For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Growing Up in Fort Greene


by Arleen Santonas

M

y Brooklyn childhood was probably not actually as idyllic as I remember it today, but compared to the young people of today, I'd say I definitely got the best of the bargain. I was a vanguard member of the Baby Boomers, born December 1946, along with the hundreds of thousands of other post-WWII babies who would later swell the classroom size to record numbers. My co-conspirators in overpopulation would also lead most of their young and idealistic parents to the suburbs, away from the cities, to a "better life" either on Long Island or even further afield upstate to Westchester.

My family, having very few advantages of either income or education, elected to stay firmly where it had started out – Brooklyn, the Fort Greene projects to be exact. This was the apartment my grateful parents found as my father came out of the Army and there we stayed until his income rose to over the city's permissible level. Apartment 2F, 20 North Oxford Walk looked out over a courtyard and playground on one side and beautiful Cumberland Hospital, Portland Avenue, on the other.

We kids had the best location, situated right across Myrtle Avenue from the greatest playground a kid could have, Fort Greene Park. In the winter we had snowball fights, sleigh riding down those hills, crashing into the stone walls and building forts from the undisturbed snow. In summer we ran up and down the steps, played make-believe on the cannons and scared ourselves silly watching out for the ghost who supposedly lived in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there.

With at least six apartments on each of the eight floors of each building, there was always an instant gang of friends to choose from. All races lived harmoniously, Italian, Irish, Negro (as we called it then), recent immigrants from Puerto Rico and assorted Asians. If one gang of kids didn't feel like doing what you wanted, you turned to another. The mothers were mostly homemakers and there were always at least two or three women watching from their windows as we played in the courtyard below. In those days, you listened to everyone and everyone was equally deserving of respect as a grownup. Any "back-talk" or mischief would instantly be telegraphed to your parents, with dire results, those being the days before "spare the rod".

In our neighborhood we seemed to do things, at least as I remember it, in large groups containing older siblings as leaders, middle children as followers, and toddlers as burdens. In the Fiftys, Saturdays meant movies across America – hours spent watching the latest A and B movies, newsreels and cartoons. I think our local movie house was called the Duffield on Myrtle Avenue, under the El. Our group swarmed up to the "kids section" under the watchful eye of the matron, whose flashlight was a constant badge of authority and respect. Armed with bags of sunflower or pumpkin seeds, licorice, Raisinets (my sister's favorite) or Good ‘n Plenty, we usually stayed through more than one showing, until someone's parent came to call us home to dinner. We'd come out of the movies, blinking at the light, like some sort of underground mammal, full of treats and also full of the heroic actions of the characters in the movies we'd watched. Summer at the movies was even better. It meant two main extras: Mello Roll Ice Cream and air-conditioning. It didn't get any better than that.

We spent many hours playing outside at whatever game was in "season" at the moment. Girls played with cutouts, studiously cutting out paper dolls and trading extra dresses or sets on the benches or concrete platforms that were our playground. Boys flew balsa wood airplanes and kites. Both sexes used pea shooters and linoleum guns made with shards of discarded flooring, clothespins and rubber bands, with abandon, using each other and unsuspecting strangers as targets. We also had a special time for those gooey tubes of "balloons" which were made by blowing a wad of the stuff from the end of a tiny straw. These produced fragile but colorful spheres that lasted a minute or two. The goo was also good to chew after – don't ask me the attraction. It surely didn't taste good.

Wooden tops also had a special season as did marbles and baseball card flipping. These games were a form of true gambling, with your collection at stake at every turn. We also played a game I remember as Skelzies, but my memory may be faulty. It was a challenge game played like marbles, with bottle tops filled with crayon wax for weights. There was also Ring-O-Levio and other forms of excuses for the boys to jump on the girls, proving their physical superiority.

A big favorite was jump rope, especially Double Dutch, and if you were really good, Double Orange, which was played by turning the double strands out instead of in. The boys rarely jumped but loved taunting the girls as they did. We had all sorts of singsong chants to go with the different games. One I especially remember went, "She had a pair of hips just like a battle ship. She really kept the boys in line…." And the one who owned the clothesline had the right to pick first. Another game that required a rhyming song was PattiCakes. This was a simple clapping game, but the girls had elaborate rituals that took quite a long time to learn. One song that I remember had to do with a "pretty little Dutch Girl."

We also played hopscotch with an almost religious zeal, which including "owning" boxes as you completed the turn successfully. Soon each box was owned by a player and no one else could land on it. The game was all but over, because only our hero Superman could leap over that many boxes. Chinese hopscotch was a similar game that involved a snail-like board drawn in chalk like regular hopscotch. Another jumping game was something I think was called Chinese jump rope, which was made with rubber bands tied together, I think, or some kind of elastic strings.

Inside the apartments, board games were played marathon-style, with Monopoly the ruling king of games. We would play for hours in groups of three or four. My sister always had to be banker, always cheated and always won…you can tell there are still emotional scars. When it was time to call it a day, the unfinished game was slid under the bed until the next session. Each Christmas we would get another box of 52 games, which included Parcheesi and Chinese Checkers. These would stick around a few months until my mom got tired of finding pieces all over and it would mysteriously disappear.

Walking was both a necessity and a pleasure for our whole family. A special treat was to be taken to the ice cream parlor on the corner of Myrtle and Portland Avenue that I think was called John's. The owner was a friend of my dad's and he would always make a fuss over me when we went in. Sometimes we would walk in the other direction to visit my grandmother and go past the Navy Yard with its barred prison building. It was always a guilty thrill to look up and wonder if any of the "bad people" could see us. As kids love to be scared, it always added drama to the walk. The Brooklyn Bridge was another strolling destination. One time my dad saved a puppy from being thrown off the bridge. He offered the man two dollars if he would leave the pup alone. We took the dog home, but gave him away, as the projects wouldn't allow dogs. In later years I wondered if the man made a regular income from this trick.

We always walked to Fulton Street to go shopping at either A&S or McCrory's. We loved the beautiful brass elevators in A&S, and the terrific frozen custard you could get if you were very, very patient with your mother's shopping. A&S was the best at Christmas, with a large tree somehow hung near the bank of elevators that you could walk under. Their Santa was also the best around – you got your picture taken while you revealed your secret wish. Mine was a Betsy Wetsy doll with real curly hair…though I still haven't gotten it. I guess I wasn't a good girl! McCrory's was the place to look at pets. They sold parakeets and canaries, goldfish and mollies, turtles and chameleons. My mother was a kind soul who loved pets in her own right and we always had a house full of wings, beaks and claws.

Fort Greene Park provided a unique opportunity for neighborhood children to get a green thumb. Brooklyn Botanic Garden had a demonstration planting area and would let us have our own plots where we could grow anything we wanted as long as we took care of it. Of course, we never really succeeded in growing anything but radishes and marigolds, but the dual experience of responsibility and accomplishment stayed with me throughout my life. Two normal childhood occupations were made much more difficult in the projects, namely bicycle riding and roller-skating. The courtyards were paved with Belgian Block, making it almost impossible to do either. It was not until I moved to Greenpoint that I learned these two basic childhood skills.

Our nearness to Prospect Park – just one bus ride away - gave us another outdoor wonderland. The garden was wonderful of course, and an indulgent mother let us keep all the tadpoles and worms we could carry home in paper cups. But the zoo was the star. We weren't as sensitive to the needs of wild animals then so the conditions there weren't a factor. We thrilled to the lion roar, the elephants pacing back and forth and of course the seals and chimps. And it was all free. My mother would pack a picnic lunch and we would spend all day there.

Another favorite summer diversion was Coney Island. It was a very long trip for us, not in miles, but using the trains and buses made it a lengthy trek. Very few people in our neighborhood had access to an automobile. One or two women would band together, with at least six children in tow, blankets, thermoses, sandwiches, towels and beach toys. The trip seems endless, but we managed to find the time to enjoy the beautiful beach and water. We never had the money to go on the rides, but we did often get a treat and go to Nathan's for hotdogs and french-fries. We'd walk the boardwalk, looking at the stands, run across the burning sand and build sand castles or jump the waves for hours. The wiser kids knew that the seventh wave was always the best for skimming back to the shore. After our day out, kids were dragged home, tired and hot, sunburnt and itchy, to ride the train home, satisfied with the sea and ourselves.

Halloween was a truly big deal, with trick or treating the zenith of happiness. Costumes would be planned weeks ahead, with a parent's suggestion of witch or gypsy scorned as too easy. Pirates, cowboys, princesses and Indians roamed the hallways, mostly all made by handy moms or grandmas. In those innocent days, we got apples and home-baked goodies, and for some reason, pennies were what we really prized. A kid could start, without parental accompaniment, at the top floor, and by the time he reached the bottom, his paper bag would overflow with loot. Parents didn't have to worry about pills, razor blades or pins in any of our treats. What bliss to spill your bag out on the floor and count your pennies and your penny candy.

My dad was always a gadget freak and we had the very first television set in the building. All the neighbors came trouping in to our tiny living room to see this marvel. It was as quiet as a church as the grainy picture came through. I was too young to remember what show it was, but we were very popular for quite a while. There was always one or two families watching along with us.

Everyone shared with their neighbors in those days. My mother was very sick many times while we lived there. The kindness of our neighbors kept all of us going. My dad worked for a commercial bakery, Dugan's, as a driver. Every so often, he was allowed to bring the day-old cakes and cookies home. He would go from floor to floor with his boxes of cakes and pies, distributing the sudden wealth to all our neighbors. An uncle worked for Sky Chef at La Guardia Airport and he would also bring treats from cancelled flights, like steaks and cups of desserts, which we thought were wonderful.

To say the least, my memories of my project upbringing are happy, full of wonderful people and good times. When I went to see Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway for the first time, and it was spooky because I knew all the words to Fats Waller's songs. I thought I was having a mystical experience until my dad reminded me that I spent a lot of my time at Lillian Smith's apartment with her two daughters, Tishie and Barbara and son JoJo. She was a big fan of his and played his records all the time.

I'm not saying that it was always rosy – I remember being mugged for my nickel change from the grocery store, having a knife put to my chest in a hallway and seeing heroin addicts asleep in stairwells. I also remember seeing two gang members fight with knives and Garrison belts on our playground. But for the most part, compared to the dangers and challenges both physical and mental our children and grandchildren face, I still say my contemporaries had a more serene childhood.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the Brooklyn I remember in the fifties, when things were simpler and freer. Thanks for spending some time with me. See you on the avenue.




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