Sheila Seabrook has requested that I talk about where I grew up. I venture to add, it was not only where I grew up, but when. It was Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the fifties.
In this post of City Scapes, I would like to take you on a short trip back to another time and introduce you to New York City “Street” kids of the fifties … a unique group of baby boomers in a time many believe was the last age of innocence.
The spirit of our time has been captured by one of the musical giants of my generation, Paul Simon. Yes, Paul, as we boomers fast approach another crossroad, we begin to reflect … “how very strange to be seventy.” (Old Friends, written and arranged by Paul Simon, performed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.) For your pleasure, I reprint:
“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences/Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph/Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you …”
Time it was …
Since the fifties, many of the neighborhoods in the five boroughs that began as agricultural or blue-collar industrial areas have morphed into mixed commercial and residential neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods have also been renamed to reflect their new image.
The lands once used by small farmers in Staten Island and along the border of Brooklyn and Nassau County in Long Island were sold to developers. Soil was covered in concrete, dirt roads became asphalt, and trolley tracks were ripped from cobblestone streets and sold as scrap.
Those who had vision built Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan. Slums and tenements became boutique housing, tenements in Hell’s Kitchen were removed to build Lincoln Center and abandoned land and factories along the docks in mid-town became the Javitz Center.
And what a time it was …
While the old neighborhoods provided modest housing and work for thousands of first and second-generation laborers, the streets and avenues became the playground for their children … the street kids of the fifties.
We were among them, me and Pete, two urchins running in the open fields behind the factories; a vacant lot became our playground, exploring the Brooklyn docks our adventure. But the best of it all was Sunset Park, the long hills, the wide pool or the circular brick wall surrounding the flagpole to watch the sun set.
We were the product of blue-collar, first generation dreams and the simple joy of putting our pennies together for a Spaldeen ball, a “pinkie,” was enough to keep us happy for days … or until one of the bigger boys snatched it from us … until a rooftop captured it … or until it got flattened by the wheels of the trolley.
We invented games because our parents thought store-bought games were a waste of hard-earned money. We played stickball, punchball, ring-a-lievio, Johnny on the pony, handball, stoopball, and kick the can. We leapfrogged over hydrants, climbed up telephone poles and hung off the narrow trestle bridge that separated the old freight yards of Bush Terminal from the subway trains.
A cardboard refrigerator box became a temporary “club house,” orange crates became scooters, and soda caps filled with melted candle wax became one of the most popular street games … Skully or as we called it, Skelsies. Old pairs of playing cards from my father’s club were a treasure, and of course there were always our older brothers’ marble collections.
A time of innocence …
My prize possessions were two things none of the older boys had the nerve to snatch, lest they deal with my “big” brother or our Dad, Big Sal. They were my homemade scooter and my roller skates.
The scooter was made from old fruit crates gathered from the fruit and vegetable stand on Third Avenue, and odd roller skate wheels; bargains from the “junk” yard, nailed to flat boards.
My roller skates were the kind that needed a bike “key” … the ones that slipped off my narrow feet and needed extra leather straps to hold them to my skinny ankles.
It was the big guy who bought me my first pair of speed skates, my only pair of indoor skates, and my first and only bike. The bike, a dark blue, second-hand Schwinn traveled on the roof of his 1949 Plymouth from Poughkeepsie to Brooklyn, delivered to me late one June evening as an early birthday gift.
These “gifts” were usually accompanied by mother’s warnings, a quick smack on the leg with the wooden spoon or the back of her hand to my head for good measure. Finally, I was set free. After a few falls and several scrapped shins, I got the hang of the thing and was off to find new adventure.
A time of confidences …
We were “street” kids. No one missed us if we left our houses after breakfast and did not return until supper time. The rule was we had better be in the house when the street lights came on. This one hard and fast rule spurned my then “chubby” middle brother to race down hills at lightening speed to open the door minutes before the lights went on.
We traveled through neighborhood, and with nothing between us and concrete and asphalt, we raced along the sidewalk on solid steel skates, scooters or fat wheeled bikes.
No one monitored our behavior or organized play groups. We were not required to wear helmets or knees protectors. If we fell, we got up and kept riding. And on our cheap skates, or on homemade scooters pushed by bargain Keds on uneven sidewalks, we explored our world.
Without adult supervision or interference, we created a caste system for selecting kids for stick ball or taking turns to play “stoop” ball. In groups of three or five we played on the neighbor’s or our own “stoop,” in back alleys, and under the Third Avenue elevated highway. Neighbors didn’t complain about the banging of our balls against their houses and the constant shouting of our games.
Speaking of neighbors … if one of them needed a loaf of bread, they threw down a quarter wrapped in a piece of newspaper into a crowd of kids. Whoever caught the quarter ran to get the bread.
We collected “empties” to make our Saturday movie money, because our entertainment was not one of the activities our parents “budgeted.”
No one locked their doors and people seemed to roam in and out of our tiny houses at will … to borrow a cup of sugar … to ask the man of the house to fix their leaky sink. There was no money exchanged, no favors expected in return … we were neighbors.
Long ago it must be …
Instead of jumping off the dock behind the old trolley terminal, me and Petie preferred the pool at Sunset Park. As a child, a teenager, and a young woman, I lived alone or with my family on two sides of Sunset Park.
As teens, in mixed-gender groups resembling roaming marauders, we walked everywhere because our parents would not waste a good nickel for the trolley, or later a quarter for the bus. A fun night was sitting at the local “ice cream parlor” drinking a cherry-coke or an egg-cream and listening to the juke box.
We shared plates of fries with ketchup or brown gravy. No one cared about germs if we “shared” a bottle of Pepsi. Wipe it on the end of your shirt, take a slug and pass it on. One bottle of soda and one bag of chips was enough for three of us on any given summer day in the park.
A cheap date was walking to the local Catholic School for the Friday night dances or the high school basketball games. We spent our days lounging on the grassy slopes of the park, our nights swimming or walking “around.”
Eventually, we had to grow up and leave the old neighborhood. Some settled down, got married, and raised kids in newer, “safer” places. Some crossed the country to settle on the west coast, others never moved more than five miles from the house where they were born.
We collected our old forty-five records, packed away our short skirts, opened bank accounts and contributed to the economy.
I have a photograph …
Yet, somewhere in our memory those moments still live. When on a rainy day, or when we miss our kids and grandkids, or we need to connect to the caste system that molded us … we can take out our old black and white or early “Kodak” moments from shoe boxes of photo albums and remember the time of our life.
The street kids of New York City lived and played through the innocence of the fifties and the turmoil of the sixties to find themselves seniors in the new millenium.
However, in this brave new world of digital, electronic speed and instant results, there are still hundreds of acres where you can find those happy moments from yesteryear.
Preserve your memories …
Suffering from an arrested development, the memory of my first blue second-hand Schwinn remained embedded in my brain. And twenty years later it rose again, like the Phoenix, and became an adult reality.
Todllers in tow, I moved back to Brooklyn from the New Jersey suburbs and found a place for us in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn … a bike ride from Coney Island.
In Part Three, I will introduce you the many places “older” kids enjoy our city as we traverse the hundreds of miles of New York City’s bike paths.
How about you? Where was the time and place of your childhood?
What city streets did you explore, or which lanscapes and vistas remain embedded in your brain?
fOIS In The City
Note: For more incredible photographs of New York City street games, visit The Passion of Former Days, blog hosted by Anna Krentz.