A Seminal Event

Note: My mother has continued to write stories of her youth. This one was shared previously on my brother’s Facebook page. I wanted to share it, too, since it is such an important part of our family story.  In fact, I had written about it before here. After my Mom’s essay, there is a postscript with some facts and figures about the storm and then a portion of my previous post. My Mom’s description adds details to my understanding of how that momentous, traumatic experience, the New England Hurricane of 1938, felt to her and the lesson she took from it. 

Change by Feige Brody

There is always change, whether it is the change of seasons, change of jobs or change of homes. The first momentous change in my life, which I can recall, was in September 1938 when I was not yet 5 years old. We lived on the second floor of a two- story building in New London, CT. I was playing outside when a black cloud covered the sun and changed my day to night.

When the winds and rain began no one knew that it would be unlike any other storm, but would be the most powerful and destructive hurricane in New England’s recorded history. As my mother called me up the stairs, I recall her attempting to remove things from the clothesline when it snapped, and all the white sheets went flapping into the black sky.
Mother and I hurried inside where my two -year old baby sister, Simma, was crying in her crib. Mother closed all the windows and I played with Simma singing “Rain Rain go away.” Suddenly a burst of wind shattered our windows. Glass and rain poured into our apartment. Mother plopped us onto the center of my parents’ bed. She had to keep us off the floor while she attempted to clean the debris.
To our immense relief our soaking father soon arrived and the first thing he said was “Christopher Columbus saved my life.”
Dad then proceeded to tell us that he had been delivering breads and cakes when the storm intensified. His car was stuck in a flooded street and the car started to fill with water so he scrambled out. Holding onto the walls of the buildings he started making his way home. A gust of wind however sent him air borne and blew him into the statute of Christopher Columbus which was right in the middle of the road. Dad held on for dear life; eventually, he and Christopher Columbus parted, and Dad resumed his precarious journey back to us.
Our apartment was illuminated only by the outside flames of a burning New London. We could hear fire engines and sirens. The water in our apartment began to rise; Mother knew we were going to have to abandon our home and she started packing diapers and a few other items.
Fortunately, a coast guard boat soon arrived, in what used to be our back yard, and we climbed through the broken window in the kitchen and into the boat. I remember putting my hand in the swirling water and splashing. It was fun and exciting for an almost five- year old girl. But the fun subsided soon. When we were deposited on relatively dry land there was utter darkness. Electric wires were whipping in the wind and we were drenched and walking on wet ground. I had to jump to avoid the live wires which were sparkling and sizzling all around us. I was frightened for the first time. No one was able to hold my hand because Mom was carrying Simma and Dad was carrying our few belongings.
I learned that life could turn around in a second. We lost everything in that hurricane. Our life was changed in every way.
My father, a voracious reader, quoted Voltaire, and told me “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 80 plus years later, I do not believe “all is for the best,” but, I do believe that this is the best and only world we have, so we should make the best of it. And this has been my philosophy of life through changes in jobs, changes in homes, and changes in the seasons of our lives.

Post Script: Some facts pertaining to the hurricane on the 21st of September 1938:
1. There was no warning system- in 1938 forecasting in US lagged behind Europe
2. No insurance
3. This was prior to the naming of hurricanes
4. 682 people died
5. In 1938 dollars: 306 million in losses (which is 4.7 billion dollars in 2017)
6. It was a Category 5 Hurricane with wind 160 mph
7. 2 billion trees destroyed
8. 20,000 electrical poles toppled
9. 26,000 automobiles destroyed
10. Damaged or destroyed 570 homes including mine

Here is a link to footage from the National Weather Service that shows the fury and aftermath of that epic storm: link

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This is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote, which is a profile of mom’s Dad, who I called Zada. He was the essence of resilience.

An essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

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A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

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Me paying homage in 2011

Thoughts on Neighborhoods and Change

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.

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Me in front of our house in the mid 1970s in Canarsie
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My block in Canarsie from GoogleMaps taken in 2018

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.

A Mix of Emotions

Somehow, after recounting the drama and trauma of my in-laws journey through an anti-Semitic landscape, the events of this past weekend are crushing to me. It is a terrible reminder of our need to be vigilant in the face of hate and violence. I can only hope that we, as a country, will turn the tide. I hope the coming election sends a clear message. Please vote – and please vote for change.

Although I have covered the broad strokes of the Bakst family’s story, I do have a few more essays to write on that topic. I have learned a lot in the process of researching and listening to David’s stories, and I have thought quite a bit about the meaning of his and Paula’s experience that I would like to share.

But, first, I am taking a short break. In fact, I write this from Barcelona, the first stop on a Mediterranean trip. Lucky me! Don’t worry, though, I voted by absentee ballot and so did Gary!

Some views of Barcelona:

New Beginnings

The Silberfarbs left Ranshofen, since it was closing, in 1948. They went to another nearby DP camp. Lea, based on Bernie and Sofia’s wish to go to Israel, was trying to make arrangements, but was not yet successful. She was also corresponding with her husband’s family in Cuba. Two of Samuel’s sisters, Busha and Mary, had settled in Havana with their respective husbands, Nachum and Solomon, before World War II.

Lea wrote to Busha and Nachum, explaining her predicament. The children wanted to go to Israel but she was unable to secure passage. Nachum, in response, wrote a heartfelt letter offering to sponsor them in coming to Cuba. He reminded Lea how difficult life would be in Israel, as a widowed mother without family to help. He suggested that they try life in Cuba, if in a year they didn’t like it, he would arrange immigration to Israel. He made the point that it would likely be easier at that point to immigrate, as post-war tensions eased, and the newly created State of Israel got on its feet. The Silberfarbs were touched by Nachum’s letter and generosity, and swayed by the soundness of his argument. They agreed to go to Havana.

During the conversations about their plans, Paula kept silent. In her heart, she wanted to go to Cuba, thinking it was her chance to see David again. But, she didn’t think it was fair to try and influence the family decision based on her burgeoning romance. She was beyond delighted when things fell into place.

Meanwhile, the Silberfarbs bided their time at the DP camp. Paula was back in school. She was grateful for the opportunity. She particularly liked math. A fellow survivor, a man who was an engineer by training, taught arithmetic and geometry. He was a volunteer at the makeshift school. He may not have known much about teaching, but that didn’t trouble Paula. She loved the precision and logic of the subject and took to it naturally. In addition to the academics, Paula took sewing. An organization, ORT, set up vocational training opportunities in the DP camps. Paula took full advantage.

The Silberfarbs were slated to sail to Cuba from France. They left the DP camp only to find that the ship wasn’t there. With the assistance of another organization, HIAS, which helped with paperwork, and with additional funds from Uncle Nachum, the Silberfarbs flew from Paris to Havana. Flying was unheard of among the survivors! It was another act of generosity by Nachum.

They arrived in Havana to a warm welcome. Paula’s aunts and uncles had set up a furnished apartment for them. Paula began working, first in Uncle Solomon’s store and then in Uncle Nachum’s. She liked the responsibility of work, completing her tasks to the best of her ability, and she treated the stores as if they were her own. She felt a loyalty to her uncles who continued to be so supportive of her and her mother and siblings. They settled into life in Havana, picking up another language, Spanish, along the way.

Paula resumed her correspondence with David, now that they were both settled. David was in a rooming house in Brooklyn near his Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose, and had a job at their pickle company. They agreed he would come for a visit. He saved his money and he went to Cuba in November of 1949 to see if they might have a future together.

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During David’s visit to Havana in 1949: L-R Paula, David and Uncle Nachum

One More Loss

The DP camps weren’t designed to stay open indefinitely. Ranshofen was slated to close. The Silberfarbs and Baksts were making plans for the next step. Batya and Fishel left for Italy. David said his good-bye to Paula, telling her that if her family went to Cuba, he would see her again. If they went to Israel, he wasn’t so sure.  Berl and David left for another DP camp, Hofgeismar, in the American zone in Germany. From there, they hoped to go to the United States. Berl’s brother in New York offered to sponsor them.

At some point during the war, Berl developed a hernia. He was eager to get it repaired before the journey to America. He wanted to arrive in the New World strong and fit. David didn’t understand the rush, he wanted his father to wait until they got to the United States to have the surgery. Adding to David’s anxiety was the fact that he didn’t trust the German doctors. Berl could not be dissuaded. He wanted to go forward, and the surgery was scheduled to take place at the hospital in Hofgeismar.

The details of what followed are unclear. Berl made it through the surgery, but he had complications. Tragically, he died of those complications. David was devastated. After all they had both been through, they were finally on the cusp of a new life. He already lost his mother, brother and little sister. His other sister was enroute to Israel. He was alone to deal with this latest unexpected tragedy. He didn’t have Paula for comfort.  Paula and her family were still in Ranshofen, Austria. David made the funeral arrangements.

Berl was buried in a Jewish cemetery in the town of Hofgesimar. David observed shiva and mourned his loss alone.

David was at his lowest point. He didn’t know if he had the strength to go on. What was the point, he wondered? Why had he survived all that he gone through only to have this happen? He hadn’t received his visa yet and he wondered if he ever would. He wrote to Paula and shared his heartbreaking news. He waited and waited to hear back. She didn’t know what to say, how to offer comfort. She didn’t write. He never felt so alone

One night in the midst of his sorrow, he had a dream. His mother came to him. She reassured him, “You will be all right.” In the dream, she gave him a letter. It was postmarked the 8th. He awoke feeling hopeful for the first time in months. Even though it was a dream, he felt his mother’s presence. Throughout the war, during challenging and frightening times, he felt that his mother was protecting him. He felt she continued to look out for him.

On December 8th, 1948, he received a letter containing his visa. David sailed for the United States in January of 1949.

Displaced Persons

Imagine resettling the entire population of New York City all at once. When World War II ended that was the task. Estimates of the number of displaced persons (DPs) vary wildly, probably depending on who was included in that category. Prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, partisans, and refugees from towns caught in the cross-fire flooded Europe. At the low end, 6.5 million people were displaced, at the high end 17 million. Berl, David and Batya were among them.

For some, once the bullets stopped flying and the bombs stopped falling, they could go home and rebuild their lives. By September of 1945, three-quarters of the refugees went back to their country of origin. For others, including the Baksts, going home wasn’t an option. Out of the 4000 or so Jews that lived in Iwie, only about 50 survived. The town had been “cleansed” of Jews. The Bakst home was occupied by others.

In order to establish order and begin the process of repatriating DPs, the Allies divided Germany and Austria into zones. Great Britain, France, the United States and Soviet Union each controlled areas and all but the Soviets set up camps to house the refugees. The USSR had a policy of expecting all its DPs to reintegrate into Soviet society, irrespective of their status as a former prisoner of war or a concentration camp survivor, and therefore no DP camps were set up in their zone. The other Allied countries utilized abandoned military barracks, hospitals, apartment buildings, private homes and other assorted structures to establish DP camps. In December of 1945 the American zone had 134 camps, and by June of 1947, they had 416 sites. Great Britain had 272, while the French hosted 45.

An organization called Birchah (the Hebrew word for ‘flight’), which was a semi-clandestine Zionist network, helped Jewish survivors get to DP camps (there were some camps that only housed Jews, but most were a mixture of ethnicities).  The Baksts were assisted by Birchah and got to a camp in the American Zone. Berl had heard that concentration camp survivors were allowed expedited immigration to the United States, so he attempted to register as a camp survivor. Since neither he nor his children had a number tattooed on their arm, they were rejected. It was not uncommon for people to move among the camps since everything was in such flux. They went to another DP camp, this time in Austria, to begin the process again. It turned out to be a lucky thing that they did.

They ended up at Ranshofen. Ironically, Ranshofen was located near Brunau, Hitler’s birthplace. The DP camp was made up of brick buildings that were each two stories, with two  two-bedroom apartments on each floor.  Berl, David, Batya, who had recently married Fishel (the man she met while they were with the Partisans), were assigned one bedroom in an apartment, and another family was assigned the other bedroom. The two families shared the common spaces (living room, kitchen and bathroom).

The other family assigned to the apartment included a woman, Lea Silberfarb, and her three children, from oldest to youngest, Bernard, Paula and Sophia. The families became close, sharing stories of their experiences. David was particularly taken with Paula, who despite being 9 years younger, was a good listener, sympathetic, smart, pretty and mature well beyond her years. Living as the Silberfarbs had through the war, stripped Paula of her childhood.

Paula was 10 when the Germans invaded her town, Serniki, Poland (now part of the Ukraine). She, her mom and her siblings lived, on the run, staying in forest encampments, moving from village to village, for over 4 years. (Note: I will share Paula’s story in next week’s blog post)

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David and Paula in Ranshofen

They were all in Ranshofen for about two years before leaving on the next step of their journey. The Silberfarbs wanted to go to Palestine, as did Batya and Fishel. Berl and David were trying to get to the United States. The paperwork to get visas and arrange travel was a bureaucratic nightmare that took patience and perseverance. In the meanwhile, Paula and David got to know each other, as well as take classes and participate in activities. David even played in a volleyball tournament against other DP camp teams, which his team won. Conditions at DP camps varied widely. Fortunately, Ranshofen offered comfortable accommodations and a range of services.

One of the factors that determined which camp a refugee went to was where they wanted to resettle. For example, the best chance to immigrate to Palestine was from a DP camp in Italy. After some time at Ranshofen, Batya and Fishel went to Italy, since that was their goal. The Silberfarbs didn’t because they were considering another option offered by family that was already settled in Cuba.

Immigrating to Palestine was very difficult and conditions in the Holy Land were challenging as the area tried to absorb survivors and build a new country in a hostile environment. In 1939 Great Britain, which exercised authority over the area, severely limited Jewish immigration. After the war, 69,000 survivors attempted illegal immigration, less than half were successful. Others were arrested and interned on Cyprus. Batya and Fishel were among those waylaid in Cyprus. In fact, their daughter, Rochelle, was born there. Once the state of Israel was established in 1948, immigration flowed more freely. Batya, Fishel and Rochelle finally made it to a Jewish homeland, and faced another war, the war for Israeli independence.

Meanwhile, Berl and David went to another DP camp in Germany, one step closer to getting to the United States. David and Paula agreed to correspond by letter. David told Paula that if she ended up going to Cuba, they would meet again. Paula held on to that thought.

(Next week: Paula’s experience during the war)

 

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.

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?