Duck and Cover
Book Excerpt - Prologue
Before it was the borough of Park Slope Parents vs. Williamsburg Hipsters, Brooklyn was regarded as a lesser suburb of Manhattan and, unlike tonier Long Island, Westchester, or Connecticut, it only cost 15 cents to get there. Before I was born my parents actually looked at homes in Levittown, a planned community with a special attraction for WW II veterans who wanted to own their own homes. After driving an hour to get there, however, and finding that it offered nothing more than our home borough (but with higher property taxes and houses that all looked alike) they turned right around and never looked for a home outside Brooklyn again.
“Why would you ever choose to travel such a long time to get to work every day when we have parks, stores and good schools right here?”, my Mother would say whenever she heard about anyone planning to leave Brooklyn for Long Island.
The clincher for them was that we could walk to everything we needed in our own neighborhood - not having to drive in a car to get groceries was especially important to my Mother who didn’t learn to drive until my sister and I were much older.
“We have the best of everything here and we even used to be our own city before we allowed them to demote us to a Borough,” my Father would say proudly whenever I’d ask him to tell me about why we lived in Brooklyn.
“We even had out own baseball team for a long time,” he’d add wistfully.
Although I never lived here when it had been a city unto itself, I do remember when we had the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and more churches and synagogues per square mile than any other city on earth, or so it said in our history textbooks.
The families who lived in or moved to Brooklyn after World War II were, by and large, the children of immigrants whose families had left the now-really-cool neighborhoods called “Tribeca”, and “Nolita”, but which they knew only as The Lower East Side. These neighborhoods were often their first stop in the United States, but they didn’t stay long. Many of those families ran to Brooklyn from the mean concrete and tar streets of Manhattan as soon as they could save enough money to do so.
They loved their borough, their home neighborhood, and their country - in that order.
If they wanted to return to Manhattan to see old friends who hadn’t made it across the Brooklyn Bridge yet, the subway fare was low and the cars were clean and safe to ride. In fact, as if to prove its status as the most liveable of the five boroughs, signs in our local subway stop on Ave. U didn’t read:
To Manhattan -----------
---------To Coney Island
Most Brooklynites didn’t go back to “The City”, too often, though, because everything they could ever want was found in their home borough.
The neighborhoods hadn’t yet become diversified, but Brooklyn always was a multi-cultural melting pot. Although each ethnic group hyphenated its name and added American after the hyphen, they retained the flavor, food and traditions of the places their parents or grandparents had come from. There were Irish, Germans and Greeks in Bay Ridge, Italians in Bensonhurst and Gravesend, Black people from the Caribbean and the South in Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Downtown Brooklyn and Coney Island, Scandinavians in Sunset Park, Jewish people of many ethnic backgrounds in Brighton Beach and Flatbush, etc. and so on.
In the 1950's and ‘60's you could walk from one neighborhood to the next and experience many different foods and ethnic stores without ever leaving Brooklyn, and we did. As a child, I loved the special butter cookies from “Olsen’s Bakery” in Sunset Park and the hand made knishes from Schatzkin’s in Coney Island just as much as the Sicilian (we called it “square”) pizza from our neighborhood Italian bread store at lunch time.
We even learned in elementary school that my particular neighborhood, Gravesend, had been originally settled by the Dutch, the first ethnic group to arrive before the English established themselves in New York in the 1600's. The Lady Moody House was mentioned in our 4th grade textbook about the history of New York and as students we were filled with pride when the text said that it still stood not far from P.S. 95, my old elementary school. While the house is still there, it, like Brooklyn is very different, but, in some ways, still the same.
I decided to write this memoir almost two decades ago when my daughter returned from a summer program studying Italian in Padova, Italy. While there, she lived not in a dorm, but with an Italian professor from the local University and her son in their apartment. When she returned she told me that in that small Italian city not far from Venice, people still sat outside in the evening and everyone got to know each other - both locals and visitors - from sitting, strolling and talking in the piazzas after dinner when the heat of the day was waning. She said that she finally understood a little bit of what it had been like for me and my sister, growing up in Brooklyn and playing outside until bedtime in the summer. She told me of her experiences in Padova a bit wistfully and I realized then that it was my job to let my children and grandchildren know that life in our city wasn’t always the same as it is experienced today. Studying history is vital, but first you must know your own personal history, and Brooklyn is a large part of my family’s personal chronicle. I knew I’d be remiss as a Mom and a Nana if I didn’t try to share that story with my family and, hopefully, with you.
If you, like an incredible 25% of all Americans, can trace any part of your roots to Brooklyn...if you live in Brooklyn now...are thinking of moving here...or if you’ve only heard of Brooklyn and want to know what it was like then:
“Andiamo!” - Let’s Go!
We’ll travel back there together, just you and I.
And Buon Viaggio!!
I hope you enjoy the trip!
Rosemary Neri Villanella
April 8, 2016