I arrive at the corner of Bleecker and Sixth Avenue with a decision to make: continue clearing out Aunt Clair’s apartment or head home. I take a breath after running around to three banks to close out Clair’s accounts and dropping off her cable equipment. Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably mild weather, I am overtaken by sadness. It hits me: an era has come to an end. Clair’s apartment is just a block from where I stand, having made her home in Greenwich Village for 60 years. Though I know I can return any time to wander these streets, window shop, sit at a café, or see an Off-Broadway play, it won’t be the same.
It isn’t just Aunt Clair’s passing that accounts for my unsettled feeling. Everywhere I look I see empty storefronts, signs advertising retail space for rent, shop windows papered over. Empty booths for outdoor dining line the already narrow streets. It may be mild for February, but it is still too cold to eat outside. The sidewalks are busy, though. A steady stream of people coming and going. I hear hammering, metal striking metal, and look up to see construction workers on a fire escape working on a building. Greenwich Village is in transition again.
Memories of other visits to the Village flood in. Like many neighborhoods in New York City, the Village has gone through many incarnations. When I was a teenager in the 1970s there were multiple independent bookstores, side by side with headshops and record stores. I would come with a friend, and we would go in and out of those stores. I loved browsing the aisles of Azuma, a store featuring decorative items imported from China and Japan. SoHo wasn’t a thing yet, there was nothing but empty loft space below Houston Street. Though I enjoyed walking the neighborhood, I was wary of the strung-out junkies hanging out on the corners, the panhandlers, the odd characters who mumbled to themselves and the general seediness. That was the ‘70s and ‘80s.
As the decades passed, the bookstores left, New York University expanded its footprint, chain stores moved in, and the Village changed. It was strange to see the same stores (Gap, Banana Republic, American Eagle) I saw in the mall near my house in upstate New York, now just blocks away from Washington Square Park.
Like other parts of the city, the change was a mixed bag. The neighborhood no longer felt seedy; it felt safer. Some of the charming shops remained, but pricier restaurants replaced the mom-and-pop places. SoHo became trendy featuring interesting art galleries. Rents went through the roof. Aunt Clair’s building was bought by a fancy property management company. She was fortunate to be grandfathered into the rent-control program; it was the only way she could have stayed in her place. In fact, she likely could not have afforded to live anywhere in Manhattan had she been forced out.
One of the last times I walked through the Village with Aunt Clair, not long before the pandemic, change was already afoot. Some stores were vacant, much to her consternation. She explained to me that for large real estate companies there was some kind of tax advantage to taking a loss on these properties – there was no incentive to rent to a fledgling new business, hence the empty retail spaces. In her estimation, the neighborhood was paying the price to protect the interests of the rich and powerful – something that violated her sense of fairness. Not knowing enough to question her, we went on to other topics, but her analysis stayed with me.
My travels this morning, to settle Aunt Clair’s affairs, also took me past the NYU-owned building where my mother sublet an apartment for several summers. After my dad died in 2005, my mom hoped to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in the Village, a prospect distinctly unappealing to Dad. Aunt Clair, Dad’s ever resourceful sister and devoted to Mom, found a list of apartments offered for sublet by NYU professors when they went on sabbatical or taught abroad for a semester. Aunt Clair got Mom on that email distribution list and found a place for her. Mom spent at least three summers seeing shows, going to museums, and meeting up with Clair and other friends and family, a dream fulfilled.
As I stand on the corner, I think of all the experiences on these streets. I am grateful that I noticed as I ran errands that morning that three of Clair’s favorite shops – a coffee roasting/tea shop (Porto Rico Importing on Bleecker), a homemade pasta store (Raffetto’s on West Houston) and Rocco’s Bakery (also on Bleecker) are still open for business despite the pandemic and the economic turmoil that comes like waves over the decades. Some things are constant – or seem to be, until they aren’t.
I continue standing on the corner lost in reverie. I consider my options: stay and try to accomplish more clearing out of my aunt’s apartment, the essentials are done but the task could be never-ending, or get on the road to head home with enough time to beat rush hour. I look at the time on my I-phone. It is about 2:00 in the afternoon. Rush hour can be an all-day affair in New York. Driving uptown any time after 3:00 can get hairy, with schools letting out and some trying to beat an early exit from work. I haven’t eaten lunch and I still have about an hour on my parking meter. I stand there paralyzed with indecision. Slowly I realize I have had enough. I am worn out.
I walk to my car wondering when I might be back here and what I will find when I do. Whatever happens, it will be without Aunt Clair there to witness and offer her unvarnished, insightful commentary.
I know I have used the word bittersweet quite often on the blog. Lately it just seems to fit. This past week was no exception. It featured wide swings – from the deep satisfaction of connecting in person (!!!) with long-time friends (who were fully vaccinated) to extreme anxiety about Mom’s health and back to marveling at the wonder of a toddler. It has been a roller coaster ride.
I accompanied Mom for pre-op testing a week ago in New Jersey. It went smoothly, though, it is increasingly evident that any exertion takes a great deal out of her. I wish we had a better understanding of what is happening. I feel like there should be an answer – and with that some kind of fix so that her quality of life is improved. We continue to search but so far, we have not come up with anything. This has been going on since last August!
On Friday I brought her in for a procedure that was meant to enlighten us – at least with regard to the condition of her heart. In a strange way I hoped that the doctor would find something wrongthat he could address. He didn’t. Her heart is good – which should have been excellent news, and it does bring some comfort. The search continues for an explanation for her extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.
In between Monday’s testing and Friday’s procedure, I visited with family and friends who live in the New York City area. My son came into the city for the first time in over a year for work. He visited with me before his scheduled meeting. I gave him a bagel with cream cheese. He took a bite and exclaimed, “Jesus, that is so good!” He lives in Connecticut and gets bagels, but there are bagels and there are bagels. New York City may be struggling, but you can still get fabulous bagels on the Upper West Side.
Though things are far from normal, some activities are returning in new ways. A Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue set up some tables on the sidewalk enclosed in individual plastic bubbles. The pod was open on one side. Steven, our friendship began when I was 14 or 47 short years ago, and I were enjoying our lunch when it started to drizzle, then the sky opened up. The waiter pulled down the plastic sheeting and zipped us in. We were protected from the elements and continued eating our delicious meal. When the rain stopped, the panel was unzipped and we emerged into breezy sunshine, a blue sky to the north but more ominous clouds moving in from the south. It was one of those fast-changing weather days. Spring is in full swing in NYC.
I consumed quite a bit of Asian food during my time in the city – all of it outstanding. Isn’t it great to share a meal with people you love? Another afternoon I met Aunt Clair at a Japanese restaurant. Despite her own serious health challenges, we were able to talk about family history and current events while digging into our bento boxes. I learned more about my Dad and clarified some things, some of which will likely make its way into a future blog post.
Late that afternoon I fought traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway to meet another childhood friend – I know Deborah since I was four years old. Anyone who has lived in the New York area has to know the Cross Bronx is infamous – it can be 3 a.m. and traffic can be at a standstill. But Waze, the navigation app that scans for the best route, told me repeatedly, “You are still on the fastest route,” as I sat incredulously staring at the unmoving tractor trailer in front of me. The good news was that I was listening to NPR when the verdict was read in the Chauvin trial. What a relief – on so many levels! In addition to finally providing some accountability and a measure of justice, I hate to think what would have happened if a different verdict had been rendered.
I met Deborah for dinner in Port Washington on Long Island. Deborah lives in another part of the Island but suggested a spot that was more convenient for me to travel to. Another excellent Asian restaurant. I realized that I was only minutes from where my cousins grew up. After the meal, since the days are now so much longer, there was still some daylight. I plugged their old address into the GPS. It was only a five minute ride. The terrain was familiar and foreign at the same time. The lovely homes, tree-lined, curving streets and lush lawns were as I remembered. The house itself was quite different. The wood rail fence and bushes that lined the property were gone. The siding was a different color. But it brought back many memories of our visits. So much has changed. My aunt and uncle passed away – as have so many other family members. My cousins live in Massachusetts and Florida respectively. I took a picture and texted it to them. They commented on the changes they noticed. More evidence of the bittersweet nature of life.
Mom needed to be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. I drove out to New Jersey Thursday night and stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, they live about 15 minutes from Mom. Somehow when you know you are getting up at 5:00 a.m. it is impossible to get restful sleep. I woke up multiple times to check the clock, relieved to find that I still had more time. But at 4:30 I gave up. Mom was ready when I arrived at 6:00. We saw the sun rise as we drove east to the hospital.
The procedure took less time than expected and I was thankful that she had made it through it, even though I wished there was something they could have fixed that would improve her situation. Given that she is 87 and experiencing shortness of breath, I was acutely aware of the risks of the procedure. At least she had come through it.
She was admitted to the hospital because of a complication with her heart rhythm. I went to see her in her room. Her color was actually better than it had been. She was in good spirits. Assuming that she was stable, I planned to return home that afternoon. Months earlier the weekend of April 24th was chosen by our children to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Since Covid made going to a Met game an uncomfortable proposition, the kids came up with the idea of recreating the experience in our backyard. They would come to Albany and we would all watch the game together on Saturday afternoon.
Fortunately, Mom was stable, so after staying with her for a couple of hours, I drove home. The celebratory plans were a surprise to Gary. He didn’t know the kids were coming. I arrived home at 3:30 in the afternoon. Leah and Ben followed about 20 minutes later. Gary worked a bit later than usual, proving that he had no idea about the surprise. He saw Leah’s car in the driveway and was delighted. He came in all smiles. It only got better from there.
A couple of hours later, there was a knock at the door. Our almost 3 year old granddaughter stood smiling on the porch (don’t worry she wasn’t alone, her mother and father accompanied her). I reached out my arms and she lifted hers. I brought her into the family room where Gary was on the phone with a patient. His jaw dropped. I heard him say, “Okay, gotta go. Good night, Mr. Smith.” Fortunately, he had communicated the necessary medical information so though he ended the conversation abruptly, he was in fact done. He stood up and took her from me. So began the weekend.
Though we had a great time with the kids, my mom alternately sounded horrible on the phone (struggling to breathe and speak), then a bit better, then like herself, then horrible again. I was worried. I thought about whether I should go back down to the hospital, but what could I accomplish? The kids had gone to great effort. They set up a screen against the house so we could watch the Met game. They brought crackerjacks, peanuts, beer and sandwiches. They decorated with Met paraphernalia. The weather even cooperated, sadly, the Mets didn’t. They lost 7-1. We all agreed that was as it should be in a way, we’ve been to many losses at Shea and Citifield. Happily, we watched the game (indoors) the night before when Jacob DeGrom pitched a masterpiece.
Sunday morning, I blew bubbles with our granddaughter in our backyard. It delighted both of us. Something about watching the delicate orbs, rainbows shimmering on their surface, illuminated by the sun as they drifted into nothingness seemed appropriate. The fleeting nature of it, of everything, struck me. At the same time, her squeals of laughter as she chased them reminded me of the whimsy of life. I need to go with it, accept the bittersweet, as hard as that is.
Note: Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. It seems apropos to revisit another historical controversy – one not quite so long ago. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my cousin Ira, celebrating a milestone birthday today, having been through a lot more than most. I wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations.
In a series of previous blog posts, I wrote about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike of 1968 because it was a seminal event in both the history of New York City and my family. My Dad was a union activist and walked that picket line. That strike is seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish- and African-American communities, damaging it so much that it reverberates to this day.
As part of my exploration of the topic I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society in late January of 2019. Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School in 1968, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Gravesend, way across the borough of Brooklyn, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.
She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.
I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over. It made me think of my own experience in 1973 attending junior high school in Canarsie despite a boycott of the schools because parents were against the proposed busing of black students into our district. I walked a gauntlet lined by police and white demonstrators who were yelling and shaking their fists at the few of us who dared to attend classes. It was unnerving.
Monifa continued, explaining how based on this incident, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). To her radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced. I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. As a young teen she joined the Black Panthers in Brooklyn and they became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Hearing about the Black Panthers brought back images I saw on television when I was growing up. Angry young black men, wearing berets, camo and armed to the teeth came to mind. Those images were unsettling when they flashed on the nightly news in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The energy and anger that radiated was scary – especially when coupled with footage of cities burning. It felt like revolution was in the air.
As a young white girl in Brooklyn, it was beyond my control or understanding. I remember my Dad coming home from the picket line, tired and frustrated; talking about the ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘opportunists’ that were stirring the pot. He viewed the strike as necessary to protect union rights, to ensure due process for teachers who were disciplined. He thought schools needed to be protected from local politics. I implicitly trusted my dad’s judgment – I knew him to be an ethical, thoughtful person.
I later came to understand that the students and parents in the community felt unheard and disrespected in the current system. Though it wasn’t my dad’s intent, the structure he was supporting likely contributed to the community’s alienation. It was a dangerous situation – with the mostly white picketers (the teachers) in a Black neighborhood, Black Panthers on the scene, epithets flying both ways, anger bubbling to the surface, police sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings across from the junior high school. Each side believing in the righteousness of their cause. The civil rights movement, which had been nonviolent, was undergoing a change, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.
Years later I watched the documentary Eyes on the Prize and learned more about the Black Panthers; I gained a fuller understanding of the organization. Their ten-point program doesn’t seem quite as radical today. These are the ten points:
What We Want Now!
We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
We want full employment for our people.
We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
I’m sure some of those demands would trouble people today. Freedom for all incarcerated black men is not realistic, though I can’t deny that racism is embedded in the criminal justice system. ‘Robbery by the capitalists’ is still incendiary language, as well. But the thrust of the program addresses legitimate grievances.
The Black Panther platform also included statements of belief. This part likely stoked more of the controversy.
What We Believe:
We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.
When I read it now, I am first struck by the reference only to men. The organization may have been progressive, but they didn’t extend the call for liberation to Black women. I am also struck by the rage that permeates. We needed to acknowledge that fury. We didn’t then, and we are still dealing with the consequences. While I don’t accept a number of their remedies (or all of the assumptions), some of their answers seem appropriate (decent housing, education that includes contributions beyond those of White men, and, reparations should be negotiated). As is often the case, more attention was given to the extremes, rather than focusing what could be agreed upon.
I can certainly imagine that a young person, like Monifa, would find all of it empowering and tantalizing.
Sitting in the audience that night listening to the discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I thought there was a hole in the presentation. The perspective of someone like my father, whose motivations were not drenched in bigotry or a hunger for power for power’s sake, who legitimately believed that the principles of the union were at stake, was not represented. While giving parents a voice in schools is essential, it is reasonable to ask what their role should be if teaching is a respected profession. Having served as a school board member for nine years in an upstate New York suburb, I have grappled with this question. It is not easily answered. Sadly, in 1968 the union and the community could find no middle ground.
I think in one respect that panel discussion repeated the sins of the past. An important voice wasn’t heard.
Sitting in the audience that night, I was also reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. I absorbed messages that I still need to examine, so did Monifa Edwards. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.
Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message that white people were devils. Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took.
How many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized?’ How many will do the work that Ms. Edwards did to move beyond hate? And, I wonder how she feels today, eighteen months later, in the wake of continued instances of black citizens being murdered by police, seemingly without consequence.
And, finally, I wonder when we will truly learn to listen and try to understand, beyond just the words.
Based on media reports one might think New York City has become a hell hole. My recent visits have not borne that out. Obviously, my experience is just that – mine. Anecdotal – limited to the times and places I have been. That time has been spent on the Upper West Side, which according to some reporting has been the site of a mass exodus. Data may reveal a decrease in population, but you never would have known it by walking through the neighborhood and strolling through Central Park this past weekend.
Gary and I celebrated my birthday in the city, joined by our daughter and son-in-law-to be. We traveled down on Friday evening. It was a beautiful, clear evening. A huge full moon hung over northern Manhattan as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. Leah and Ben, after taking a half hour to find a parking spot, arrived at our apartment. With so many Citi-bike stations and a wider bike lane eliminating parking spots from one side of Central Park West, street parking, which was scarce before, is now almost impossible to find. It is one of those trade-offs of urban living; convenience for car-owners versus encouraging eco-friendly biking. At least once a spot was found, we didn’t need our cars for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday was my birthday and Gary, Leah and Ben wanted me to choose our activities. I considered our options. Given how bike-friendly the city has become, renting bikes seemed like a good idea. The weather was supposed to be great. But many other people might have the same idea and I didn’t relish the idea of navigating heavy traffic. I looked up the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking if it was open, maybe it wouldn’t attract too many people. The website indicated it was open and explained the COVID guidelines – tickets were available for specific times, there would be a temperature check before entry, masks were required and guards would be ensuring compliance, sanitizing stations were placed throughout. The Met is a huge building. It seemed like it could be a safe space. We all agreed, and I bought tickets for a 2:00 entry.
We had a relaxing morning in the apartment. Gary and I went out and picked up bagels. That walk revealed some of the toll of the pandemic. A number of retail stores and restaurants were closed. There were more homeless than there had been before, but there were still families out and about and a lot of stores were soldiering on. Lenny’s, the bagel place we favor, had a line (properly spaced) out the door, and we didn’t encounter any aggressive panhandlers. The streets looked a bit battered, with the closed businesses and more trash, but nothing like what I remembered from 1980 when I was attending graduate school. The city may be staggered, but it isn’t on its knees like it was then.
We returned to the apartment and had our bagels and coffee and chilled out. We left at 1:00 so we could take our time getting to the museum, taking a scenic route through the park. We only had to traverse about a mile and change.
We entered the park at 100th street, hearing peals of laughter from the nearby playground. The vast majority of people were masked (with both nose and mouth covered!), including the children. Families were picnicking. A father was teaching his son how to play badminton. We passed cyclists, runners and rollerbladers – or more accurately they passed us. I noted many interracial couples, heterosexual and gay, of every age. We saw and heard musicians (jazz and classical), exercise classes and softball games. We even saw a group of dancers, wearing flouncy black skirts trimmed in vibrant colors, doing what appeared to be salsa. We saw birthday parties, a bridge table set up in the grass, paper table cloth flapping in the breeze, balloons tied to chairs. It was an extraordinary tableau, vibrant with life. Some may not have been socially distancing, it was hard to judge whether groups are families or households, but other than people who were eating, most were masked, and many were clumped in small clusters which suggested they were trying to maintain appropriate distance. We were able to walk with enough space to feel comfortable. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. It felt like life – maybe not normal but affirming.
I was reminded that life wasn’t normal by the persistent feeling that a hair was trapped between my mask and my lips. I stopped twice, moved to the side next to a tree, removed my mask and inspected it for the stray hair. I rubbed my fingers over my lips. I never did find it – it just kept irritating me. But I kept my mask on.
We arrived at the museum at the right time, had our temperatures taken and our tickets scanned. Some spaces were more crowded than others, but we still took in their extensive Impressionist collection. People were mindful of spacing, we found ourselves doing a dance to allow access to the works. They thoughtfully reprinted the identifying information cards in larger font so you could stand back farther and still see the artist’s name and description of the piece.
I have been to the Met a number of times over the course of my 61 years, but I am hardly a regular there. Each time I respond to the paintings and sculptures differently. One of the things I have come to appreciate more recently is the spaces that museums provide. The Met has a number of courtyards with walls of windows that offer views of Central Park and high ceilings so that it feels airy and open. The sculptures in those areas may not be my favorites, but I love the overall effect.
I had read a bit about an installation on the rooftop garden that I wanted to see. You had to take the elevator to the fifth floor to get there. They were regulating the flow of people, limiting the number in the elevator and preventing crowding on the roof. We found a long line to get on the elevator, with markings on the floor to designate proper distancing. The line wound itself around a room. We wondered about waiting, decided it appeared to move quickly, so we got on. It was well worth it – both because the room itself had some interesting pieces to look at and because the rooftop was fabulous. The installation, called Lattice Detour by Hector Zamora, was a wall made up of blocks that left open spaces, hence the name of the piece. It may not sound all that special, but it created cool shadows and great photo opportunities. The view up there was spectacular. The park and the city skyline were lit by brilliant sun against a pale blue, clear sky, with just wisps of clouds.
After enjoying the fresh air and views, we walked down the stairs instead of using the elevator, careful not to touch the bannisters. We were alone in the stairwell, just the four of us.
I got us lost looking for the American wing, but we found great pieces of modern art. It was nearing closing time. Leah and Ben were determined to find George Washington Crossing the Delaware, my left heel said it had enough (we had already walked five miles and still needed to walk home – a cab was not an option). We agreed to meet in the gift shop. Another thing I love, museum gift shops!
I picked out some gifts, paid for them, and went to sit on the front steps (those iconic steps) to wait for everyone else. The beauty of cell phones, I texted everyone where I was, so I wasn’t concerned about being separated. I people-watched as I waited. Again, the variety that is New York presented itself. One woman, dressed in a body-hugging black outfit, thigh high boots, blond hair blown dry to perfection, gold earrings glinting in the sunlight, confidently posed for her partner as he snapped pictures. Vendors were selling pretzels and hot dogs and people were buying.
It wasn’t too long before Gary and the kids joined me. We sat a bit longer, criticizing those who were not masked properly, but also noting how many more were. We began our trek back to the apartment.
Having been out and about for the whole afternoon, we decided we had enough exposure to the elements and ordered food in. So many choices! Once again, they deferred to me. We ordered Chinese from Red Farm. I poured some wine while we waited and reflected on the day.
Thank you, universe, for giving me a beautiful present. The only thing that would have made it better was having Dan, Beth and our granddaughter with us, but I had a FaceTime visit first thing in the morning. I was beyond grateful for the gift of the day. And, I was relieved to find New York City doing its thing in this new reality.
Note: My mom has been trying her hand at writing, too. During this shut down, where she has been almost entirely confined to her one-bedroom apartment, she has been reflecting on her life. She wrote this piece and I thought I would share it. I think it gives some insight into her and some lessons she taught me. Plus, I think it is great that she is putting pen to paper (and in her case it is with pen and paper) and I want to encourage her to continue.
I’ve often heard women complain that their husbands were busy playing cards while they were left alone. I didn’t mind.
This is what I did. I walked the Avenue, Fifth Avenue.
On Thursdays my husband, Barry, and his friends would get together after work, have dinner and then play cards. They always played at our house because it was a central meeting spot.
In the meanwhile, I would finish my workday at school in Brooklyn and take the subway to the city. There is only one city, Manhattan.
I would walk up the avenue, but not like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland (Easter Parade, 1948), more like Bill Cunningham (NY Times Photographer). I‘d go to the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street to watch the world go by. The languages I heard, the clothing I observed and the ages of those walking the Avenue were as varied as the cultures they represented.
Since the hour and day was not conducive to seeing a Broadway matinee, I varied my excursions. Sometimes I would go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The outside was surrounded by the ever-present sounds of construction and general din of the City, but inside was quiet with magnificent stained glass windows.
Most fun would be visiting the luxurious bathrooms of the very expensive department stores such as Saks 5th Avenue. The restrooms were decorated with silk or satin wall coverings and gold-plated faucets. I got a kick out of my brief moment of feeling rich and pampered.
Other excursions would be to the jewelry stores, Cartiers and of course the crown jewel, Tiffany’s. Tiffany’s had a special room where they displayed replicas of the trophies made for championship teams and marvelous tiaras and necklaces commissioned by famous people. The real jewelry would be in locked cases. Obviously, I never bought anything; but it didn’t hurt to look.
Other times I would go browse in Barnes & Noble – no coffee bar then—and also the Hallmark store which had all kinds of knick-knacks in addition to the wide array of cards and wrapping paper. I strolled past the other famous shops as well.
Getting into the City always excited me, with its energy and hustle bustle.
I would head home, plug in the coffee pot and bring out either the brownies or pie that I had made the night before for Barry and his fellow poker players. After the refreshments the guys would head home. We all had work the next day.
My take: Mom loved the City and she passed that on to me. While I have not ventured into the fancy stores on Fifth Avenue, or tried their restrooms, I have people-watched along that iconic avenue and I have spent hours in its bookstores and that same Hallmark shop.
I also learned that husbands and wives don’t need to be joined at the hip. Mom and Dad had unique interests and that was a good thing – they gave each other space to pursue them. This was a valuable thing to understand and was an important building block for my own marriage.
I well-remember poker nights because the smell of the cigars wafted up from the basement. I was sometimes asked to help clean up the next day and the air was still hazy from the lingering smoke. My dad didn’t partake, but his friends sure did. I always hoped there was leftover brownie as a reward for my efforts.
Also, Mom loved coffee – I believe she must have built an extraordinary tolerance to caffeine because she consumed potfuls (of regular!) in the course of the day when I was growing up. At some point it did catch up with her so that now she has to limit her intake, but she still loves her two cups in the morning, black (no sugar, no milk).
Note: This is an edited and reworked piece that I thought was timely. I continue to struggle with what is happening in our nation. The combination of Covid-19 and racism is toxic. I can only hope that we come through it to a better place, having begun to reckon with our history. I will look for opportunities to do my part. I think writing about difficult subjects, which many find hard to talk about, is one way. I would like to have those conversations. I’m not sure how to go about doing it other than to post it here. I welcome other perspectives.
In 1980 I was in graduate school. I lived in a studio apartment on West 80th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan in a building owned by Columbia University. Gentrification was taking place right before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working-class people were displaced. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered; boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer.
I commuted to campus by subway. I gave careful thought to my route to the station to avoid the junkies and panhandlers. My shoulders hunched, eyes surveying the street, almost always in daylight, I walked quickly. I welcomed the neighborhood changes that allowed me to relax my shoulders.
These issues of community change were being discussed in my grad school classes. The question was: Can the market provide low- and middle-income housing when there is so much more money to be made in high-end housing? What is the incentive to create housing for the poor and working class? Is the government’s role to create that incentive? If so, how should it do it effectively? Almost 40 years later, we are still grappling with those questions. Meanwhile gentrification has marched through other areas of the city, particularly Brooklyn, the borough where I grew up.
I had reason to think about the changes wrought over the last three decades in New York City when I did the Five Boro Bike Tour, cycling through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 2018. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were hollowed out, drug infested and crime-ridden. I wouldn’t have considered visiting either one, much less bike through them. In contrast, in 2018 I cycled past art galleries and craft beer breweries.
I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. Gentrification is understood to be a bad thing especially for poor, immigrant communities. Activists who fight it paint a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While there is truth to that portrait, I think it is oversimplified.
There isn’t one monolithic army encroaching all at once – there isn’t one homogenous group of rich, white people. We need to acknowledge that when demographics are changing, it is a dynamic process. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that contributes to the failure to integrate. Some may come to a neighborhood expecting their every need to be accommodated, without regard to those already there. But, not all come with that baggage. Some may come precisely to live and/or raise families in a diverse community.
I may be particularly sensitive to integrating across economic class based on my experience moving into a suburban development outside of Albany, NY. I grew up thinking suburbs were homogenous, but I learned otherwise as an adult. In my subdivision there were those who were stretching to their financial limit to live there, and there were others for whom it was very comfortable (my family fell into this latter category).
Our daughter became friends with a girl down the block. We made overtures to invite the whole family over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments, I came to believe that the Mom made assumptions about us because my husband is a doctor. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something more. They were of more modest means. We never got beyond neighborly friendliness. Eventually they moved away. An opportunity was lost to both of us. Economic differences can create awkwardness. It is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about.
Economic status can be one barrier within communities, race is certainly another. Canarsie, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, underwent a huge change in racial composition. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification.
In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My junior high school was 98% white. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan was received with tremendous hostility by white parents. A group was organized, Concerned Citizens of Canarsie (CCC), to protest. The choice of CCC as a name, which carried echoes of the KKK, was probably purposeful. The CCC slogan ‘neighborhood schools for neighborhood children’ seemed reasonable enough on the surface. A car, with a bullhorn on the roof, cruised through the neighborhood admonishing parents to keep their children home. The vast majority listened. Even though I was only 13, I believed that racism and fear was at the heart of their objections.
A boycott of the schools went on for weeks. I was alone in my 9th grade classes; just a teacher and me. I remember walking in the main entrance through a path defined by uniformed police and sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. My sense that the parents were racist was born out by their behavior.
Ultimately, the boycott failed and the busing plan was implemented. There was personal fallout; my friendship with Pia got caught in the crossfire.
Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to attend better schools and escape the violence. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them. After the boycott, Pia never invited me to hang out at her house again and she kept her distance at school.
In the aftermath, there was some white flight, but the neighborhood remained stable for a number of years. In 1972 Canarsie was about 10% black, by 1990 it shifted to just under 20%. By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. While the racial composition changed, its economic status remained stable as a middle class neighborhood.
Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians sought years before. According to a New York Times article from 2001, “Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family…”
These were shared values, but the white residents didn’t see it. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 after the firebombing of a real estate agency that was showing homes to black families. Ironically, the firebombing was intended to frighten blacks away, but white families left. The neighborhood became homogenous again – today it is over 90% black.
In reading and thinking about the issue of neighborhood change, commonalities emerge. Problems start with assumptions based on stereotypes and ignorance. There aren’t effective mechanisms to get beyond that. We have no language to talk to each other about these subjects. Perhaps that is something we can remedy.
One essay I read analogized different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. Maybe neighborhoods can be helped to mature beyond the ‘toddler’ stage. Perhaps opportunities can be created, by local government structures or nonprofit organizations, to facilitate community conversations, to break down assumptions and stereotypes.
We must find ways to do better. Forty years from now, I hope we aren’t asking the same questions about how to integrate communities across race and economic status.
One of the things I have done during this period of quarantine is watch a variety of videos: music, movies, t.v. shows. Some are homemade that pop up on my Facebook or Twitter feed; others have been made available by professional artists or companies. All of them provide a welcome diversion. I received a link to one such performance from my daughter Leah. She knows I am a fan of the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe and they released Revelations, which was filmed at Lincoln Center in 2015, so that it could be viewed for free. [Note: The link she provided is no longer active. Apparently, Alvin Ailey has created a free All Access streaming service that rotates programming. Here is the link. Hopefully they will offer Revelations again. Their other works are well worth viewing, too.]
Watching the piece brought back memories. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey was in the early 1970s. It was a powerful experience
Aunt Clair, who I wrote about here, invited me to join her to see Alvin Ailey at City Center. I was excited. I was a fan of dance as an art form. During my teen years Mom and her sister (Aunt Simma) had a subscription to the New York City Ballet (NYCB). They took their daughters, me and my cousin Laurie, to three or four performances each season. The four of us would meet for lunch beforehand and then go watch the ballet. I loved those afternoons. Although I could not imagine myself as a dancer, I was moved by the athleticism, grace and strength displayed. Sometimes the music was even more beautiful than the choreography. Taken together, the music and dance were breathtaking. Some might find classical ballet boring, but it was rare for me to think the piece dragged. Most often I was captivated by the expressiveness of the human form – sometimes it told a story, but sometimes it was just raw emotion.
Alvin Ailey would be a different experience on several levels. We were going at night; not to a matinee. That meant being into the city after dark, which brought a different energy. Plus, it was the holiday season so Manhattan would be more lit up than usual. I didn’t know what to expect from the dance itself, but I did know that Alvin Ailey was not the classic approach offered by NYCB.
It also meant getting dressed for an evening at the theater and going into ‘the city.’ Though I lived in Brooklyn, which is in fact part of New York City, we didn’t think of it as the city. When we went to Manhattan, we said “We’re going to the city.” I also would be spending time with my Dad’s sister, my adventurous, independent and always interesting Aunt Clair.
Though I did not ordinarily focus on my wardrobe, this was an exception. For one thing, I was feeling a bit better about my body. For a brief time during high school, after having some success at Weight Watchers and staying quite active (I played basketball on my high school team), I was in reasonably good shape. Mom and I bought some clothes that I felt good in.
I chose my high-waisted, plaid, bell-bottom slacks. They were red and black with a thread of yellow, quite stylish at the time. I put on a black turtleneck sweater. I had to decide whether to tuck the top in or wear it out. I modeled for my mom and she suggested I go upstairs and ask Uncle Terry what he thought. Maybe Dad wasn’t home at the time. I was nervous as I climbed the stairs. Uncle Terry gave me a thumbs up for either way. If I tucked it in, I felt like it emphasized my chest. I wore the sweater out. Though I felt more comfortable in my body, I wasn’t ready to make that statement.
It was winter and holiday lights made the theater district even more festive than usual. I don’t recall how I got to the city – if Aunt Clair picked me up or if my Dad drove me in. I know I would not have taken the subway by myself. At that time, taking the LL in the evening alone was simply not an option – too dangerous. Either way, Aunt Clair and I arrived at the theater and found our seats along with several thousand others. The theater was packed. Our seats were in the center in the lower balcony – perfect to see the whole stage, the dancers’ full bodies and the patterns they formed.
We saw three pieces: Blues Suite, Cry and, the finale, Revelations. I was enthralled by each one in turn. The program took us through the range of human emotion, from despair to joy, from anger to triumph. The audience was totally immersed in the ride. Revelations uses spirituals as its spine and the theater felt like what I imagine to be a revival meeting in a black church. Being a white, Jewish person, I had no point of reference for this, but I loved it. The heart of the dance was universal, showing us the human spirit in all its dimensions, but calling upon the specific experience of African-Americans. When the performance concluded, the audience, which represented a cross-section of New Yorkers, kept clapping, stomping and singing – even when the lights came up. No one wanted to leave, no one wanted to break the joyous spell. Eventually, after many minutes, people started to make their way toward the exits. Aunt Clair and I were exhilarated.
I have returned to see Alvin Ailey many times since. Though not all performances elicited the excitement of that first one, I have always been moved and grateful for the opportunity to see so much talent. I come away amazed at what the human form can communicate. Once we get through this period of social distancing, I can’t imagine a more perfect choice of performances to see than Revelations. If you have an opportunity to see it live, take it.
And, thank you, Aunt Clair for opening my eyes to what dance and theater could be.
Yesterday was the first time I went to a playground in many years. My children are well into adulthood. Now that we have a grandchild, I had reason to pay a visit. I saw so much, and probably through different eyes than the last time I spent any time there.
We were lucky enough to have our granddaughter, who I’ll call Lucy, was with us for a sleepover. [Her parents do not want her portrayed on social media and I respect their judgment, so I am not using her real name.] She is just over 15-months old, walking steadily, beginning to climb and enjoying the wonders of the outdoors. She liked picking up leaves and presenting them to us proudly. She also loves dogs – or “Doggies!” as she blurted out with glee every time she saw one. What better place to take her than Central Park, which as luck (or planning) would have it is down the block from our apartment.
We took a few essentials, a hat, a sippy cup with water, put her in her stroller and off we went. The sun was struggling to break through the layer of clouds. The air was cool. Perfect weather for a visit to the playground. Lucy was alert to the sights and sounds – pointing and commenting with almost-words.
At the entrance to Central Park at 100th Street there is an extensive playground. I had walked past it many times before without paying much attention, and now I was about to get a whole new perspective.
It was ten o’clock on Sunday morning. I hadn’t given a thought to the fact that I was missing CBS Sunday Morning, until now as I write this, though I watch that show religiously. Grandchildren have a way of reprioritizing things.
The playground was busy, but not crowded. There were children of different shapes and sizes. We took Lucy out of the stroller and she started walking toward the sprinklers. I hadn’t realized there were sprinklers, so we weren’t prepared for her to get wet. Fortunately, she didn’t charge in – she was content to watch the water shooting up into the air. One boy, I’ll guess he was about 5, was wearing only his underwear, stood directly over the jet of water and seemed to enjoy pretending he was peeing. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if he was my child. That was the first of many similar questions I’d be asking myself over the course of the next hour.
What the child was doing was harmless and he was having fun. On the other hand, I would also want my son/grandson to learn “appropriate” public behavior. The mom appeared to be nearby. I didn’t hear or see her address him, but later when I looked over, they were gone. She may well have spoken to him privately or quietly or both. I wasn’t sitting in judgment; I wasn’t sure what “the right thing to do” was.
After watching the sprinklers for a while, we walked over to the area where there was a cement and brick climbing structure and slides once you got to the top. These were big slides! I imagined that from the top it would look like a mountain for a small child. Lucy was content to play with the sand at the bottom and explore the stones that made up the ladder. Several little boys were climbing. One was being watched by his older sister. She moved confidently up and down the structure, stopping to offer her little brother help. “You can do it, Milo,” she urged him. He followed her a couple of steps up, using his hands and feet. Then he seemed to get stuck in place. He started to whimper. His sister tried again to encourage him. “Follow me.” He couldn’t or wouldn’t. After a few more moments, she called “Dad! Milo needs help.” The Dad responded pretty quickly, climbing up, putting a hand on his son and encouraging him to continue going. Milo wasn’t having it. The Dad picked him up and carried him down. I didn’t hear what the Dad said to him.
Maybe I’m making too much of it, but parenting involves so many decisions, moment by moment. Was the big sister old enough to be watching him? Should the Dad have been closer by? Do you push your child to overcome their fear? If so, how hard? Again, I wasn’t judging the dad. I was reminded how hard it is to be a parent. And, for someone like me, where questions run amok, it could be torturous. I’m so glad I got through that stage! I will leave it to my children to judge whether I got it more right than wrong. With adult children, there are still parenting choices to make, but not every day! And they aren’t so vulnerable, they are more fully formed and can better withstand our mistakes.
Later when we were walking home, Gary observed that he wouldn’t have been sitting on the bench chatting with other parents if his son was Milo (who was quite a bit bigger than Lucy, and may have been two or three, but he was still in diapers). I said I wasn’t so sure what I would have done.
Being a grandparent is simpler. Our job was to keep Lucy safe. It was one morning of many for her. If we were more protective than her parents, she would recover. Better that way than the alternative.
Note: This is an updated, edited version of an earlier blog post. I thought it was a timely subject.
This past Saturday, as it did 42 years ago to the day, the lights went out in Manhattan. I appreciated watching my Twitter feed showing the good Samaritans who were directing traffic while I was 200 miles away in my air-conditioned home. When it happened in 1977, it struck all five boroughs, and I was in Brooklyn for the summer after my freshman year at college.
In 1977 the power went out in the middle of a Met game at Shea Stadium. Do you know who was at bat when the lights went out?*[see below for the answer] I didn’t until I did a bit of research to refresh my memory about the events.
I wasn’t at Shea that night. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie when everything went dark.
I have vivid memories of that evening. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.
It had been a hot, humid day and the commute home was steamy. Air conditioning in subway cars was iffy at best. I couldn’t decide which I needed more: food or a shower. I decided on food first. Then I went to rinse off.
It was unnerving to be plunged into darkness while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.
I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found a flashlight. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I spent much of the next hour on the phone talking to a friend, Ron, as I was doing regularly that summer. Though I knew him since elementary school, our relationship was changing as the summer progressed. I was nervous and excited about our burgeoning romance.
Fortunately, things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio.
Eventually my aunt and uncle got back and the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to find relief from the heat in the scant breeze. After a while we gave up, went inside and tried to get some sleep.
When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with Ron. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth that was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it.
A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends, Alison and Dianne. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the usual traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back to Canarsie unscathed– my only mishap was in bumping a garbage can while making a U-turn. We were exhausted from laughing so hard.
Despite my driving deficiencies, Ron and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that define hazy, hot and humid.
Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. This was in stark contrast to the blackout of 1965 when New Yorkers were helpful and law-abiding. This time some people took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. Over 3500 people were arrested. Electronics equipment stores were targeted by looters. There has been speculation that the 1977 blackout gave a boost hip hop. Having gotten ahold of turntables, speakers and other equipment, lots of DJs emerged from the lawlessness.
The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air that left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.
It was a time of transition for me. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, paradoxically, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, a work still in progress, but I was headed in a healthier direction.
*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize J
After listening to the panelists, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any substance to the union’s side of the conflict. The story that was told that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society was eye-opening, but, there was a glaring omission. No one mentioned the issue of teacher professionalism as a source of conflict.
For my father, and others like him, this was probably the single strongest motivating factor in supporting the strike. The attitude and actions taken in Ocean Hill-Brownsville exhibited a blatant disregard for the professionalism of teachers, in three ways: by having the community dictate curriculum, by hiring uncertified, inexperienced replacements, and by dismissing teachers without due process. All of that would have felt like a personal insult to someone like my dad.
Dad, Barry Brody, got his B.A. from Brooklyn College, then did two years in the Air Force. He went into teaching, earning his master’s in education from Columbia Teacher’s College. He went on to get a master’s in economics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (coincidentally Al Shanker’s alma mater). He spent most summers furthering his education. He would apply for grants to study. He spent a summer at Wharton, another at Weslyean, then Clark University in Worcester, MA, three summers in Illinois and one at the University of Colorado. Our family joined him, this was how we vacationed (which is another story). He was always a voracious reader. If there was a new biography of Lincoln or Jefferson, he would read it – and critique it. He read widely, though history was his passion.
He took pride in his scholarship and his teaching. If there was one overriding lesson he imparted to his three children, though there were many, it was to do your job to the best of your ability, no matter what it was. If you were a busboy or a secretary, take pride in your work. You show up on time, put your nose to the grindstone, without excuses. He modeled that behavior. There was dignity and pride in a job well done. My brothers and I took that lesson to heart and it served us well.
I believe the issues raised by the decentralization experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville struck at the heart of my dad’s sense of himself as a teacher and his pride as a professional. The fact that the changes being wrought were accompanied by so much anger, and in some quarters, hate, made it impossible to bridge the divide. Both sides were convinced of their righteousness.
The idea that parents would dictate curriculum, and I think Dad’s perception was that the plan gave parents that authority, would be an anathema to him. The notion that laypersons would make decisions about what material to include in global studies or American history likely struck him as absurd.
Today we are much more aware of the importance of incorporating the contributions of people of color and women so that a more complete and accurate picture of American and world history is provided (I’m not suggesting that the work is done). Some of that change came about precisely because of the pressure brought to bear by communities of color. Some of it has come about as more women and people of color become historians themselves.
But, today community input is still fraught. What about when a community objects to teaching evolution? Or sex education? Or, inclusion of LGBTQ literature? The list can, and does, go on and on, and I think it always will. The process of incorporating public opinion needs to be robust enough to withstand pressure from extremes, but flexible enough to evolve as new knowledge is gained. But what does that look like?
One of the reasons I believe so strongly in public education is that a cross-section of children, representing different parts of society, learn together. And, hopefully, across communities there is a common body of knowledge imparted. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but if you grow up in Harlem or a rural town in central New York, I believe you should share a common understanding of science, history, math, etc. There can and should be differences that reflect the needs of the children, but a great deal of the fundamentals should be shared.
I think the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society lost an opportunity to engage in a more balanced way. To discuss community control without acknowledging the legitimate concerns of teachers took away from the credibility of the program.
I am still left with the question: What should the role of the community be in curriculum? If folks reading this have opinions about it, please comment! I’d love to hear.