Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"You Can Never Go Home"

Today someone sent me a wonderful clip from YouTube featuring movie director Martin Scorsese YouTube - Martin Scorsese's "The Neighborhood" visiting his old neighborhood in Little Italy. Marty went back to see how things were on his old block, and to show his young daughter where he came from. Some things hadn't changed like the butcher shop his family shopped in. Clearly some of the people he grew up with were still there and delighted in traveling with him down memory lane. He visited an Italian cheese store that has been there for 75 years and still operated by the same family. The current proprietor made an interesting comment; he said people ask him why he opened an Italian cheese store in the middle of Chinatown. And that's the point of this blog...sadly, neighborhoods change.

People my age remember what neighborhoods were like. In the days before the great exodus to the suburbs, people, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants, lived in tight communities a few city blocks square. Every borough of New York City had unique neighborhoods, many with a distinct ethnic or racial flavor, as people from other countries entered the United States and were drawn to areas where people looked like them and spoke their language. Brooklyn was no different. One in seven Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn, a fact that I find fascinating. We lived in East New York, but were surrounded by Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, Downtown Brooklyn, Cypress Hills, Park Slope, Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and dozens of others.

Neighborhoods were very protective of their own. Eyes were everywhere, watching you from windows and reporting back to your parents if you stepped over the line. Strangers were eyed with suspicion, especially if they were "different". I got a kick out of Scorsese's comment that his parents' families were from different towns in Sicily. In Italy it was unlikely that anyone married outside their town since travel was very restricted, but as immigrants moved into different tenement buildings in Little Italy, inter-marriage between different Sicilian towns began, an event, as Scorsese describes it, that required a "major sitdown". You can imagine the consternation when my cousin married an Irishman. Her parents must have offered up countless prayers that this "infamnia" would be forgiven by the clan.

Every neighborhood had its schools, churches, stores and parks. If you lived in East New York, you attended the local school. This was in the days when the idiotic practice of busing kids twenty miles to school had yet to be implemented. The idea was to give NYC kids a chance to attend other than area schools for racial balance, After spending billions, the practice is recognized as a colossal failure. We also attended the local church of our faith. I used to love standing outside the storefront churches on Fulton Street attended mostly by blacks. The thumping gospel music and shouts of the congregation came blaring out the doorway. Their service sounded like a hell of a lot more fun than ours.

Your friends lived mostly within a two block radius from you. Cliques of five or six guys were common, but the numbers expanded when it came time to choose up sides for ball games. As we got older, and girls started to enter the picture, things got a bit complicated. Some guys got girlfriends, and a whole new social dynamic began. Girls were always around, but mainly to tease and throw snowballs at; nobody ever thought of them as people worthy of companionship. When guys in the clique started getting married, we were all in each other's wedding party. This was such a happy time with weddings coming at frequent intervals. I still keep in touch with two great friends from those days, and recently made contact with a new friend Joe who lived around the block from me. Sadly some are no longer with us, but I remember them with great affection.

A while ago I visited my old block in Brooklyn. My house on Somers Street and some of the familiar buildings were still there, but clearly the neighborhood had changed dramatically. Unlike Martin Scorsese, I found nobody I remembered, or who remembered me. There were no heads sticking out the windows, no kids playing stick ball in the street, no cop on the beat to help steer kids clear of trouble, and no little old man selling his hot knishes from a push cart. The school yard was quiet, no old men played Brisk on the stoop, no trucks lined up to deliver to Spinners Super Market, and no skinny guys in dungarees and tee shirts with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, combing their duck-tailed haircuts in the reflection of Louie's Candy Store window.

My East New York is gone, but it lives in my memory. If you've never lived in a neighborhood, it's hard to understand what it was like. I try, along with my friend Joe, who also writes of his days in the hood, DelBloggolo to give you a little glimpse once in a while.


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1 comment:

joe del broccolo said...

That old adage: "You can't go home" is so true, and so sad.
Another great blog old man.