Introduction of the 2009 Edition of "It Happened in
"How far away/Philadelphia P-A/Little
Rock A-R-K/How far away. . ." For weeks after seeing the 2008 revival of
"South Pacific," the song lingered -- its plaintive melody and musing
lyric going straight to the heart.
How easily it becomes "How far
away/Brooklyn, USA . . ." for the Brooklyn recalled in this book is also
far away, in time, if not distance. Actually "South Pacific" opened on
Broadway in 1949, during the era when It Happened in Brooklyn begins;
for many of the people interviewed here, it was the first Broadway show
they ever saw.
Already a work of memory when it was
composed more than fifteen years ago, It Happened in Brooklyn conjures
up a world that recedes ever more into the past, shrinking like images
seen through the wrong end of binoculars. Overwhelmingly a paean to a
particular past, it is a collective recollection of growing up in a
largely working and lower middle class environment bathed in the
optimistic glow of the post-war years. It describes an urban setting of
shared domestic spaces embraced by the warmth and security of extended
immigrant or first-generation-American families, enlivened by games
played on sidewalks and in gutters, marked by schools that were secure
and staffed with quality teachers, and enriched by the beaches, parks
and multitudinous attractions of New York City that were but a cheap and
safe subway ride away.
But as the story moves into the 1970's,
the storytellers -- now moving into adulthood -- confront a changed
Brooklyn of new demographics, declining neighborhoods, and rising social
instability. Many join the mass exodus to the suburbs, and the book ends
on a note of loss.
Brooklyn continues, however, and by the
mid 1990's as artists begin to stake claim to warehouse space in rundown
waterfront neighborhoods, a sense of renewal emerges. Young
professionals arrive in their wake, drawn to the urban life their
parents shunned. Attracted to historic brownstones in areas like Park
Slope, they begin the process of gentrification. Real estate operators
take a new look at the old borough. They buy up land in downtown
Brooklyn, Red Hook, and Greenpoint. Grandiose plans, from the
construction of a basketball stadium designed by Frank Gehry (on the
land Walter O'Malley wanted for his Brooklyn Dodgers) to high-rise
luxurious buildings overlooking the Coney Island boardwalk, are
projected with much fanfare. This is new Brooklyn -- hip, fashionable,
Urban blight has hardly evaporated. There
are still unsafe sections, looming low-income housing projects,
persistent poverty. But, at the same time, many neighborhoods are
thriving with new populations: Jamaicans, Haitians, Russians from the
former U.S.S.R. (who transformed the Brighton Beach area into Little
Odessa), Pakistanis, Lebanese, Chinese (the third largest Chinese
community in New York City), Puerto Ricans, Dominicans -- a wealth of
What happened in Brooklyn is but one
instance of what happened in American cities all over the nation as it
crossed into the new millennium. Only in Brooklyn everything is a little
more: starker, more dramatic, more defined. Perhaps because of the
shoreline, ever the grand entrance: the Atlantic Ocean moving into the
harbor with the Statue of Liberty at its apex, then turning right into
the East River. Perhaps because it is part of New York City, linked to
Manhattan by three bridges like bright necklaces in the night. Perhaps
because it was and remains such a popular point of disembarkation for
people coming to America from someplace else. Whatever the reason,
One of these days, we must go back. Cross
the Williamsburg Bridge and drive around the blocks of old tenements,
spot the warehouses that are now artists' studios, streak down Bedford
Avenue, pass the enclaves of Chassidic Jews who've been living in
Williamsburg since shortly after World War II, cross Flatbush Avenue and
turn down Ditmas Avenue. Cut through the heart of leafy Flatbush, its
side streets lined with big Dutch colonials, cross Ocean Avenue, Coney
Island Avenue, then Ocean Parkway where the bridle path is but a dim
memory. Turn left on McDonald Avenue where the elevator train still
roars overhead and right onto Bay Parkway. The big cemetery is on our
left. We pass it and go all the way down the big broad boulevard, almost
-- but not quite -- to the end, the end being Gravesend Bay just below
the Narrows. Before we get there, we turn left on Benson Avenue and
drive a few blocks to Bay 43rd Street.
We stop. Lafayette High School should be
here. The square orange building standing on a block all its own,
splendid in its isolation and simplicity. Behind are the playing fields
with the bleachers we were always raising money for but which weren't
installed until years after we graduated. In front is the broad
stairway where we'd hang out after classes, a bright white expanse
leading up to the entrance.
We'd heard there'd been problems. Violent
episodes. Low rates of graduation. It seems order could not be
maintained, and that city officials had decided that along with Tilden
High School, it was going to be closed down.
But, of course, we don't believe it.
# # #
You can reach
Harvey Frommer at:
About the Author:
Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,
Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath,
The Sporting News, among other publications.
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Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz Frommer are the authors of
five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth
College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage
in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
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