The Wilds of Canarsie

A brief aside before continuing with my stories:

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In order to better understand some of the events I’m describing, especially for those not familiar with Canarsie, I thought a map might be helpful. The small ‘x’ at the bottom is where my family lived – the small enclave jutting into Canarsie Park. When I was growing up we called it Seaview Park. This map shows that the park abutted the Belt Parkway. While it may have been parkland when I was growing up, it wasn’t in anyway improved, there were no ball fields or playgrounds; it was simply ‘the weeds.’ Now back to the story…..

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The general zeitgeist of the ’60s, and the sights and sounds unique to my neighborhood made for a childhood woven with strands of anxiety.

If you were a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City then you grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. Perhaps not everyone was as affected as I was, but that story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that we believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Coupled with the incredibly high crime rate, this made for a fear of potential victimization and perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy; a story we told ourselves.

I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course some of the television shows of that era, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on those story lines. My brothers weren’t helpful in comforting me. I likely didn’t share my fears since Mark in particular would look for any and every opportunity to tease me.

It was a time when once it got dark, we stayed inside. For as long as we lived in Canarsie, if an event or activity was going to end after dark, I had to have a specific plan for getting back to my front door. Since we had only one car this often meant that my father drove far and wide to pick me up. Fortunately, he did this with good humor and generosity. I’m pretty sure those limitations didn’t apply to my brothers.

The feeling of menace was heightened by our surroundings. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that ran along side the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, not a dare I was willing to risk.
Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If any of our cousins slept over, the roar of the jet engines took some getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

If the wind was right, coming from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine it carrying the smell of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was located along side the Belt Parkway, just past our exit and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Parkway. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were another constant part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, would often conspire to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.

12 thoughts on “The Wilds of Canarsie

  1. I can remember much of the same in Queens where I grew up. It was surely a very tough time in the city and it surely shaped all of us growing up there in ways we may not fully understand. Thank you. Glad to be away from the dump.

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  2. Linda, were we together when I stepped into quicksand in the nether regions of Canarsie Park? My entire foot was submerged! My father, as a child, roamed Canarsie with his pals and actually fell chest-deep into quicksand; he was pulled out and was soaked walking back to Brownsville. And it’s strange how, although we grew up in an area adjacent to a bay, we were not allowed to set foot in it. I used to walk the beach looking for arrowheads and identifiable rocks, but since I had been warned not to enter the water because of its toxins and the dreaded undertow, I never took the plunge. (No matter that I was warned not to walk the beach at all, for fear that I would encounter some evil there.)

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  3. Wonderful description of Canarsie but the three of you grew up to be such fine people, you had good schools and were loved by our extended family. But I had no idea of the feelings you had at the time. It was a very bad time and I remember that any time a siren went by I ran outside to see if our part of the city was burning.Really well written and so sad you felt so frightened

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  4. I’m sorry that you felt foreboding in your surroundings. Your neighborhood was so different from mine, it seemed exotic and exciting to me. If my memory is correct, the five of us (you, Mark, Steven, my brother Ira, and I) played “The Man from Uncle” in the weeds, even though I don’t think we were allowed to be there by our parents. I wasn’t aware of Kitty Genovese at the time, so the weeds weren’t scary to me. Your essay is so evocative, I can smell the dump, and hear the screeching seagulls and the sound of traffic from the Belt Parkway. But mostly I remember being outside and having fun with my brother and my cousins. I also think I watched Mark play basketball in Seaview Park. That may have been where Uncle Terry played softball too. It was so many years ago, I am not sure if my memories are accurate. Thanks for bringing these good times back for me.

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    1. I absolutely remember playing Man from Uncle – a happy memory for me, as well. I remember playing outside – perhaps in the park – but I don’t remember ever going into the weeds. Of course, that’s what’s great about sharing these stories – my memory is certainly not the whole story. Anyway, thanks for sharing and continuing to read these posts.

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  5. You write, “…I had to have a specific plan for getting back to my front door. Since we had only one car this often meant that my father drove far and wide to pick me up. Fortunately, he did this with good humor and generosity. I’m pretty sure those limitations didn’t apply to my brothers…” Actually, your assumption (for perhaps the first time) is not correct. I recall being in 9th Grade, our JHS BB team had the misfortune of winning a road basketball game (in East NY) and the home crowd responded by throwing objects at us and the entire team was backed into a utility closet, the police were called, the gym was cleared, and when we left to take the subway home…who was waiting by the gym door? Dad. This is the only time I recall his driving me from a game. Not sure how he knew he had to be there. But he was. And he drove me (and the rest of the team which could squeeze into the Impala) back to what I viewed as the safety and warmth of Canarsie. Although Dad was not exactly thrilled that our coach had left us…he did not complain about having to pick me up…..
    And your writing continues to delight me! Keep it up.

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