duplex for $200 a month.”

That house by the park was the second chapter of my Brooklyn life. Chapter One began in the thirties, when I was an infant on 14th Street, near the park. We lived for two years on 13th Street after Pearl Harbor, but I truly grew up on Seventh Avenue, in an anonymous neighborhood now called the South Slope. My parents were immigrants from Northern Ireland who moved there in 1943 and stayed for twenty years. I was the first of their seven children. The neighborhood of tenements and brick houses was wedged between Windsor Terrace and Park Slope, which we believed started at Ninth Street. It was populated by Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants and their American children and was working-class and poor. The Depression seemed to last there until about 1951, because the young men of the neighborhood didn’t profit from World War II: They fought it.

Today, as I walk these streets, all is changed, to echo Mr. Yeats, but not changed utterly. Almost all the buildings are intact; my South Slope never suffered the fate of Brownsville and East New York in the sixties and seventies, where entire blocks were leveled by arson and abandonment. I walk south on Seventh Avenue, and see buildings where my friends lived, or where I delivered orders from the grocery store on 11th Street to old ladies who could no longer handle the stairs. I look up at the empty sky and still see flocks of pigeons making majestic swoops and turns on the way back to their coops. The people like us, who lived on the avenues, had no backyards, no gardens, so we played sometimes on those rooftops.

From our rooftop at 378 Seventh Avenue my brother Tom and I once watched a squadron of B-17s heading for Europe and told ourselves that the man our father called “that son of a bitch Hitler” didn’t stand a chance. Up there above the avenue, all the kids and their mothers and a few older men (the young men were off at the war) gathered on a night just after D-Day. We all were told to look there, over there, over the rooftops, “over New York,” at the skyline, which had been dark each night since the start of the war. My mother had taken us to see Manhattan in daylight, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, and told us the skyline was Oz. Because of the wartime blackouts, we had never seen it at night. On this night, suddenly, shockingly, the lights came on, at the orders of Mayor La Guardia. And there was the skyline, the towers of light rising out of the blackness, defiant, triumphant, along with the glowing Statue of Liberty in the harbor. And my mother began to sing “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and all the other women joined in, tears running down their faces, singing for their scattered sons, singing for husbands and lovers and each other. Kids of the age I was that night would stand on those same rooftops and watch the trails of black smoke rising from the skyline on September 11. The dust of that terrible morning would fall on Brooklyn too.


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