Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Brooklyn Childhood 1958-1965

It was my fate to be born into a Brooklyn facing its first spring without the Dodgers. I always felt a little cheated. I never experienced the rush of green on emerging from the dark corridors of Ebbets Field into the stands. I never heard the wild rooting of Hilda Chester or the joyful, dissonant sounds of the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, and by the time I was aware of the Giants, they were just a team on a faraway coast, not the hated rivals from across the river. I left Brooklyn early (I was only seven), but to me the experience was a profound one, as my earliest impressions of the world were formed while I was there. If my readers will indulge me, I would like to share a few of those moments here – fragmentary and incomplete as they are.


Demolition of Ebbets Field in 1960, less than a mile from where I lived on Lincoln Place. In what today seems a perverse and needlessly cruel gesture, the wrecking ball was painted to look like a baseball, and Dodger players were invited to witness the desecration.


My world as a child was limited to the block of Lincoln Place between Rochester and Buffalo Avenues in the Crown Heights neighborhood, where our four-story brick apartment building was. The block was bookended by two synagogues: a simple brick one on our end of the street (which became a Baptist church by the time we left) and a grand one at the other end and around the corner, where we would go for the High Holy Days (now also a church). The next street over was St. John’s Place, the nearest commercial artery. This was where most of the shopping got done, where one got a haircut, shopped for groceries, or had one’s shoes repaired. There was bookstore next to the Key Foods where my mother brought me after shopping. I was encouraged to pick out one book. I usually chose a Dr. Seuss, “The Cat In The Hat”, “Green Eggs and Ham”. There was also a fabulous knish restaurant whose name I regretfully cannot remember.

When I started going to school, my world expanded several blocks to take in the walk to P.S. 191 on Park Place. This took me past the magnificent Congress Theater on St. John’s Place, designed by noted theater architect Charles Sanblom. It was there that I saw films like "101 Dalmatians" and "The Ten Commandments". While I loved the movies we saw there, of course, it was the building itself that fascinated me: the brightly lit marquee at night, the grand lobby. Once, on my way to school, I noticed that the side door on Buffalo Avenue had been left open. I walked in and just stood there in the darkened theater among the plush red seats. It was a strangely delicious feeling.

The Congress Theater in 1958, the year I was born. I do not know the gentleman in the photograph.

Ethnically, ours was what was euphemistically called by some a "neighborhood in transition”. Our block had secular Jews and a few Hasidic Jews (though the Hasidim mostly lived farther down Eastern Parkway), African-Americans, and people we called “Spanish”, though if you called them that they would explain that they were from a place called “Puerto Rico". Our best friends were a black family who lived at the other end of the block. The father was a New York City policeman, and a rather exotic creature – an African-American who had converted to Judaism (the rest of his family had not joined him on his quixotic spiritual path).

It is amazing to me today, in the world of “play dates”, bicycle helmets, and highly supervised activities just how free a child’s world was back then. As long as you stayed within the geographic bounds of the terrain, stayed out of trouble, and were home for supper, you could pretty much do as you pleased. This was particularly true in the summer, when school was out and the nights were long. People came out on the stoops and brought cold drinks and transistor radios. They watched each others kids. This freedom allowed us to create a world in which adults mostly did not intrude. We could ride our bikes and play in the narrow alley next to our building as long as we didn't make too much noise (there was a lady on the fourth floor who would threaten to pour boiling water on us if we got too loud). I was also warned to stay out of the subterranean passage where someone called “the Super” lived. That wasn't much of a problem because it always smelled funny down there. (This smell was later explained to me as something called “whiskey”).

The Dodgers were gone, but there was baseball everywhere. Nearby Lincoln Terrace Park had a grass field where Police Athletic League games were held, and there was a blacktop softball diamond with painted baselines where local teams played. (These were serious games played for money – the blacktop did not stop players from sliding). For the older kids there was stickball, of course. And the Mets, in the early thralls of their ineptitude, and newly installed in the Polo Grounds, were being watched on black and white rabbit-eared TV sets by former Dodger fans like my father. It was in trying to fathom my father’s world while he watched these games that my education on baseball, and more importantly – baseball history – began.

Other fragmentary memories: Playing checkers and hearing the strange sounds of Yiddish at my grandparents' apartment on Park Place; Memorial Day parades on Eastern Parkway my father chasing a mugger through the alley; taking a subway car with cane seats to the Botanic Garden; the grandeur of the war memorial, library and Brooklyn Museum; the six-sided cobblestones of Prospect Park; hearing something strange on the bakelite radio in the kitchen and telling my mother that I think someone just shot the president.

The doors of P.S. 191 were formidable indeed to this six-year-old.


Brooklyn was also the beginning of the other fascination of my life: popular music. My best friend on the block, Tommy Newsome, was obsessed about a group of singers from England called the Beatles. He harangued me until I listened to them on the radio, and I quickly agreed that it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. Tommy and I would stand around the front stoop of one of the two-family houses next to my building and mime the drums and guitars while we shouted out the words. Soon after that my father came home from work and casually gave me a package: a shiny new copy of “Meet The Beatles”.

In April 1965, there was really exciting news. The mother of one of my friends agreed to take a group of us to one of Murray The K’s rock & roll shows at the Fox Theater in downtown Brooklyn. Murray Kaufman was a colorful radio personality who immodestly referred to himself as "the Fifth Beatle". The headliner was Gerry & The Pacemakers, another Liverpool group. It wasn’t the Beatles, but it was close. But as we approached the Fox in the car there was a scene of chaos, with girls screaming hysterically and running through the streets. My friend’s mother panicked, turned the car around, and took us back to the apartment building where she lived to wait it out until she could take us home. The girls played with dolls. I sulked. It would be many more years before my first rock concert. The apartment building? Ebbets Field Houses, the projects built on the hollowed ground where the Boys of Summer had once roamed.

Things were changing fast. There was the Blackout. John Lindsay was elected mayor. Tommy Newsome’s family was moving to someplace called “Long Island”. And soon it was announced that we were planning on going to New Jersey, which the other kids called “the country”. I'll cover that next month…


The sign on the marquee tried to put the best face on things by saying only "Temporarily Closed". But the Brooklyn Fox closed in 1966 and was demolished in 1971.

Our flannel special this month is the 1915 Federal League Brooklyn Tip-Tops road jersey. It is available for $99 for a limited time.

18 comments:

  1. Love the flashbacks Jerry. Keep 'em comin'.

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  2. As a police officer walking my beat on Carroll St, and around the Ebbets Field Housing Projects in 1988, I only imagined how beautiful that area was 35 yrs prior. The tenament court yards which once had water shooting from it's center had now only become a trash receptacle. It was nice to imagine - but I didn't have that much time to do that since shots were always being fired on President St.

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  3. Wow. What a story! I was hanging on every word, so well written and interesting. I've been eyeing those Tip-Top jerseys for a while, it might be time to pick one up.

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  4. I loved your "old" New York City history. As a kid growing up in Washington Heights, I was an avid Giants fan, since the Polo Grounds were only a few blocks from my apartment house. If you lived in Manhattan, you loved the Giants, hated the Dodgers and despised the Yankees. I remember to this day where I was when Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world"! Your memories of Ebbetts Field were great and there was another thing, which you couldn't know since you never saw a game there, if a player hit a sign in the outfield of Ebbetts Field belonging to a New York haberdasher named Abe Stark, he got a new suit for free. I was a young immigrant kid in New York City and I loved every minute I lived there,from PS 173, to JHS 115 and finally, Stuyvesant High School. The irony of this whole story is that I now live in San Francisco and watch the giants wearing my old NY Giants cap and the fans don't even have a clue about the cap, usually mistaking it for a Mets cap. Go figure. Anyway, keep your comments coming, I'm a fan of your writing and your company. I own one of your New York Rovers Hockey sweaters and love wearing it to San Jose Sharks games. It blows their minds.

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  5. Wow!!!!! What a memory blast for me. I am a tad bit older (1951) but your references to Murray the K, subway cars , neighborhoods (Midwood and Marne Park for me) and schools (PS193 The Gil Hodges School) really brought me back to a great childhood.

    Please keep your passion for making outstanding jerseys and please see what you can do about my two back ordered jerseys. lol.

    Jerry Meyerowitz
    Tucson, AZ

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  6. Small world. Lived on Lincoln Place and Washington Ave, then Lincoln and Bedford Ave 1962-69 (was 7-14). Bedford apartment was just up the hill from Ebbets Field. Best memories were hanging around the Brooklyn Museum, the library on Grand Army Plaza and Prospect Park. Maybe we passed on the street!
    Thanks for the story.
    Steve G.

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  7. Great Story Jerry,

    We can both relate ... I myself was born in Feb 1956 right after the Dodgers first Championship ... The deep scar left as a result of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn continues to this day.

    But I fortunate to have been told vivid stories of what it was like when the Dodgers ruled Brooklyn by my father, grandfather and other older folks in what was truly a nostalgic period.

    During the Dodger games, you could hear Red Barber's voice for miles during broadvcasts.

    Years later I can remember the Dodgers coming into New York to play the Mets during the 60's in front of sell-out crowds ... truly amazing.

    It is great to see the recent revival occuring in Brooklyn today.

    Funny to see a recent groundbreaking for the Brooklyn Nets new indoor arena is on the land originally proposed for the Dodgers way back when ... Oh well!

    Here's hoping to see a Brooklyn Dodger jersey on your website.

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  8. Great story & pictures! I was born at 276 Buffalo Avenue (at St Johns Place) in 1955, attended PS 191 for kindergarten, and not only saw my first movie at the Congress, but my grandmother had been the cashier there in earlier years! My entire family, it seemed, lived within a few blocks of us, between St Johns and Eastern Parkway. Thanks for the look back.
    Paul

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  9. What a small and beautiful world. I was born in Kings County Hospital and attended 191. I remember Mr. Ludwig, the principal.

    Omigosh, that school was huge to me. I traveled through that area a year or two ago which is not too cool these days but I could not resist the temptation to see 191 again which looks a lot smaller to me now.

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  10. This Memorial Day morning, I have now read your post three times.

    The Brooklyn we grew up to know and love no longer exists except in our hearts, memories and in your post.

    Just yesterday my grandson sat next to me in Marine Park finishing an old school ice cream cone as I regaled him with tales of Dead Man's Hill (Lincoln Terrace).

    I forgot the Congress Theater, oh yes and the Spanish people who were from that strange land.

    Again, thank you.

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  11. I came across this site while doing a search for PS 191, my first school. I grew up on Lincoln Place (Buffalo & Ralph Aves), around the corner from Lincoln Terrace park. I remember Mr. Ludwig, the principal; also Mr.Gang and Miss Boyce, two assistant principals. There was a wonderful music teacher there named Mrs. Burns who had a great influence on me. Those were great times.

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  12. haha.there was clearly a cheap nhl jerseys blossom from the leave in which all had been dried and unhappy seeking...

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  13. Hi Jerry: I don't remember you, but it is possible that I was part of the Afrikan American family that you described in the story. I lived at 1501 Lincoln Place between Rochester and Buffalo (in the middle of the block.) My father had indeed converted to Judaism and the rest of my family hadn't (although I did a short time later, I would practice Judaism for 17 years before embarking on other spiritual quests. My father was not a policeman, he was a Correction Officer. My mother was a Probation Officer. I had 2 younger sisters, and we all went to PS 191. I remember Mr. Ludwig, Mr. Gang and Mrs. Boyce, and Mrs. Burns taught me to play bass violin (which I play to this day.) I played in the alleyway that you describe and raided the fruit trees in our neighbor’s backyards. The apartment building that you described had a super named Mr. King, who often loaded the kids on the block into his station wagon and took us to Heckster State Park on Long Island. He took in homeless people and let them live in the huge basement. We didn't call them homeless then, we called them winos, which is why the place probably smelled of alcohol. They were good people, despite their affliction. My favorite among them was a pair named Aaron and Shorty. And yes, I played in Lincoln Terrace Park. In fact, Aaron saved me from being jumped by a group of boys in that park. We moved on Lincoln Place in 1955 and moved away to East Flatbush in 1968.

    I would like you to contact me. My email is sespruiell@aol.com

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    Replies
    1. Every once in a while I do a search to try to find out what became of Mrs. Burns. I grew up on Lincoln Place also (1560, between Buffalo and Ralph), went to 191 from 1962-1967; Mrs. Burns taught my brother and I the violin - he went on to play the bass, while I settled on keyboards (piano, organ, synth), and we both play to this day. She was a huge influence on both of us. Those were special times.

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  14. Nice post time to get the cat in the hat books lol https://goo.gl/LqlE0P

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  15. I lived at 1539 sterling place. I remember a Peter and Roger.The year was 1963 and 1964.I went to PS 191.Remember mrs. Epstein Mrs. Weber Mrs. Bennett

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