Stories

A Miracle: Part II of David’s Story

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Berl Bakst, David’s father

When Gary and I got together a process of melding two very different Jewish-American families began. My parents were American-born (even my grandmothers had been born in this country); my Mom and Dad had master’s degrees; and, we weren’t religiously observant. Gary’s parents were European-born; formal education was abruptly stopped by the war; and, they went to synagogue every Sabbath, and kept a kosher home. It was this last piece, being observant Jews, that was initially most perplexing to me. Until I attended services with Paula and David, and until I understood the source of David’s faith, I couldn’t relate to keeping all the rules and regulations that Judaism requires. Turns out my father-in-law believes in miracles. It took a while for me to understand that.

I left off last week with the Russian invasion of Iwie. David and his family had been enjoying a peaceful and prosperous life until the Communist takeover. Not only did his father lose ownership of his home and business, but Berl was taken for questioning by the KGB repeatedly. He was subjected to interrogation nightly for weeks, with the family worried that he would be whisked off to Siberia, never to be seen again. People disappeared and rumors about being sent to the gulag pervaded the air in Iwie. Fortunately, after each interrogation Berl returned home.

As a result of being labeled ‘capitalists,’ David was shunned by friends. His fortunes, and that of his family, changed on a dime. Now they were almost destitute. Berl barely managed to provide, it was quite a fall in status. Berl’s business, which was comprised of a leather factory and shoe store, was still operating, but under Russian supervision.

Things went from bad to worse over the next few years. The Germans invaded as part of their plan to take Russia.  Jews from surrounding towns and villages were rounded up and sent to Iwie. A ghetto was created. The Bakst family lived in the ghetto, but were allowed to leave to work at the shoe factory. This gave Berl and David access to information and other townspeople. They heard rumors of ‘actions,’ actions were when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them, or deport them on trains to concentration camps.

Upon hearing rumors of an impending ‘action,’ Berl, Rachel, David, Eli, Batya and Gussie (David’s sisters were born in 1927 and 1932) escaped to the woods. They tried to hook up with partisans (fighting groups that lived in the forests surrounding Iwie – and other forests in Poland). David remembered walking through thigh high snow in the bitter cold. His little sister, Gussie, was carried by Berl until the point of exhaustion when David took over. They weren’t successful in connecting with a partisan brigade. It was winter and they feared freezing to death. The Bakst family made rendezvous plans at a spot in the woods in case they got separated and had to run again in the future. They went back to the ghetto.

That first ‘action’ resulted in the killing of the leadership and intellectuals of the Jewish community in Iwie, others were spared, for the time being.

The adult Baksts continued working at the factory. Berl arranged for his wife and Gussie to be hidden in a farmer’s barn about ten miles outside of Iwie, thinking they would be safer there. They, along with about 10 other Jews, including David’s cousins, were crowded into a space under the barn floor. Food and supplies were brought to them.

At some point, perhaps because a collaborator reported them, or because the Germans saw unusual movements around that barn, they came to investigate. Normally the barn floor had hay strewn about. It was Spring and the floor was bare. A German soldier’s boot heel sunk into a hole in a floor board. A child underneath made a sound. The soldier tossed a grenade into the hole. One of David’s cousins tossed it back. Two cousins climbed out to fight and were shot immediately. The Germans continued to shoot as they set fire to the barn. The remaining people, including David’s mother and sister, were burned alive.

The farmer, who himself was now on the run, got word to Berl about the fate of his family.  No miracles saved Rachel and Gussie, but the remaining Baksts continued on. They still worked in the factory, but as the war dragged on and German fortunes were fading, their lives became more precarious. They wondered how long the leather/shoe factory would be continued. Berl would have David go across the street to the Polish shoe store to visit and try to gather information.

One day German soldiers came to the factory while David was at the store across the way. David saw the soldiers. The Polish storekeeper gave David an overcoat so that his yellow star would be covered. David put the coat on and ran out the back. Two soldiers saw him and gave chase, shooting at him. David remembers zig zagging down the alley, rolling and getting up, darting back and forth to escape. Gunshots sprayed around him, but none hit their target. He got away and went to the rendezvous spot.

Berl and Eli also escaped the factory that day. Eventually they showed up at the rendezvous spot to meet David. Batya didn’t come. Berl wanted to go back to find her. He felt he couldn’t leave his daughter behind. David argued that Berl couldn’t leave them either. In an emotional exchange that still pains David, he convinced his father to stay with them.

This time in the woods, they were able to join partisan brigades. David and Berl joined Iskra, a Russian regiment. Eli joined the Bielskis (a Jewish regiment, whose story was told in the movie Defiance).

David was a fighter in the regiment and Berl supported the group by repairing shoes and working with leather. David recalls various missions including sabotaging a German military caravan where they were able to capture weapons and ammunition.

Iskra also took measures against collaborators. When they became aware of Polish families who were cooperating with the Germans, they wanted to send a message that there would be consequences. The partisan brigade took vengeance on those villagers, and captured any food, weapons or other material that would be useful. At this point, David described himself as living like an animal –  there was no right or wrong, there was only survival and he did what he had to do.

While they were with Iskra, Berl and David got word that Batya was alive. She was in a camp outside Lida, which was about 40 kilometers away. With the assistance of the other members of the brigade, they came up with a rescue plan. Using coded messages, they managed to communicate with Batya.

Batya had a routine which involved crossing the camp to bring food to the German soldiers. This was done at the same time each day. One of the partisans, a Pole, intercepted Batya, ripped the yellow star from her clothing and covered her with his overcoat. Somehow, they walked out of the camp without being detected.

Batya joined David and Berl and became part of the Iskra brigade. To have his sister back was a miracle to David. That the rescue plan worked was unbelievable. David still gives thanks for it.

He would need more miracles to continue to survive.

Part of the Story

I try to imagine how it would feel, but it just isn’t possible. I can’t put myself in his shoes. It is important to try, though. The more I learn, the more astonishing his story is.

We were sitting in a luncheonette in Saugerties, Gary, David, my father-in-law, and Paula, my mother-in-law, as part of an ordinary Thursday afternoon visit. We lingered while Paula painstakingly ate her cream cheese on bagel. The rest of us had long since finished our lunches. But, I felt no impatience. David was telling us about his childhood. David grew up in the vanished world of the shtetl, in a town called Iwie (pronounced Eve-ya), in what was then Poland (today it is Belarus, and the spelling of the town varies).

“It was a beautiful youth,” David explained. Almost like the scene from My Cousin Vinny,I ask, “Beautiful what?” David repeats the word, then asks, “That’s the word, right? Youth?” All these years later, he still questions his English. “You said it perfectly, I just didn’t hear you,” I replied with a smile.

I hadn’t given much thought to what shtetl life meant to them. We have had many conversations over the years, but it mostly covered things like: Did you have running water in the house? (No) Did you have electricity? (yes for David, no for Paula). Those kinds of things are interesting tidbits, but don’t paint a picture of their lives. This conversation offered more insight, perhaps because Gary asked, “Did your father think about leaving for the United States earlier?”

David’s parents, Berl and Rachel, were comfortably established in Iwie. Berl’s brothers left for America in the 1920s. They appealed to Berl to come with them. He declined. His business, making and selling leather shoes, was growing. He was making a name for himself based on the quality of his product; he was becoming more and more successful. He was providing a good life for his growing family. David was born in 1922, another son, Eliahu, was born in 1925 and two daughters followed.

Perhaps as important, Rachel’s family lived in Iwie, too. Every Shabbos, after services, aunts, uncles and cousins, came to the Bakst (spelled Bakszt) home to visit. The adults schmoozed and talked politics, the children ran around outside. There was warmth and affection – there may have been arguments, too, but nothing serious. Berl was to the right politically of some of his family, a supporter of Jabotinsky, while others were more mainstream Zionists. They enjoyed the give and take.

David observed, “The family was close. Not like what I see in America. It is different here.” I said what he described sounded a lot like the family I grew up in (minus the observance of Shabbos) – with aunts, uncles and cousins coming in and out of my grandmother’s upstairs apartment. But, I had to agree, it probably wasn’t typical of American families.

Without saying it explicitly, the picture David painted made it clear why Berl didn’t leave in the 1920s. And, it would have been up to Berl, as the head of the household. David was in awe of his father. “I thought my father was the smartest man in the world,” he said, with pride all these years later.

David’s idyllic youth ended September 3, 1939 (he remembers the date), he hadn’t celebrated his 17thbirthday yet. After the Soviet Union and Germany signed the infamous Non-Agression Pact in August of that year, Germany invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded from the east. The Russians took over Iwie.

A lieutenant and a captain in the Soviet army commandeered rooms in the Bakst house. Their shoe factory was confiscated by the state. Their passports were stamped ‘capitalist.’ Berl was permitted to work at the factory, but he could no longer claim ownership. They were persona non grata in the communist system.

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David, in the family shoe store, around 1939.

As bad as things were under the Russians, it got worse when Germany violated the Non-Aggression treaty and made their move to invade the Soviet Union. The German army invaded Iwie in June of 1941.

It was far too late to decide to emigrate to America, it became a question of survival for Berl and his family.

Note: I will continue the story in future blog posts. If family members have more information to add, please do. If I have gotten anything wrong, please correct me!

Life’s Little Ironies

Random ironies I’ve been thinking about:

The thing you most need to do when feeling lonely or depressed is the one thing that is hardest to do: call someone, reach out to another person. Taking that step requires more energy than I can muster in those moments.

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Money makes money; the more money you have, the more you can accumulate. The system is unfair and conspires against those who don’t have it. I was struck by this, in a small way, when I went to the bank to get certified checks (bank checks?) for our closing the other day. As a perk of being a ‘privileged’ customer, I didn’t have to pay for the checks. There was a woman being served by the teller next to me who didn’t have a checking account and needed to get a bank check. She was charged – I think it was $5.00 per check. There’s an irony there. The person who could afford it wasn’t charged, the person who could least afford it was. I know why the bank does that, from a business perspective it makes sense. From an ethical perspective, perhaps another model would be better for society. What if bank customers with the financial wherewithal paid more for their services so that people with less resources paid less? Is that blasphemy in our capitalist economy?

Another example – a person with great credit and solid savings gets a low rate on a loan to buy a house. That person pays less for their house and can continue to save and build their financial resources. Another person, with a less strong credit history and less savings, gets a higher interest rate on their loan. They pay more and are likely to continue to struggle to make ends meet. What would happen if the system was reversed?

I can’t imagine the system changing given the vested interests in keeping it the way it is. And some might think it is fair the way it is – they may believe that the rich have earned their perks. I’m not so sure.

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I think she was just trying to be helpful, but she wasn’t. A woman was explaining to me how she manages her diet. She limits her carb intake, loads up on fruits and vegetables, virtually eliminates fats and makes sure she gets her 10,000 steps daily. I was nodding along. She is rail thin, I am not. When new information comes out about diet and exercise, she incorporates it into her routine. I think she was sharing her approach in hopes that I would see the light. As if I didn’t know all of that stuff.

For some of us, eating is mostly about fueling our bodies. Gary is able to approach it that way. That’s not what eating is about for me. Hunger has little to do with it. It is about comfort, boredom, frustration, grief, and joy, too.

Maybe I’m being unfair in assuming that it is easy for the rail thin woman. Maybe she is working hard – actually, I’m sure she is. But, the discipline of regulating her eating comes more naturally. Perhaps it is another of life’s little ironies – those of us who most need to separate emotions from eating, have the hardest time doing it.

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I came across a post on Facebook, from Julian Lennon, though I don’t think he wrote it himself:

Life is so ironic, it takes sadness to know what happiness is

Noise to appreciate silence and

Absence to value presence.

 

It seemed to fit with the way I’ve been looking at things lately.

A Memorable Father’s Day

Note: This post was written by Gary, my husband.

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Three generations of fathers

As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go.  Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short).  Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice.  The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey.  Those visits had gone quite well.

This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over.  The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease.  She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade.  The disease has done what it does.  It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her.  The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.

And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her.  Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it.  In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her.  This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.

But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly.  You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated.  She cannot retain what is said to her.  I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her.  Never.

Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players.  I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care.  But that is, frankly the easiest part.  My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall.  My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.

Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car.  While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.

Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city.  They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly.  In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available.  While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services.  In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.

As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed.  We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride.  The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.

Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem.  Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets.  They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom.  And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.

In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well.  This was the reason for all of the effort.  For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.

The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment.  He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland.  The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died.  There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans.  The statistics are startling.  80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war.  98% of Jewish children were killed.  The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.

David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother.  His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America.  All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat.  Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.

Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties.  I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim.  Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well.  Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.

So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation.  Those who came with an army to kill him are gone.  He remains.  And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.

He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.

This was a very different moment.  This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that.  Linda understood that.  Dan and Beth understood that.  And all wanted him to have that moment.  It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.

After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells.  We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate.  We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan.  The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.

We did not have as easy a time driving up.  My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat.  She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire.  Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.

We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family.  They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.

We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria.  After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide.  With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.

We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.

It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift.  Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that.  They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.

It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day.  The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere.  I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.

It was a very good Father’s Day weekend.

No Judgment Zone

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Sometimes I think too much

We know the old saying, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’ We know this applies to people, yet we do it anyway; we judge. Looked at another way, is the idea that you never know what is going on with another person, unless they share it with you. I am going to share, with the hope that it helps others.

I take Zoloft and I have for many years. Some may read that and think, ‘Big frickin’ deal! Doesn’t everyone?’ Others may be surprised since my life is so charmed (and it is). And some may wonder why I would share something so private.

It is that last one that motivates me to write this post. Struggling with depression and anxiety is no different than other illnesses. I think there are some who view having cancer or diabetes or high cholesterol as a private matter – but not out of shame.

I hesitate to label myself as mentally ill. I have never been clinically depressed, as I understand that term. I have suffered only one panic attack that I recognized as such, and that was when I was a teenager. But, I have struggled my whole life with persistent melancholia. Whether that qualifies as a mental illness according to the DSM, I will leave for a doctor to decide. The label doesn’t matter, I was struggling through my life. It took a few things to get me to finally seek help.

One significant trigger was my son. When he was an adolescent, he asked me why I was always so unhappy. That opened my eyes to the impact my moods were having on my children, and that maybe it was getting worse. I also realized that I was fed up with ruminating. When things would go wrong, let’s say a family member said something that hurt my feelings or an interaction at work was frustrating, I would replay the incident in my head for months, imagining what I should have said in response, or how I would talk to them about it, only to do nothing. I would get stuck in that place and time, I couldn’t get out of my own way. One more factor led me to reach out and that was my daughter was approaching college age and she would be leaving home. I wanted to prepare myself and I wanted to handle the stress of that process better.

I asked my internist for a referral to a psychologist. I wasn’t thinking that I needed medication. I thought talk therapy would be sufficient. The referral worked out well – the therapist was a terrific match for me. She took a cognitive approach and we agreed that we would look at adding medication down the road, if we thought it would help.

After a number of months of weekly visits that were useful, I still wasn’t progressing the way I hoped, we revisited the medication question. We decided that I would try Zoloft (my internist actually did the prescribing). It was the right decision. It hasn’t been a miracle drug. The big difference I noticed was that I wasn’t in my head all the time. I could move past the aggravations and hurts that are a normal part of life, but previously I was not able to let go of. It didn’t suddenly fix my self-image problems, or remove all anxiety or regret, but it made it less of a struggle.

After a while, having learned some strategies and having better insight into myself, I thought I would try stopping the drug – I discussed it with both my therapist and my internist. I weaned off of it. After about a year, I realized it wasn’t a good move. The aftermath of my father’s death was a particularly challenging time for me. I also came to the realization that whatever it was about my brain that led me to ruminate was still there – it wasn’t going away. While I may have been able to manage it behaviorally, it took so much mental energy to do it that it was exhausting. I needed to come to peace with taking the medicine for the foreseeable future.

I write this because during all the years that this was playing out, I had numerous occasions where people commented on how lucky I am, or how happy, assertive, or comfortable (insert positive characteristic here) I seem to be. I am those things, some of the time, and not without considerable effort. If only they knew, better living through chemistry! Now they know!

So, there are three points in my sharing this. First, don’t make assumptions based on what you see. There is an internet meme that says you never know the battle someone else is fighting. Every time I see it, it resonates. Start with compassion. Second, it shouldn’t be a thing for someone to share that they take an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or any other medication that helps to regulate mood. We shouldn’t sit in judgment. We may be moving in that direction, but we aren’t there yet. Lastly, I hope it is helpful to someone to know my story.

 

Neighborhoods and Change

When I was in graduate school I lived on 80thand Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980. It was my first exposure to gentrification. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was taking place before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working class people were displaced by wealthier folks. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered and boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I wondered where the displaced people went, but I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer, I could walk comfortably on more blocks. Though the ice cream from the new Haagen Dazs shop may have been expensive, it sure was delicious.

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The Upper West Side today.  Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Time

Some lamented the changes, either because of the injustice to those of lesser means or because of the loss of authenticity (everything new, shiny and expensive was phony) or both. I certainly understood the former. The gap between the haves and the havenots was growing steadily, it was and is unfair. But, longing for the days when New York City was gritty and dirty, was bizarre to me. I didn’t enjoy being afraid. I was unsettled by the strung-out junkies hanging out on the stoops of those brownstones. That era, the 70s and 80s, when the city nearly went bankrupt, and the lack of support showed in crumbling buildings and overflowing garbage, is not romantic to me. (The website Gothamist ran a series of side-by-side photos of Central Park, showing the condition of the park back in the day. Take a look.)

More recently I had reason to think about the changes in the last decades in New York City when Leah and I did the Five Boro Bike Tour (which I wrote about here). We cycled through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the 70s and 80s, I wouldn’t have considered visiting either area, much less ride a bicycle through them. We rode past art galleries and craft beer breweries. Much like the gentrification of the Upper West Side, these areas in Brooklyn were now home to a wealthier professional class.

I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods and how complicated it all is, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. I did a bit of research, including reading a book, The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration and Ethnic Politics in a Global City (2012), edited by Judith DeSena and Timothy Shortell. The book is comprised of 16 scholarly essays, including one entitled, Revising Canarsie. (Note: I believe that the title was meant to be Revisiting Canarsie, not revising, because the premise of the piece was to take a look at the neighborhood and compare it to an earlier examination by Jonathan Rieder, entitled Canarsie: Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism(1985), a book I also read and found very insightful.)

The book, The World in Brooklyn, in general, makes the case that gentrification is a bad thing for the poor, immigrant communities. It paints a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While I believe there is truth in that picture, I think it oversimplifies things. The books presents the ‘gentry’ as one, monolithic thing – as if it is a homogenous group of rich, white people. The book doesn’t take into account that when demographics are changing, it is a two-way street. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that make true integration across economic classes (not just racial differences) impossible to achieve.

I may be particularly sensitive to this issue of integrating across economic classes because of an experience I had when we moved into our suburban neighborhood, which was a new development (new, developing neighborhood). As may be the case in many suburban neighborhoods, there was a range of economic circumstances. There were those who were barely able to make ends meet to live there, and there were those for whom it was very comfortable, and, of course, families in between. Though Gary and I were in the more comfortable range, we thought of ourselves as more modest people since we had grown up in middle class families. Leah, our daughter became friends with a girl down the block and they often played at the friend’s house. We became friendly with the parents and made numerous overtures to invite them over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments that were made, I came to believe that the mom made certain assumptions about us. Since Gary was (and is) a doctor, we were Jewish, we were from downstate originally, the mom, in particular, was not comfortable socializing with us. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something else at work. As Gary and I became more comfortable economically, I became more aware of how that can create awkwardness, even when trying to be sensitive. It is something that is difficult to talk about. We never did get beyond neighborly friendliness and eventually they moved. The experience, and others like it, made me more aware of economic factors that can create social barriers.

My experience growing up in Canarsie offers another perspective on neighborhood relationships in the midst of change. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification, it would appear to be just the opposite. I have written before about my experience in 1972 with the boycott of schools because of the plan to bus black students from East New York into predominantly white Canarsie schools (here). There was some white flight in response, but the neighborhood remained fairly stable for a number of years (my parents left in 1989 when they retired from teaching). In 1990 Canarsie was less than 20% black; in 2000 it was 60% black (and I use ‘black’ because many of the new residents were immigrants from the Caribbean who may or may not have identified as African-American). By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. Though the racial composition changed, the fact was that the economic status remained stable. The new residents weren’t poor and they weren’t uneducated.

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Typical block in Canarsie – Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians were looking for years before. According to a New York Times article:

‘A house to the Caribbean man is something very important,” Samuel E. Palmer was saying. ”He has to have a house, as opposed to an apartment. Whatever happens, the house comes first, so you can have a family and your friends can meet there. So, when I came here, the desire also was to achieve this house, this houseness.”

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. They were loyal to Brooklyn; they had no interest in Queens or Long Island. As Mr. Palmer put it, if you move, you have to build all over again: friends, neighbors, all that.

Canarsie is teeming with new and newly revitalized civic associations these days, many of them headed by newcomers like Mr. Brazela and Mr. Duncan, lobbying and agitating for improved street lighting, road repairs, better drainage.”

THE CENSUS — A Region of Enclaves: Canarsie, Brooklyn; ‘For Sale’ Signs Greet Newcomers – NYT, June 18, 2001

The essay on Canarsie in the book that I cited above, supported this anecdotal account with  research-based findings. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 when there were three bias incidents (against black families/businesses), including the fire-bombing of a real estate agency that was court ordered to show homes in Canarsie to blacks and Hispanic buyers. The neighborhood became homogenous again – now it is over 90% black.

In reading and thinking about the issues raised by changing neighborhoods, I think there are some commonalities. Problems seem to start with assumptions made based on stereotypes or ignorance or both. And, there aren’t mechanisms to get beyond those assumptions. We have no language to talk to each other about these issues. One of the essays in the World in Brooklyn analogizes different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who might play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. There is some learning about each other as groups coexist, but not true integration. Of course, there are exceptions, some individuals have successfully broken down barriers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to whole communities. The question is, how do we integrate across race, economic status, religion? What have we learned from our past experiences that can help us? How can we do better?