Brooklyn, New York, is the hippest place around, if you believe what you read in New York newspapers. It has been gentrified, rebuilt, and remodeled to exude an aura of cool chic. But it wasn’t always that way.
The block I lived on had a Damon Runyon feeling to it. The people were so colorful that they were almost caricatures. I remember an old woman always sitting on her “stoop,” in the summertime, who used to give me a penny to run down to the corner candy store and buy her a vanilla ice cream cone. I was thrilled to earn that much money for such a simple task!
A group of boys on our block appeared to be gangsters-in-training. Three of them were always together and hung out at the corner, next to the candy store. They looked tough, and engendered fear among us small folks who cowered at the sight of their swagger, their leather jackets, boots and chains and their “gangsta-talk.” Just a glance at their tough, unsmiling faces caused us fear, forcing us to detour around them.
One fall weekend my parents took my brother and me to Chinatown. We came home with some precious souvenirs: mine was a sugar cane almost five feet long.. I thought it would be a great curiosity to bring to school for “Show and Tell.” But to get to school I had to walk past the gangster-in-training hangout. “Hey, girlie,” one of the boys called out to me, “Can I have that stick?” My second grade self answered bravely while quivering inside, “It’s not a stick; it’s a sugar cane.” Did he know what a sugar cane was? Doubtful, but not wanting to reveal his ignorance in front of his fellow gangsters-in-training, he allowed me safe passage onward towards school.
I remember two little boys on the other far corner of the street, Chuckie and Joey, about 4 years old. They were once as cute as any toddlers you’ve ever seen. I don’t know what happened to those adorable children in so short a time, but very soon they grew up with the gangster-in-training look, and were soon terrorizing children on their end of the block.
The most poignant memory I have of living on Rogers Avenue was of a thirteen year old boy, Anthony, who drowned one afternoon while on a fishing trip. The story we heard was that he was afraid to take off his shoes when he fell off the boat for fear his mother would yell at him for losing them. So he was pulled down by the current, the heavy water-filled shoes making it impossible for him to float to the surface. The whole neighborhood turned out for his “wake,” the first one I’d ever attended, and the first dead body I’d ever seen. He was lying peacefully, all dressed up, hair perfectly combed, looking handsome as I’d ever seen him. I still envision that boy lying lifeless in the funeral parlor because he was afraid his mother would yell at him for losing his new shoes.
But that was before Brooklyn was so incredibly hip.
Comments on: "BEFORE HIPTOWN" (36)
Interesting stories (very sad about the boy). I went to Stuyvesant but sometimes hung out at my best friend’s school, Brooklyn Tech. Way back.
I’ll bet you have some interesting memories of those days…
Ronnie, though I spent most of my life – certainly my chosen years – on the east coast, I grew up on the west coast. I often felt as though I was misplaced there. Your reflections only serve to reinforce that. Nice stories!
I always felt that I didn’t fit in or belong there. But I was saved when we moved out of there when I was ten.
Sooo interesting, Ronnie-sweetie. What a great walk through the past. The story of the drowned boy is so sad, so poignant. I bet his mom would have gladly accepted the lost shoes versus losing her son. The irony is just too much. One of my close friends from high school lost his life on a motorcycle at age 17. He owned that bike for three weeks. It shocked the hell out of everyone. That was in the days before Irvine, CA became a Yuppy enclave of mega-rich people driving Jaguars and Mercedes vehicles. Back when it was nothing but delicious orange tree groves bordered by eucalyptus trees and fields of strawberries for miles and miles. In other words, the good old days. 🙂
The Good Old Days may not have all been as wonderful as we like to remember. Thanks for your comment, BigLizzy.
Never been to Brooklyn, but I’m teaching my kids to toughen up and dare to walk past the “gangster” types you mention – they even hang out in our pokey little village in the South of France. I’ve tried telling my kids that they are not tough, they’re just spotty youths with an inferiority complex, but they’re still scared.
I have never been sure whether this explanation is true. Some of the hang out kids might need extra money for nefarious activities we don’t want our children to know about.
My husband is from the Bronx. I think the caricatures were there too – and probably still are. I doubt that it is being touted as “hip.” Still, I thought he was a charmer right out of West Side Story way back when…… Great post! 🙂
It’s interesting what we thought was cool in those days, and what we would think of them now.
Childhood memories are wonderful things, Ronnie, and we all have our stories. Thanks for sharing yours.
You’re right; are you going to tell us about yours?
For that you’ll have to check my site for “Traditions”, “Snow”, and “A Letter to Santa”. I want to bring back the idea of old fashioned Christmases that were about home-made gifts and celebrating with friends and family, and ….., and all of that.
It’s interesting what happens to places and neighbourhoods, isn’t it? And why some become cool and others don’t.
Sociologists say that every neighborhood has a life span before it changes. I wonder where we are on the span of neighborhood life?
Interesting question …
Sounds as though we had very similar childhoods, Ronnie. Switch the setting to the Bronx, and everything else was pretty much the same. We even moved out when I was ten. I often wonder where all the Joeys and Chuckies have gone, not to mention the Janets and Pamelas. You described the tragedy of Anthony’s drowning perfectly. I couldn’t help but think of his mother and how many times she had to endure that story about his shoes.
We have something else in common: we also left when I was ten.
But there would never be a Pamela back then: maybe a Marsha, Judy or Joan.
The neighborhoods we grew up in shaped us. Ronnie, you paint vivid pictures of life growing up. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
Sometimes a memory occurs to you and a whole group of memories come rushing back. Thanks for your comment, Judy.
Those childhood memories stay with us forever! Nice post. 🙂
They do, and once in a while they come flooding back.
The memories of yesteryear… so wonderfully frightening… I loved this post…
I’ll bet you have some interesting tales of life in South Africa as a boy…
I am actually writing a book about it… with 85 000 words already down and not near finished, it is going to need a big red pen on editing…
Maybe you can publish it in two volumes. From birth to 18, and the adult years.
How sad. I lived in Brooklyn in my twenties and then again ten years ago, but I grew up on a farm outside of Albany, NY. In our school the ganster was a guy who smoked outside on break. He later became a policeman. And one girl got pregnant and it was a real scandal. It was an Irish Catholic area and things were different there and then.
It’s interesting how much things change, but although progress rules, there’s a nostalgia we all have for the good old days.
You’re breaking my heart, but couldn’t help notice the gangsters-in-training are wearing suits . . . just saying
You’re too observant, but correct. I looked for a picture on google images and this was the closest one I could find of three guys hanging out on a street corner. As a second grade child at the time, I did not have any authentic photos….
People change over time, so do places. But we will always have the memories. A taut piece of writing, Ronnie.
Thanks, Uzo. If you had written this there would be mystery, intrigue and excitement lurking around every corner!
Great post, beautifully written. Thanks so much.
‘Glad you enjoyed it.Thanks for commenting, Ann.
I’m sure my mother can relate to this and has her own wonderful memories of growing up in Brooklyn. Funny how it has become so “hip,” when it always was! Nice post.
Thanks, Lisa. Although I am not quite sure whether I would call those memories “wonderful.” I moved out of Brooklyn when I was 10.