Every trip to New York for me is a return to the old country. Even in California, I live in the sixth borough; a bicoastal netherworld that feels like the real thing though I am 3,000 miles away on the Best Coast.
Still, New York has changed profoundly since I last lived here back in the ‘80s and as a child growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most striking perhaps is how I can walk almost anywhere without fearing that I will be mugged or worse by a guy jonesing for his next vial of crack.
I live to walk in any city, but none more than The City. Alfred Kazin’s adoring portrait of working-class Jewish Brownsville, A Walker in the City, has been my talmud since I read it for the first time in my twenties.
On this most recent trip back to the New Jerusalem I revisited Brownsville and East New York with Bill Helmreich, a City College sociology professor whose mind is like Google when it comes to New York. The professor has walked every street in the city and has almost perfect recall of what he has seen, learned and eaten.
I meet Bill and his wife Helaine, an accomplished writer in her own right, under the elevated A train near Liberty and 80th Street in Ozone Park, Queens. Arriving early, I browse the Bangladeshi markets on 101st Avenue, taking in the ad in the window of one of the stores for Qurbani. Curious about this holiday I have never heard of, I go online and learn that Qurbani, celebrated during Eid-ul Adha is an act to commemorate the Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrifice as mentioned in the Quran. Qurbani in Islamic law means the slaughtering of an animal with the intention of getting close to Allah by giving the meat to the poor.
The author of thirteen books, including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton University Press, 2013), Helmreich’s next must-read for anyone who wants to discover New York, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows – An Urban Walking Guide (Princeton), is due out soon. I read the book’s galley proofs on Brownsville and East New York while heading over to Brooklyn.
Helmreich starts our tour on Blake Avenue in East New York, an area I remember as where Goodie, Mr. Goodie, who did collections for my uncle’s burglar alarm business, was twice mugged in a day back in the late ‘70s when I worked for the company as well.
We are near the Louis Pink Houses on Linden Blvd, perhaps the most infamous of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects in a neighborhood still known as the most dangerous in all of New York. The Pink Houses is a place where guys involved in drug deals gone bad have been thrown to their death out the window of an apartment on one of the upper floors. With a waiting list of several hundred thousand people seeking admission to public housing in New York City, East New York and neighboring Brownsville have New York’s highest concentration of public housing.
Helmreich has taken us here, just several blocks away, to see the Mafia graveyard on streets like Elden between Linden Blvd and Blake Avenue.
Gone is Murder Inc., the brutal Jewish/Italian gang that once ran numbers and other rackets in the area. Still, the Mafia graveyard is where a Genovese Family capo ran a chop shop and where hundreds of bodies of their victims are rumored to have been buried. The victims would be drained of their blood and chopped up and buried in this area which in places looks more like rural parts of New Jersey or Long Island than East Brooklyn. With its overgrown lots littered with industrial equipment and trucks, the streets here remind me of forgotten, undeveloped parts of Pacoima and Van Nuys. There are even the occasional well-tended gardens of industrious residents who find a higher use for the open space that can still be found here, a short distance from the projects.
I ask Professor Helmreich, “Where are New York’s poor moving given the City’s unstoppable gentrification?” To the Rockaways, the West Bronx and the mid-Bronx. The hipster gentrification that has hit the Rockaways is in the 80s and 90s while the poor are concentrated in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
East New York and Brownsville have special resonance for me as they are where my father was born and lived until his family, like so many other Jews, left the shtetl for better off areas of Brooklyn and beyond. In his case it was Ocean Avenue and Avenue V close to Neck Road (Gravesend Neck Road) in Sheepshead Bay. From there he was zoned to attend the renowned James Madison High School, where his classmates included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Notorious RBG was also a candidate for office the year my father was elected president of the school.
Leaving the Mafia graveyard, we head to Alabama Avenue near New Lots Avenue, to my father’s East New York childhood home. He’s now 83 but he remembers like it was yesterday, the extended family life and the rock fights he and the other Jewish kids on his end of the block had with the Italian kids on the other end of Alabama. My father’s red brick two family house is still there and the block is practically leafy with its mature sycamores lining the street. A large community garden grows on once bustling New Lots Avenue at Alabama and the street’s current residents, a mix of African Americans and Latinos, are cordial if not friendly, to three obvious outsiders.
For the Epstein and Kolb families who lived here, even with its rock fights, Alabama Avenue was a move up from the teaming squalor of the Lower East Side; a way station on the family’s way to Great Neck, Scarsdale, L.A.’s Westside and New York’s Upper West Side.
Is this what Theodor Herzl meant when he wrote, “If you will it, it is no dream.” These are the words I read on a colorful oversized mural on Herzl Street off Pitkin Avenue in nearby Brownsville. Admiring the mural and the monument in Zion Triangle, a pocket park next to the former Loew’s Pitkin theatre, that commemorates Jewish World War I soldiers, the utterly secular Jew that I am is proud of the strong Jewish connection my children have found in the Habonim Dror youth movement and at its Camp Gilboa in Southern California.
Dominican men playing dominos have replaced the Jewish Bundist, Worksmen’s Circle and Labor Zionists arguing politics in Zion Triangle. Do these newer arrivals know that the country of their birth was one of the few countries willing to accept mass Jewish immigration during World War II? Do they know about the importance of Sosúa where 700 European Jews found a safe haven from the Nazis? Do most Jews know this important footnote of Dominican history?
I wonder if the area’s current residents are even aware of who Theodor Herzl was and the fact that his empowering declaration inspired a downtrodden, disenfranchised people to create the democratic State of Israel.
Perhaps my children arguing with their friends about the police shootings of unarmed black men, fossil fuel divestment, gender equality and pluralistic Zionism are not that different after all from their ancestors in Zion Triangle.
“If you will it, it is no dream.”
Joel Epstein is a Los Angeles-based walker in the city and a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, government affairs and corporate social responsibility.