For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
Brooklyn Is My Hometown
here you from?"
"I knew that; I could tell that from your accent. What part?"
"The city; Brooklyn actually."
"Yeah? My grandparents lived there in the thirties when they came over with my father from Italy. They lived in an area called Red Hook or something like that. Do you know it?"
"I know where it is but I don't KNOW it. It's not too far from where my wife came from in Park Slope. I lived in Flatbush."
"Like in "Lords of Flatbush", the movie?
"Yes, but quite different."
He spent a minute putting away some papers and taking out a notebook. It was pretty tattered showing a lot of use. He didn't make any eye contact and then spoke, "Before we get into the interview I'm gonna hit the head and then get another beer and then we'll get into it. You want one?"
"Okay, a Bud Lite."
This was the first time I was ever interviewed about Brooklyn. I'm not sure how they got my name but it was an ego booster to be interviewed on the subject of "MY HOMETOWN". Pete Brienza, the interviewer, had me meet him in the San Antonio Airport at the bar in Terminal One. He arranged for a two-hour stopover on his way from LA to Atlanta. He seemed pretty young but just about everyone does today. He was nice enough although I didn't know how many beers he had before I got there.
Over that last couple of days I'd been reminiscing about Brooklyn and making some notes so that I'd sound like I knew my stuff. The top of the first page of notes read "BROOKLYN IS MY HOMETOWN". It was filled with cryptic notes, page references, color codes, and lines showing relationships. It had all gotten kinda complicated. I had also written down questions I might be asked and I actually formulated answers for completeness. (The analyst side of me comes out.) This was my big opportunity and I wanted to have my ca-ca together so to speak.
I kept on looking at the heading at the top of the page: "BROOKLYN IS MY HOMETOWN." I'd probably said the phrase or a variety of it a thousand times and in a way it is a statement of fact but the more I thought about it the more it wasn't. I knew where I lived in New York City and some other small areas of the borough of Kings but there was much more that I didn't know about than I knew.
I started looking over my notes again and formulating what I could say.
Sure, I was born and raised in Brooklyn and lived there until 1968, 26 years of a life. The issue is that I don't know the Brooklyn of eighty-one-plus square miles and 2.2 million people. I know where I lived and I know its boundaries got larger as I got older but they never encompassed all of Brooklyn or even much of Brooklyn. I was slowly concluding that Brooklyn was too large, varied, and constantly changing to be known, at least by me.
My Brooklyn life began when my family moved to Avenue C and East 4th Street, Apartment 4B, in ‘52. Once I got acclimated I would tell people I lived in Flatbush. If I look at most of the current maps they show that I lived in Kensington or even Boro Park but who knew? One map actually does indicate that I did live in Flatbush. Saying Flatbush was close enough. People knew of Flatbush; they probably didn't know of Kensington.
The truth of the matter is that I lived in a village bounded by McDonald Avenue, Fort Hamilton Parkway, Coney Island Avenue, and Ditmas Avenue. My village was small, probably a half-square mile, but as far as I was concerned, it had everything you could want. Well almost.
My village doesn't show up on any maps unless I draw them but that doesn't mean that it wasn't real. The streets and avenues are on the map but there is no indication of there being a village. As a matter-of-fact, I've named the village Kenmas Park, being creative for the interview. Think of it as a representation of Kensington. Ditmas Park, and Boro Park.
Kenmas Park was an absolutely great place.
Other than the bigger and newer apartment houses on Ocean Parkway, and a few on Beverly Road, most of the homes in Kenmas Park were single family houses or four-story walk-ups. Sure there were exceptions such as multiple families in a frame house and apartments over stores on the avenues but by-and-large the village was small and personal, and the residences were considered homes rather than houses. During the years I lived there a true tragedy occurred when developers tore down over a dozen beautiful large homes on Beverly Road to put up large modern apartment buildings.
People in Kenmas Park knew each other at least in the immediate area by sight and that warranted an exchange of pleasantries. The area was fully developed and the occupants steady; they didn't turn over often. In the village, you were raised by the community. You never knew who was watching and who might snitch if you did something that you didn't want your Mom to know about. Stoops worked as social centers and command posts to be watched from and to congregate at. While this wasn't always what you wanted, it did tend to keep you on the straight-and-narrow.
All the streets had mature trees and the private residences had postage stamp sized lawns with bushes of roses, azaleas, boxwood, etc.. All of these were meticulously tended. The homes were cared for and in good shape. As a counterpoint I note that the trees can mess up a potentially two-manhole stickball hit by having a branch knock the ball back to the second baseman for an easy out. The avenues were pretty commercial although Albemarle Road and Beverly Road were only residential.
The families in Kenmas Park in the fifties were what we now term "traditional" but I think that it's a relative term like "oldies music". The Dads went to work and the Moms stayed home and kept home and kids in order – usually. No one seemed rich though a few families had cars and some actually went away on vacations. There was something of a socioeconomic stratification based on where you lived in the village. It went from lower-end of above stores, to four story walk-ups, to tenants in frame houses, to apartment houses with elevators not on Ocean Parkway, to a tie between owner-occupied frame houses and elevatored apartments on Ocean Parkway. During the time I lived in the village it was simply a passing point of curiosity. I had no idea what socioeconomic stratification was or why you would have it. The issue was would you be coming out to play.
Kenmas Park had kids; even kids my own age. The apartment houses I lived in had five kids my age, eight if you included girls but there was no reason to do so from my prepubescent perspective. If you went fifty yards either way on the streets from the apartment houses on Avenue C, you included another eighteen kids. This was critical mass; you could play any game with access to this many kids. Not all of them had to show up and you were still in good shape. If you went over to P.S. 179 to play another team, you had enough kids to field a respectable team. If somebody's mother called and that somebody had to leave you had someone to substitute and not loose much.
Most kids were friends but not all.
You didn't really need friends beyond your small section of the village. Sure, you knew other kids were out there but you didn't have much interaction unless they were in your class at school. If you didn't know them and you were walking though their area you generally walked quickly and didn't make eye contact. If one of them was walking through your area you ignored them unless they made eye contact and then you gave them an evil stare till they looked away. As a general observation, there weren't fights among the kids. There were some exceptions but with the close proximity of everyone, it was natural.
We obviously had to have schools. The Catholic kids went to elementary school at Immaculate Heart of Mary. The kids south of Avenue C usually went to St. Rose of Lima that was just out the Kenmas Park village. The public school kids went to P.S. 179, 130, 230 or to one of the other public schools. The middle-school public school kids probably went to Montauk. When Ditmas JHS opened on Cortelyou Road the kids started to go there. On Wednesday there was early release time so that Catholic kids going to public schools could go for religious instruction. Jewish kids could go for instruction at one of the numerous Yeshivas in the village.
The public high school was the world-famous Erasmus Hall, though some went to Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant in the city. The Catholic kids could attend the public high schools or a Catholic High School. My friends went to St. John's Prep or St. Francis' Prep. Catholic girls tended to go to St. Joseph's, St. Brendan's, St. Francis Xavier or one of the other many schools. I note that a shortcoming of the village was that we didn't have our own high school. The travels to the high schools brought us into contact with kids from other villages and areas. It broadened us.
A strong asset to the village was the public library branch that was first on McDonald Avenue and then relocated to Ditmas Avenue. The people on the North end of the village had access to a library-on-wheels thing that came around once a week. Sometimes the kids learned more from the libraries than at school, particularly if the library had back copies of National Geographic. .
In Kenmas Park all the kids spoke English, sometimes with accents passed on from their parents. Some kids knew second languages and sometimes it was the second one that was English. Everyone understood each other. We weren't of the same faith or religion but that wasn't an issue unless your family was pretty orthodox in its beliefs. Parts of the village were enclaves of Italians and Jews and they each tended to be more tightly knit. Overall, friends were friends.
If some kids didn't participate in playing or village stuff, it was usually theirs or their parents' choice, not the group's. The areas were large enough to include just about everyone.
As a kid in the village I didn't know about diversity and it wasn't an issue. We never said "Hey you got three Irish kids and only one Jew on your team, you need another Jew." You played in a game because you could play, not because of color, religion, or any of the other factors that seem to be rallying flags today. Kenmas Park was fair. That there weren't any blacks and only one Hispanic from Columbia, South America in our village wasn't an issue. Maybe from the view of other Blacks or Hispanics outside the village there was an issue but as a kid I was unaware.
As you might expect, the village had restaurants. There were Italian, Chinese, deli, Pizza, burgers, diners and sandwich shops. The village had food stores too: A&P, Fair-Mart, Bohack's, Rudick's, Saul's, vegetable and fruit vendors, and bakeries. Most of the apartments could be described as multicultural with smells and odors that both pleased and displeased.
Of special note were the egg-creams, particularly at Pop's luncheonette on Cortelyou between East Fifth Street and Ocean Parkway. They were great and were nominated for the All-City championship in 1958. They came in third behind entries from Manhattan and the Bronx. It was fixed!
I can't say that my village had gangs. I can say there were kids in the village who were in gangs but I don't think the gangs were based in Kenmas Park. To the north were the Gremlins and to the south were the Ditmas Dukes. A few of the kids in my part of the village belonged to gangs. My friends and I were not fighters, we were mostly ball players. Fights seemed to occur over girls and that wasn't yet an issue for us though later in life girls would seem the root of us all breaking up. It's a natural consequence of hormones and meeting people from all over.
In Kenmas Park, I saw the intersection of Church and McDonald Avenues as the town square, the center of commerce. Subways and trains came together, busses and trolleys too. The Beverly movies, Ebinger's, and the Greater New York Savings Bank were there. The villagers near Church and Coney Island Avenues would say they were the town square but they had no subway and no movie house. I admit they had a car wash and a used car lot but that don't stand up against a movie theater and a subway. A second possible shortcoming of the village was that we didn't have a Mayor. On second thought after seeing governments in action, the absence of a Mayor was possibly a distinct plus.
A true shortcoming was the absence of a Hospital. The village had a lot of medical doctors and doctors of dentistry but no hospital. The communities surrounding Kenmas Park had hospitals that were accessible. While the hospitals weren't in the village we could get to one if need be. Better still, our doctors still made house calls. If things got very bad we had funeral homes.
The main avenues in Kenmas Park were Church Avenue, Ocean Parkway, McDonald Avenue, and Coney Island Avenue. The slightly less major roads were Fort Hamilton Parkway and Cortelyou Road. Collectively, these thoroughfares would take you anywhere that was important. Since it seemed few of our families had cars, more of our interest was in public transportation. We had subways and trolleys and bus lines and taxis; we could go anywhere.
The transportation network in the village allowed us to travel to get things we didn't have locally, which wasn't much. Sure we had to travel to Flatbush Avenue or Fulton Street for big-time or more stylish shopping but there were no shortage of public conveyances. The network could take us to exotic places: Ebbets Field, Kings Highway, Coney Island, and that place on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The third shortcoming of the village was the absence of swimming facilities, whether a beach or a pool. This situation was remedied by the transportation network. We could get to Sunset Park easily and to Coney Island or any of the other beaches by the trolleys, busses or trains that became elevated in the village.
Kenmas Park bordered Prospect Park and the Parade Grounds. They offered us organized sports, fishing, hiking and a great overall diversion. Inside Kenmas Park we had a roller-rink, horseback riding, bicycle paths, bowling alleys, and the ever present spoiler of young boys: pool halls. As if this weren't enough, we had streets, school yards, stoops, and sides of buildings to provide courts for whatever season we were in.
Once every summer my Mom and Dad would meet their extended family at Scoville's or Feltman's in Coney Island. We would usually go down there by train or trolley but have to come home by taxi. I'll leave it up to you to guess why.
Our parents knew and we found out that you could just about get anywhere from Kenmas Park; it was a great place.
As I looked up, Pete was returning with two beers. "Sorry for the delay. I ran into a friend from college with his family who was going to see the Alamo and the sights of San Antone."
"We locals call it San Antonio. We don't care for the expression San Antone."
Pete took out a little pocket recorder, and turned it on, and placed it on the small table near his new beer.
"This is an interview with Ken Thompson in San Antonio for the October '02 project on My Hometown. Today is August twenty-second and the time is two-forty-two. Ken, why'd you leave Brooklyn and why don't you go back?"
"You sound like my neighbors down here telling all us Yankees to go back where we came from. Aren't you gonna ask me what it was like growing up?"
"What we're looking for is more of an emphasis on why you're not there anymore. I see you have a packet of papers with you so if you want to tell me about the good old days you can just email me the info. Why'd you leave Brooklyn?"
"Okay… it's your story. Growing up in Brooklyn was fine, even great, but the area I lived in was not the totality of Brooklyn. I think it is an anomaly in that it was different from what most people think of as Brooklyn. When I think about it, my early years in Brooklyn were terrific; there were friends, and family, you could just about do anything, and I felt safe. As to why I'm not there anymore, let me give you three reasons… is this thing recording?"
Pete looks and nods that it's working. I start my story.
"First there is television. TV showed me that there was more to Brooklyn and New York than my little piece of Kings County. I saw the problems reported in the news and I didn't like them. I wasn't at all thrilled with the riots and the strikes. The counter point of the idealized family shows of the fifties and sixties showed me a better life than what I had and I wanted my piece of it. The combination had a tremendous impact. There was like a danger in staying and a pulling for me to go to a better place elsewhere. As a youngster I didn't know where and what it was though.
"Second is college. My parents encouraged me to go to college and attain more than they had. I think this was the standard operating model for much of Brooklyn. I didn't think they had it so bad but they wanted much more for me. They made going to college a natural and essential step after high school, particularly for boys. Besides most of the boys in our section of the Brooklyn were planning to go to college, either days or nights. It was emphasized to me that college would give me a better life.
"Third is all the changes that were happening. After working in the change business and extensive study I've identified the only four groups that like and want change in their lives: wet babies, people using vending machines, parents of some teenagers, and people who really have it bad. My part of Brooklyn was rock steady, it, and I, didn't want change but it was happening all around us. I could see it happening in small ways: houses weren't as well kept-up, garbage cans were left out longer, and the streets seemed dirtier. Petty crime was increasing. I decided that I didn't want to be a victim of change but a change agent for myself. I wanted more."
"Cute about who wants change. I'm sorry I interrupted, go on."
"Better make it four reasons.
"I guess the last reason was hormones. College and being able to get around more, and working in Manhattan allowed me more choices for dates and potential life partners. I found someone from Brooklyn who shared the same dreams. Affordability and the prospect of raising a family in a declining Brooklyn had me leave it.
"Pete, it wasn't that Brooklyn was bad; it was that I wanted more."
"Why don't you go back?"
"I've gone back and done a couple of drive-throughs and it is not what I want for myself. While I can recognize a lot of the buildings and sights, they've all changed, quite honestly, usually for the worse. Everything seems to have shrunk…to smaller than I remember it. None of the kids I grew up with are there except for maybe Alan. Besides, my own kids and grandkids are here and I like my life. Don't get me wrong, I loved my piece of Brooklyn but it was a different place at a different time. You really can't go back to the way it was but I can go back whenever I want by closing my eyes and letting my mind wander. Today's Brooklyn is not my Brooklyn. My Brooklyn was the people, friends, and neighbors; most all have moved on."
"What were the greatest changes to your Brooklyn while you were there?
"This I actually thought about: the building of Robert Moses' Prospect Expressway and how disruptive it was, the Dodgers' moving to the west coast; another Moses issue, and community unrest and polarization of positions foretold trouble. I guess the last one would be the phasing out of the trolleys and going to more variable path busses. There are probably others but those were the big changes for me.
"Good stuff. Is there anything else you want to say or get off your chest?"
"I just want everyone who reads your article to see my hometown was a tiny piece of Brooklyn at a point in time, a very special time, and that, whether we like it or not, we each had it different. Some better and some worse."
"One thing, all of this is just my opinion. As they say `Your mileage may vary'."
"Thanks Ken. I don't know what we'll use. Can I get something to eat in this terminal?"
"Sure, we're thoroughly modern; let me show you our Nathan's."
In preparing this entry for The Brooklyn Board Diary, I collaborated with Dave Lauser, Brooklyn Board member. Dave originally lived in Kenmas Park, moved away, then returned and now lives there with his wife and children just three blocks from where I grew up.
I asked him to review the preceding materials and to make corrections and deletions. In his reply he included the following that shows me, and should show all of us, the strength and hope that is forever Brooklyn.
Near the end of the story you wrote about how much our Brooklyn has changed and how you can't really go back to the way it was and I agree. But consider this, I have two children ages ten and seven. Both were born in "Kenmas" but are growing up in a "different" world. Or are they? They don't have the Beverly (movies); they rent videos and DVD's. They don't go with Mommy on the "D" train to Fulton St; she drives them to the mall. They've never been to Sunset Park pool; they have their own pool in the backyard.
We may not have known blacks or Hispanics but they do. And Russians, Chinese, Arabs. Pakistanis, Asians and Israelis … and they all know how (or are learning) to play stickball.
Changes in "Kenmas"? --- you bet! Is it better or worse … or just different? My kids love the neighborhood, just like we did. And when they grow they will probably want to move on too because, as you say, there is so much more life to live outside "the Park".
Kenmas Park taught us everything we needed to know to become positive, productive members of society. I don't know any "Superstars" who came from Kenmas but I do know many good people who did. I also believe it will continue doing so. "The more Kenmas Park changes, the more it remains the same".
One final observation, a few years ago my wife and I discussed moving to upstate N.Y. My oldest daughter (then only seven) went ballistic. "Please Daddy, don't take me away from my friends. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE." Tears of sadness ran down her tiny face touched with pain. "But Olivia," I said, "Wouldn't you rather live in the country with all that fresh air and space, and a big lake to swim in, and snowmobiling in the winter, and a horse of your very own?" I looked in her eyes and saw the answer. She has everything that is important to her right here in Kenmas Park … for now!
GOD BLESS BROOKLYN.