For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
A Child Grows In Brownsville
was born on a cold winter day in 1955 and my first home wason Watkins Street. It was near the corner of Riverdale Avenue, right across the street from the Crown Beverage Company. Our block of Watkins Street, which ended at Livonia Avenue, was home for much of my family at that time. My great-grandparents, two sets of great aunts and uncles, an aunt and cousins all lived on that block. In addition, I had other aunts, uncles and cousins living all around Brownsville. My great aunt Janie lived next door to us and I remember how she used to love to play "Piddy Pat" with my brother and me. She had a pet pigeon named "Danny" who walked all around the house like he owned it. One of my uncles, Stokes Durant, had a moving business at 216 Livonia Avenue named Durant and Sons. Uncle Stokes lived on Hopkinson Avenue and was one of the first blacks to own a business in the area. Over the years, I have talked to many people who had mentioned to me that Durant and Sons moved them in the fifties and sixties. When I was a child, my father, Vernell Durant, worked for him and I remember him recalling those tough days when they moved everything from dressers to pianos on the strength of their backs up and down those steep tenement steps. Uncle Stokes and Aunt Mae lived right across the street from Betsy Head Pool, so their house was a favorite stopping place during the summer for the nieces and nephews.
My great-grandfather, who was also named Vernell, owned a restaurant on the corner of Howard and Dean Streets called Durant's Restaurant and Grill. I really don't remember much about it other than my Uncle Clarence used to run it.
Some of my earliest memories of the neighborhood included the times I would look out the window and just watch those big Crown Beverage trucks go in and out of their building. Seems like I would watch them for hours at a time! (but of course, me being a little kid, it was probably just a few minutes). Another thing that I remember well as a young child is when my parents and I would walk down Livonia Avenue. I used to love when the El would come flying by over us, with its wheels screeching and sparks shooting from the tracks…I think I even loved that smell it gave off! As we walked down Livonia a little ways we would always come to that big generator plant for the subway. Man, that thing used to hum so loud that it used to fascinate me!
It seems like the center of the black male population back then was the barbershop. Dad used to take us to "Hometown Barbershop" on Livonia Avenue. It was owned by three brothers who were originally from North Carolina: Melvin, Donald and Sonny. Since my father was from North Carolina also, I guess there was some kind of connection there. Sonny was the barber who cut my hair and he always gave me a cherry lollipop after he was done and would ask me, "You like girls?" At that age, I would always say "NO!" and then he would crack up laughing. I used to love to hear all those "Old Guys" like my father, Archie, Bennie, and the rest of the men in the neighborhood, discuss and solve all the world's problems! Roscoe Raye, who was somewhat of a homeless gentleman, but a fixture in the neighborhood, would always come in. He would bum dimes from everyone and then play every song that the blues singer, Jimmie Reed, had on the Jukebox. Roscoe would always have this little song he would sing, "Tweeda-la-dee, tweeda-la-dee-da, I take um all, big and small!" I used to think that was so funny when he sang that little jingle! For a period of time, my father let Roscoe live in our basement, which was cold and unfinished, but I suppose it was better than living on the streets.
Church in those days was the center of a lot that was going on in the black community. We went to Tabernacle Baptist Church, which by the time I was old enough to remember anything was located on the corner of Sackman Street and Livonia Avenue, right across from the Tilden Projects. It was an old Jewish Synagogue at one time and it still had all the Hebrew writings on the walls and windows. I believe Reverend Dent was the church's first Pastor, starting around 1951, but when I was old enough to remember, Reverend Parker was the Pastor. It seemed as if most of the members of the church came from South Carolina, as did my mother. It stands to reason then that most of my mother's family went there as well. My mother was a regular at church, when she didn't have to work, and always made sure that my brother and I would be there with her.
Across the street, right under the Junius Street train station, there was a corner that I believe was run by Mr. Goodwin. Believe me, a lot of Sunday School money was spent on candy there (I'm sorry Mom). At that time I remember a lot of families went to Brownsville Community Church also. I think it was located on Stone Avenue.
Dad would usually cook dinner on Sunday, and early on those Sunday mornings, he would take my brother and me with him on Belmont Avenue to get fresh vegetables and meats. It would look like a produce palace with all kinds of food lined up and down the blocks. If you wanted the best collard, turnip or mustard greens, you had to go there!
Speaking of other social haunts, Dad would sometimes go to the "Bombay Club" which was on Christopher Street. There was also a place he frequented near the corner of Rockaway and Livonia Avenues, but the name slips my mind after all these years.
Sometimes we would go out for some "fine" dining, which would probably mean everybody in the car for a trip to Coney Island Joe's on Linden Boulevard. They had the best tasting hot dogs when you put that pink-looking concoction of onions and God knows what on them. At other times we would go to White Castle on Atlantic Avenue and eat what seemed like one hundred cheeseburgers!
Shopping was done mostly on Pitkin Avenue or downtown Brooklyn…and I always wondered why they called it downtown because it was uptown from everyone I knew! Mom loved to shop at Abraham and Strauss. I used to love to go with her because they had this restaurant downstairs, near the Hoyt Street subway station that had the best custard in these long slender glasses. We would sometimes go to the movies at the Metropolitan Theatre after shopping, especially if there was a Sidney Portier movie showing. My parents used to sometimes buy clothes from this Jewish gentleman with the last name of Rosenbaum. I imagined he worked out of Brownsville somewhere and they would buy items "on time" from him. On Sunday mornings, he would come by with his black hat, black rimmed glasses, white shirt, black suit, suspenders and note pad to collect a dollar or two from them, until their debt was paid.
Although I don't really remember it, Dad used to know and invite some of the local talent around the house during social functions. Members of Lil' Anthony and the Imperials as well as the Cadillacs had been known to come around for a cookout or party. Once we were in Coney Island and my dad introduced my brother to the singer Johnnie Ray. After building the man up with "This is the GREAT JOHNNIE RAY!", my brother calmly said, "So who the heck is Johnnie Ray?" My father was so embarrassed!
I would be the first to say Brownsville was a wonderful place, but it had its share of scary places for a young child. Looking back, I think the most intimidating area for me was Van Sinderen Avenue. It was always dark and dingy down there, under the shadow of the Long Island Railroad Freight Yard. There were dozens of old businesses that looked like they had closed years ago and plenty of big, mean junkyard dogs. There just wasn't anything good about that place! For many years, my Uncle Luke worked for the Singer Rubber Company on Van Sinderen Avenue. Mr. Singer always had a bunch of old tires and other junk piled up to the sky within the fenced in yard…..and of course, one of those big, mean junkyard dogs.
I remember even as a teenager, that was a bad, bad place…something bad was always happening on or around that bridge that spanned the LIRR Freight Yard between Van Sinderen and Junius Street. People would sometimes break into the boxcars in the yard and steal all kinds of goods as a "community service". My older brother lived on Powell Street at the time and you could always tell what the latest heist was by just looking down his block. One day everyone was drinking Miller Beer and on another, everyone was sitting in new lounge chairs that just happened to look all alike. I think the funniest time though is when somebody had gotten hold of some brooms. There were brooms everywhere…on the porches, in the street, even the kids were playing "horsey" and making stickball bats. I don't think you could have given a broom away that day!
Another place that I didn't care for was the area around the Public Library on New Lots Avenue. They had that old cemetery there from 200 years ago with all those crooked tombstones of old Mr. Van Siclen, Mrs. Lott and whoever. It was scary walking by there during sunset for a little tyke like me.
Although we soon moved to the projects in East New York, which started a whole new set of memories for me, a lot of my time was still spent in Brownsville because of all the family we had there. As I look back at all the fun times, I don't think I would trade anyone else's childhood for mine. I'll always be glad this kid grew in Brownsville!