This past Christmas in lieu of gift giving we went to New York City to experience its magic during that time of year. Years ago, I read an article about giving kids an experience rather than things for Christmases or birthdays, so I was delighted when my boys asked for this of their own accord.
I grew up in Brooklyn and the first thing we did was take the subway to Park Slope, my old neighborhood. We saw the apartment building where I grew up, the park we frequented, my elementary school, my best friend’s house, and our favorite pizza shop. I showed them my bedroom window and the courtyard where all the kids would roller skate up and down, driving the older folks mad with the loud roar of our skates.
At one point one of my sons exclaimed, “Mom, you were so lucky to grown up here!” They were both in awe that I went to the park by myself, walked to elementary school by myself, took the subway to high school by myself, walked the three blocks to visit my friend by myself. I smiled realizing two things: it’s so important for our families to see where we grew up as it makes their knowledge of us suddenly go ten feet deeper. They can grasp subliminal things about us by seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling the things we did as kids.
I also realized that my childhood was unique and wonderful in so many ways. My neighborhood was safe and diverse and my apartment building a multifaceted village unto itself. It was rent controlled and that made it possible for us and other working-class families to live there.
I remember the Panamanian family downstairs: the dad and teenage sons, proudly washing and waxing their car every Saturday morning, music blaring from the radio as they worked. The African American family with seven kids. She sang at her church, and her voice filled the courtyard when she practiced nearly every day. The superintendent’s family who got to live there for free since he carried the load of fixing the myriad things that went wrong in that Victorian era building. I remember another Black family with five kids; their mom occasionally watched me after school until my mom returned from work. Many of these families were part of the Great Migration: Black people who moved up North from the 1910s through the 1970’s seeking to escape the South’s toxic racism and find better jobs. They were hard working families with firm discipline. The mothers clipped branches from the large oak tree out front to use as switches to keep their kids in line. Disrespect was forbidden.
Surrounding our building were multimillion-dollar brownstones, inhabited by wealthy, liberal white families. Some of them sent their kids to the local Montessori school, but most chose to integrate the public schools. They used their time, education, and influence to make sure all kids got a quality education. Everyone benefited from the resultant economic, racial, and ethnic diversity. So much good happened on a subconscious level as poor and working-class whites, Blacks, Hispanics sat in math class with wealthy kids. We ate together, moaned about tests together and climbed the monkey bars together.
I thought about all of this as we got on the subway and shuttled to our next destination and then I felt sad and sobered. About twenty-five years ago, our building was sold to a developer who converted it to million-dollar condominiums. We would have never been able to live there, and my childhood would have been completely different. Gentrification pushes lower income families into lower income communities often with under resourced schools that lack the political influence of wealthy people. Their needs are easier to ignore, and the kids tend to get stuck as it’s hard to aspire to college when no one’s parents went to college. And wealthy kids go to school with other wealthy kids and become more entitled, more cloistered, more anemic, and more out of touch with the broader world.
I’m all for community development, but there are better ways to do it than pushing the poor out.
The rest of our trip was wonderful but seeing my old stomping ground was a highlight for us all. My kids and husband got a peek into my world, and I felt a fresh wave of gratitude for my home, my childhood and the era in which I grew up.
*** Pictured are my boys in front of 401 8th Avenue - my childhood apartment building.