Today, along with another former teacher, I did some storytelling to four classes of wealthy Westchester suburban high school students about growing up in the Bronx during the 50’s and 60’s…well I stretched it into the early 70’s as well. Unfortunately I realized I am now old enough for them to by grand kids. Damn, that smarts.
Don, a former health teacher, taught them about games we played on the street, ranging from stickball to flipping baseball cards, to skully. That was cool. The kids looked at him and me weirdly as he demonstrated some things and I demonstrated stoopball inside the classroom… (Good thing we didn’t have any Spaldeens).
When it got to be my turn, I relayed to these HS seniors odds and ends from my early days, from age 5 to 17. Those ranged from playing chicken with cars passing on the street, my dad being in one of them, and the common corporal punishment it led to; to walking home from my high school girlfriend’s house after midnight before a bus came along. That was from Sedgwick Ave and Van Cortlandt Park West to 171st and the Grand Concourse. (3.7 miles according to Google Maps).
Mostly I told them about my years growing up in a poor to working class multi ethnic diverse neighborhood, where I was often one of a few “white shadows”. We would all play together in the streets and in the schoolyards; yet sit in tracked, de-facto segregated elementary school classes. Then, on occasion, we would have to take sides in a neighborhood dispute even as 10 year olds and fight for our block. Thank God there were no guns then like now.
I told them about the iron-fisted witch of a first grade teacher who kept my long legs pinned under those immovable wooden screwed to the floor desks. I swear she was sadistic, and how that compared to my second grade teacher who gave us so munch inspiration to learn and do so many interesting things to do, like write letters to President Eisenhower to end segregation in Little Rock. He actually responded, or at least his secretary did. We were quoted in the New York Times too.
I told them about how moving up literally meant moving up the hill from 172nd and Longfellow to 173rd and Vyse and my own bedroom after 6th grade and up hill again to the soon to be decaying Grand Concourse and 171st, where I lost that room.I told them about how being white saved me and my friends from a police shooting while living there during the 1965 blackout. A few friends of mine of various shades and I broke into a storage room in my building to grab ladders to rescue subway riders from the stuck train on the express track on the D line. He approached us gun up thinking we were going to rob apartments until I convinced him otherwise.
I told them about our high school hangouts: Orchard Beach, Fordham Rd, White Castle, and Poe Park. I told them how I hated going to The Bronx High School of Science because of the commute, the nerdiness, and being ranked 903rd in a class of 950 with an 80% avg. I preferred playing ball in the Taft HS school-yard.
Finally, I told them about the Bronx cycle. How from the 20’s – 50’s most of it was filled with thriving neighborhoods, some segregated, some not. I told them about white flight and the devastation that Coop City created; how landlords let their buildings decay (including mine), and eventually had them torched for insurance money leading to the famous Jimmy Carter picture of what looked like a total war zone on Charlotte Place (around the corner from what used to be the apartment where I once lived with my grandmother;and how now the Bronx is no longer the gang infested, war torn, Fort Apache from the 1970s. Here is that same area now.
I concluded by telling them that it is again filled with striving immigrant families as it had in the first half of the 20th century; however they aren’t mostly various European nationalities, but that now, in the early 21st century they are primarily various African, Asian, Latin American, and fewer white Europeans. Thus, the stereotypes persist.