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.
It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.
One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.
I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.
My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.
My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.
Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.
One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.
Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.
I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:
‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’
McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.
I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?
It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”
Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head
You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…
Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you
But you know that black people were the original Hebrews
When the UN made Israel a free, independent state
Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades
They hated the black Arab with all their might
And you, Jew boy, said it was alright
And then you came to America the land of the free
Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy
Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it
You had a clean white face colorless and faded.
When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.
Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.
I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way: if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.
It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).
The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.
There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.
A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.
The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.
I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up. One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.
Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.
The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy. The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.
What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).
The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.
All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.
I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.
While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.
Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
I am working on a piece that continues the medical school thread, but it isn’t ready yet. In the meanwhile, I wanted to share more thoughts on and images of Central Park. I’ve written about my love for the park before here. On Black Friday, rather than shopping, we went for a walk in Central Park. Under the best of circumstances I don’t like shopping. To borrow a line memorably delivered by Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment, “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes…” than go to the mall on Black Friday. Gary and I find that line to be quite useful and it applies in this case.
Though the weather wasn’t perfect, it was gray and cold, the park still offered a lovely respite from all the holiday stresses and strains. Plus I could tell myself I was walking off some of the stuffing and sweet potato casserole I consumed the day before.
It continues to amaze me that in the midst of New York City chaos, I can find a wooded landscape. Here are some images from our foray into the park.
To add to my joy, our daughter joined us.
It was a wonderful Thanksgiving. My father-in-law, rapidly approaching his 96th birthday, my mother-in-law, on her long Alzheimer’s journey, my grandchild and children, as well as Gary’s siblings, were able to join us. 13 of us squished around a dining room table in a New York City apartment. Traffic cooperated. Parking spots were found. The food was plentiful. The stars aligned. I knew my brothers and mom were happily celebrating Thanksgiving with family in Buffalo and New Jersey respectively. All was well in Linda’s universe.
And we took a walk in the park. What could be better? I am so very grateful.
Note: I wrote a post previously that included portions of this story (here). I wanted to write about it in a different way, explore it further.
I met Mindy before we even moved to Canarsie. I was a month shy of my fifth birthday. In the twilight of a warm August evening in 1964, we drove across Brooklyn to see our new home. After we got out of the car, my mom took my hand and led me up the stairs of the next door neighbor’s house, and rang the doorbell. A woman answered. “Hi, let me get Mindy,” she greeted us in a husky voice. “Mindy!” she yelled, “Come down and meet our new neighbors!” Apparently, Mom had, on a previous trip, introduced herself and our visit was expected.
I stood on my tiptoes to see over the solid part of the screen door. In the dim light, I could make out the shape of a girl, who looked to be about my age and size, coming down the stairs. We waved at each other. The screen door opened and our moms talked while we looked at each other.
Mindy was olive-complected and skinny. Her almond-shaped brown eyes didn’t line up exactly right – neither did mine. In the coming years, we would share the experience of wearing an eye patch to correct muscle weakness. We bonded over being neighborhood outcasts. We also enjoyed pretending, making up elaborate games involving playing school or imagining we were pirates.
Since only a narrow alley separated our houses, we would talk from our respective windows. We had a lot in common – we each had a brother named Mark (her’s spelled it Marc) who we complained about. Our mothers were teachers. We each shared our houses with extended family. Her aunt, uncle and two cousins lived in the downstairs apartment of their house, while my grandparents and two uncles lived upstairs from us. We were both sports fans. As we got older we talked incessantly about our beloved Knicks. We obsessed about our crushes on particular players (me on Dave DeBusschere, her on Henry Bibby).
There were some important differences. Her mother was a screamer. I could hear her yelling at Mindy, even calling her names, from inside my house. Though my dad was the one with the temper in our family, he never resorted to name-calling.
Her mother would come home from work and lay down to rest, insisting on quiet in the house, before she made dinner. Mindy and I would do anything to avoid disturbing her. Mrs. Schiff’s anger was a thing to behold. If we couldn’t play outside because of the weather, we used my bedroom or basement. I was rarely invited to her house.
Mindy was my best friend. That is until my friendship with Susan blossomed at the end of third grade. Susan and I were in the same class; Mindy was never in ours. Things got complicated because Susan and Mindy weren’t friends.
One day, Mindy and I were deep into pretending that the narrow strip of dirt and grass between our two houses was a ship. I was the captain; she was the first mate. We were busy battling pirates when Marguerite, Johnny, Susan and Mike showed up. “You stupid, skinny idiot,” they taunted. I was relieved – they weren’t jeering me. I stood silent.
Not only was I silent while the taunts rained down on Mindy – after a while I joined in. I knew it was wrong, even in the moment. But, it was too tempting; it was exhilarating to be part of the powerful.
Mindy and I didn’t speak for months. I would lay in my bed staring out my window, looking at her house only a few feet away, feeling guilty and ashamed. I couldn’t stand it. I went to my mother and told her what happened and asked what I should do. She said there was only one thing to do, apologize.
“But what if she doesn’t accept my apology?”
“She may not, but you have to do it. You’ll feel better, even if she doesn’t.”
I couldn’t bring myself to do it immediately, but I knew she was right. After a few days, I got my courage up.
I spotted her in front of her house, getting ready to get on her bicycle. I called to her, “Mindy! I’m sorry,” I blurted it out. She turned to look at me, warily. I came down my steps and approached her, continuing, “Can we be friends again? I promise never to do anything like that again.” She gave me a small smile and said, “It’s okay with me, but we need to talk to my mother.” “Okay, whatever you want,” I said, relieved, though the thought of facing Mrs. Schiff made my stomach turn over.
At a pre-arranged time, I rang her doorbell and Mindy answered. She ushered me up the stairs. Their apartment was the mirror image of my grandparent’s place next door. Her mother was seated at the kitchen table, taking a break from making dinner. I told her I apologized and it would never happen again. She told me, in her sand-papery smoker’s voice, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bully Mindy and I couldn’t treat her like a second fiddle, or else I’d be in trouble. “You can’t play with Mindy only when no one else is available,” she warned. She nodded toward the pot of boiling water on the stove.
Maybe I imagined that she gestured to the boiling water – but I believe she actually did. In my memory she said, “I will boil YOU in that pot if you mistreat her!” Whether she uttered those words or not, I clearly got the message. Almost 50 years later Mindy and I are still friends. I learned my lesson.