Who Woulda Ever Thought?

“Look at this,” my husband said, pointing to the Sunday NY Times’  “36 Hours in…” feature. This week it’s Brooklyn. Yes, Brooklyn. Who woulda ever thought, is right.

I first knew of Brooklyn by way of warning. “If a boy ever wants to take you to Coney Island,” my mother intoned, “don’t go on the Cyclone. He’ll just want you to snuggle up next to him.”

When I first moved to New York City in ’78, my roommates and I couldn’t afford Manhattan. But we could afford Brooklyn Heights. We had the bottom apartment of a five-story brownstone. It consisted of one huge bedroom, which we shared; a teeny kitchen; a living room with a parquet floor that gave way to a private garden (ours); a wrought iron spiral staircase leading up to a loft overlooking the living room; one and a half baths. It was an incredible apartment. The three of us scrimped each month to meet the $900 rent.

I fell in love with Brooklyn. Our street — Sidney Place — ran a single block between Joralemon and State. The church bells across the street were deep and resonant; every once in a while there was a wedding. The Promenade was a part of my morning run. I loved looking at the Statue of Liberty each morning and the World Trade Center’s soaring towers. The Heights’ main drag — Montague Street — had a hippie leather shop whose items I lusted after. With the first freelance check I received, I ordered an editor’s satchel. It held manuscripts in those days. Today it holds my laptop.

During those early morning jogs, I fantasized about living on Grace Court or in one of the stables that had been turned into co-ops. There were the fruit salad streets of Pineapple and Orange. One morning I happened upon the street where a college friend had lived. She boasted that her middle name was Prince. “Like Prince Street. In Manhattan.” Back then, Brooklyn was still just a borough. Manhattan ruled all.

Soon after moving to New York, I met the man who would become my husband. He was from Brooklyn. Natch. Our first date he took me to Coney Island. We rode the Cyclone. And yes, I dove into his embrace as the roller coaster’s rickety cars careened on tracks that pre-dated my mother’s own romances.

One day he showed me a watercolor he’d purchased some years before. It was of a street scene in Brooklyn. The title? Sidney Place, 1941. You can see my brownstone, halfway down on the right. We have a word for this in Yiddish — beshert. It roughly translates as “meant to be.”

Transferred to Michigan on the cusp of becoming parents, we returned to Brooklyn twice a year. I had a love-hate relationship with the borough in those days. The trips were a trial: long car rides with cranky children (in one day no less!); the sirens that awoke my son as soon as I settled him from the last one’s shrieking; schlepping to one relative after another. There was the drunk we wanted to shoot. For four hours straight he stood on the sidewalk beside our building shouting, “Marecon, I kill your mother! Marecon I kill your father!” We never found out what a marecon was but the kids learned that “assho…” was not a vocabulary word they could use.

Those trips wove us all closer, drew us deep into the fabric of my husband’s past — the first cousins he played with like siblings; the aunts, uncles and cousins who were Holocaust survivors. Their accents, and the taste of apple cake and more, are imprinted upon our kids’ memories. I am glad for the pools we swam in and the stories of Ring-a-levio and Stoop Ball and Iron Tag. Suburban kids, Elliot and Emma not only got a slice of city life but planted deep within them is a rich period of post-World War II Brooklyn. People had little materially but possessed everything that makes for life well lived: love, determination, sorrow and tragedy, family loyalty, sheaves and sheaves of stories. Year after year we returned adding rings to our family history. Seders, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals.

And yes, we took them to Coney Island, to the aquarium and into the area’s little Russia. We rode the Cyclone and walked the Boardwalk. We took them to the places of our courtship — the Brooklyn Museum and Botanic Gardens, Prospect Park. We went to Nathan’s for hot dogs; the neighborhood was rough but the dogs were great. Our kids are city savvy from those visits. As my son once said, “Michigan is home but New York is our roots.”

Emma moved to Manhattan after she graduated college. Brooklyn is out of reach for her at the moment. The borough is way hip now. I can’t even imagine the rent my old apartment would fetch. But Emma heads to Brooklyn every chance she gets. She dreams of moving there one day. Just last week she sent pictures from Coney Island where she traipsed the length of the boardwalk, lunched at a restaurant owned by Russians and stalked through the snow-covered beach. It comforts me to know that if I can’t have her in Michigan, I know she’s in a place that feels like home.

I still sometimes fantasize about living in a brownstone on Grace Court. Thirty six hours in Brooklyn? Better you take a lifetime.

Have I left you hungering for more? Here are three great books about Brooklyn:
It Happened in Brooklyn
When Brooklyn Was the World 1920 – 1957
When You’re from Brooklyn, Everything Else is Tokyo

And here is a photo of the beach — Coney Island like I never saw it.

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26 thoughts on “Who Woulda Ever Thought?

  1. Verne

    I loved reading this. Isn’t it interesting how things change, but come back into our lives in different ways.

  2. Cindy L

    Ah, now I know more about where you got that wonderful accent of yours. Never been to Brooklyn, but would love to see it one day … And Emma’s beach photo is gorgeous!

  3. Debra

    Oh no! The accent you hear isn’t Brooklyn! Unless you’re thinking Martin. Mine holds the barest trace of Georgia. But yes, It’s worth a trip to get a sense of the place. And yes, wasn’t the beach photo great? Soon a post about what Emma is doing with her art.

  4. Judy Bardach

    Wish my New York neighborhood memories were so rich. When your mother and I were little girls Brooklyn was old and far away, where people talked like character actors in the movies. The Bronx had been farmland a generation earlier and the building we lived in wasn’t much older than we were. The apartment buildings like ours were built to impress and 2720 Grand Concourse where we lived for so many years looked like a castle with a huge marble floored lobby, two elevators and even a switchboard, though I never saw it in use. There were dumbwaiters which were boarded closed early on when management discovered that they could deliver not only groceries from the basement entrance on 196th street but thieves as well.
    Some years ago a picture was published on the front page of the NY Times magazine with the legend “the toughest police precinct in The Bronx.” It was the view I saw from my bedroom window. Since then I understand it’s been gentrified. Though our apartment was large and comfortable I could never feel the nostalgia your Brooklyn created in you, though I have had dreams all my adult life of getting off the bus at the Concourse and 196th Street and trying to go home to apartment 210.

  5. Debra

    What memories, Aunt Judy! I remember that apartment building. What a story about the dumbwaiter. I have had dreams of returning to the house I grew up in in Atlanta. Home. An eternal siren call.

  6. Judi A.

    I have only been to NYC once and fell in love with it the moment my feet hit the pavement. In my soul I’m a big city girl, but have never had the privilege of living IN a big city. Closest I came is a suburb of Detroit and working inner city. Fell in love with Detroit and its people then, and like yours, my children learned to navigate their way around Detroit and have some great memories from there. We each venture back sporadically and cherish the part of us that is Detroit.

  7. brooklyn gary

    Brooklyn, especially Williamsburg is the super hot real estate place, which but for a river and a few highways, is adjacent to Manhattan, supplanting Hoboken as the new IN place to live. The young kids love it, like Manhattan, like Hoboken and the rest. But of course, they have no cars. Once you have a car in Brooklyn paradise is lost. Now there was a time when NYC trains and buses ran like a continuous amusement park ride, every minute an empty one came along. But now there are that many more people, and that much less mass transportation. End result, more cars. And even more cars, and then a few more. You get the point. You have brownstone owners that illegally build a garage into their street level apartment taking away curbside parking. You have alternate side of the street parking Mondays and Thursdays, Tuesdays and Fridays. I’ll let you explain that mishagoss to your friends, but don’t forget the Boro Park exception on Fridays. And then a stop sign or traffic light at each and every corner, which you can only get to by slaloming a block full of double parked cars, trucks, bicycles, and people standing in the street. You also get to play “Circle the Neighborhood” where arriving home at 1:00 a,m, or later, with everyone else tucked warmly in, you search for about an hour for that one last parking space which your car fits in. The open one right in front is only a teaser half space. And the occasional car buried in the winter snow for weeks. It’s good to be young in the city, any city. You cook for one or go out to eat, or grab a slice on your way home. No shopping for four or five. No steamer trunk size packages of mega price warehouse paper towels and TP to load into your truck. The dry cleaners, dentist, market, fruit store, pharmacy and news stand are all within a few minutes walk so life is indeed sweet. Just this past Friday night I had a conversation with a few Brooklynites and we all agreed that any one that ever grew up in Brooklyn wouldn’t trade that in for any other life. As you had your fond memories we all did too. But of course we all now live in suburbia. Brooklyn or the car. Take your pick. I picked the car. How long would it take to get to your supermarket if every corner had a stop sign or red light? Try this next time out. Exercising extreme caution to not get slammed into, stop at every intersection, if only for a second or two as if it were atop sign, andmaybe 45 seconds for a red light every 4th one. See how long it takes you vs. your regular run time, and keep your eye on your average mileage gauge. With apologies to GBS, youth is a wonderful thing, it’s good that the it’s spent in Brooklyn. OK, so I have to ask if my blog name was any inspiration at all? Huh, admit it! OK, NOT! Youse canall fuhgeddabodit.

  8. Elissa Schwartz

    With my son, Jared, living in Brooklyn while he attends the Pratt Institute, I find myself in Brooklyn several times a year. We have never wandered more than a few blocks from campus, but I have wanted to go to the Botanical Gardens, which I understand is beautiful. I did go to Coney Island once several years ago and walking on the boardwalk was incredible! Your post has encouraged me to venture further than the areas directly around Pratt. You have wonderful memories, Debra, and thanks for sharing!

  9. Debra

    Milhan, So you remember the leather store, too! Way cool. And you lived on Grace Court. I was just in love with that little block. Or maybe what I was in love with were the fantasies of “What if?”

  10. Debra

    Beth, How wonderful to have both girls in the same borough. Heck, I’d settle for having both of mine in the same state. With or without me!

  11. K

    Hey (or yo) roomie. I also won’t forget how, in 1978 and 9, the Greek-American waiters and cooks in (now closed) Mr. Souvlaki on Montague two blocks north of us would make us laugh and give us free food (oh that moussaka) …and how the Lebanese- and Arab-Americans on Atlantic Avenue two blocks south of us would beckon and welcome into shop and restaurant to proffer hummus, lamb-and-pine-nut filled tri-corner pastries, olives, baklava… Do you also remember the crafty gift shop at the corner of Henry and Atlantic? What was it called? Hmm. I spent more than a few weekend afternoons 30 years ago window-shopping there, strolling to antique and second-hand stores eastward along Altantic, and tasting Italian pastry on Clinton and Court in the neighborhoods to the south… XOXO

  12. Debra

    Kimothy! Yes yes and yes. I remember Mr. Souvlaki and the Lebanese restaurants and the antique stores. I still have the glass fronted bookcase that I bought on Atlantic Ave! I’ve passed on your note to Emma.

  13. Debra

    Back again,

    I cannot believe al the comments and exuberance for this post! Thank you thank you all for sharing your memories and adding your stanzas to this love song to Brooklyn.
    And Emma, thank you for all the great images of Brooklyn.
    Want to see more of Emma’s great photos and artwork? Go to emmadarvick.com. Or check out her store at etsy.com!

  14. Debra

    Milan sent an update about the leather store where I bought my wonderful satchel. In fact he said he found this post in a search for the leather store! It’s still in business, in New Hope, PA. Check out his designs at fredeisenleather.com.
    And three cheers for Mr. Souvlaki’s roasted taters!

  15. Linda Anger

    What a wonderful tale, Debra! I’ve never been to Brooklyn, but next time I go to visit my siblings in Jersey, I will make the trip! Thanks for making it enticing.

  16. Debra

    Just saw A Jew Grows in Brooklyn. A wonderful one-man show by Jake Ehrenreich. All about growing up in Brooklyn, child of HOlocaust survivors, trying with all his might to just be an American kid. Hysterically tears-running-down- my-face funny, poignant, beautiful. Had a great run on Broadway and now he’s touring. If he’s in your area, GO!! You’ll love it.

  17. Debra

    I heard from a friend whom I met at Ragdale a number of years ago. She sent a poem reminiscent of this blog post. Thank you, Meridith Trede.
    This is from a manuscript of persona poems titled Tenement Times about the NY City building/neighborhood where I grew up, my parents’ home from 1941 to 1977. It was published in West Branch.

    A New Law Tenement—1941

    Red-brown brick, five floors, ten apartments
    a floor. Windows see the sky in every room,
    each apartment boasts its own toilet,
    the dumbwaiter lifts groceries up, takes trash
    down, backyard roses climb cyclone fencing,
    an Italian super grows tomatoes.
    On steamy summer days card tables prop
    front doors wide open, the tar-beach roof
    bounces back a dark tan, a fire escape’s
    a lookout on the kids. The higher the floor
    the lower the rent. Anyone can use
    the laundryroom. Clotheslines crisscross
    the alley where cats howl, pigeons flutter,
    and secrets echo in the narrow air.

  18. Jane

    Thank you for sharing this. My Great-grandparents owned 34 Sidney Place and lived there in 1941. 🙂

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