Monday, April 18, 2011

Brooklyn's Champs-Élysées

A while back I wrote about Atlantic Avenue, one of the neighborhood streets that holds a lot of memories for me. Another is the majestic Eastern Parkway, a broad, tree-lined boulevard that starts around Bushwick Avenue and winds its way through a tangle of ethnic neighborhoods before ending at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park. When I was growing up in the Fifties, a drive along Eastern Parkway was our answer to a stroll along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The multi-laned street carried traffic from downtown Brooklyn to the Interboro (now called Jackie Robinson) Parkway, and along Atlantic Avenue onto the Belt and Southern State Parkways to the promised land, Long Island.

Eastern Parkway was the world's first six-lane highway, completed in 1874. It had divider islands that separated the main traffic lanes from the local streets. These were planted with beautiful trees and paved with grey stones, and we stood on them waiting for the light to change. For a kid, crossing Eastern Parkway was a big deal, and our parents would have had fits if they knew we were so bold as to try. Brownstone houses, apartment buildings, retail shops and storefront churches lined both sides of the street. In my time, Jews were the primary residents of the area with a scattering of Blacks. A few Orthodox Jews still stubbornly hang on in the Crown Heights section, and an uneasy peace exists between them and the Blacks, who are now the dominant culture.

I spent a good part of my 'yout' just off Eastern Parkway in Callahan and Kelly Park on Truxton Street. We walked from home and sometimes stopped off at the candy store to pick up a new Spaldeen ball, or maybe a bat from the broom factory where they sold thick, red or blue broom handles for fifteen cents. These made perfect stickball bats. We played at the handball courts, where an outline of home plate was painted the height of the strike zone. This was a good variation on street stickball because it only required two kids, a pitcher and a hitter. The area was enclosed by a chain-link fence, and depending where the batted ball hit the fence, it would be a single, double, triple or home run.

Heading along Eastern Parkway toward downtown Brooklyn, we'd pass the live chicken market. I always held my breath to avoid a choking smell that still lingers in my nightmares. There was a junk yard fronted by a run-down store window decorated with hub caps. They sold used car parts...remember this was in the day when people actually repaired their own cars. If you zigged off Eastern Parkway near Carlucci's restaurant where we ate after attending funerals, you could visit Our Lady of Loreto Church on Pacific and Sackman Streets, where I was baptized. There was Miranda's Beer Distributor where my father bought cases of Rhiengold and Piels beer for family celebrations. Farther down was the Eastern Parkway Arena where prize fights were held on Friday nights, and at other times it was used as a roller skating rink.

There were a number of nightclubs along Eastern Parkway, including one whose name escapes me, across from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. This club was patronized mostly by Blacks, and featured top-name entertainment. I went there a couple of times and, while I felt nervous being one of the few white guys at the bar, it was worth it to see acts like the Platters on stage. There was also a small Cabaret whose claim to fame was a real piano mounted on the roof above the doorway. This fascinated me and I went out of my way to look for it every time we drove by. Eastern Parkway ended at the Grand Army Plaza circle near the Brooklyn Museum and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. We just visited a Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Museum last week. Going back there is like time-traveling and somehow makes me feel young again.

I came across a website NewYork/BrooklynOld.htm that contains so many pictures of places in Brooklyn  that, unlike the Brooklyn Museum, are long gone. It gave me such pleasure to look at them because it's who I am. One of the nicest associations I have of the area is from a street that begins where Eastern Parkway ends...Union Street. It was there that a special girl with a small gap in her front teeth grew up at 909 Union Street. Before we were married I 'd drive along Eastern Parkway to pick her up for our dates. When we returned, her father was waiting at the second story window to be sure we didn't linger too long over our goodnights. Thank you Eastern Parkway for Callahan-Kelly Park, the skating rink, the piano on the roof, and for the best friend I have in the world.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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