Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Weeksville Black and White" by Dominic Ambrose - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Weeksville Black and White
Dominic Ambrose

Weeksville is an area of Central Brooklyn roughly defined by a few city blocks of Bergen Street and Dean Street from Troy to Buffalo Avenues. For me growing up there in the 1950s, it was just a collection of decrepit woodframe houses with no particular ethnic identity, a nameless neighborhood in the middle of Brooklyn. But it was, in fact, Weeksville, the first free black community in Brooklyn. Weeksville was established about 1838 soon after the abolition of slavery in New York when black investors built homes on the new Brooklyn street grid laid out over the old Lefferts and Gerritsen farms. It grew to a population of 500 people with a school, churches and associations before inevitably being consolidated by the booming metropolis just 20 years later and wiped from the map. Its nascent institutions blended into the city and its name was forgotten. Then in 1968 researchers from Pratt Institute flew over the area in an airplane and history was re-established when they discerned the last traces of the village in a particularly well preserved block between Buffalo and Rochester Avenues. This was the block where I lived.

My window view was the Kingsboro housing projects. We lived across the street from them, on that fortuitous block of Bergen Street where the earliest past still resided. A passerby on our block saw only a hodgepodge of deteriorating 19th Century housing, cheaply built and cheaply maintained. But unseen behind this was a second life to this street, where homes, shacks and a stable with one old horse nestled along dirt paths and alleyways. While few of these hinterhof structures dated back to the days of Weeksville, they seemed to be built on some ancestral map, not that of Brooklyn.

And this was exactly what the researchers saw, or at least part of it. They saw the last well preserved houses of Weeksville still standing further down the block along an ancient Lenape Indian trail, previously called Hunterfly Road and long erased from city maps. The discovery caused a local sensation, and the Weeksville Heritage Society came about to preserve the legacy of the forgotten town. Of course, it could also be argued that Weeksville did not need to be rediscovered because this had never stopped being Weeksville. Though the names of town and trails had disappeared and although the city overwhelmed it over the years, its unique characters survived despite the stigma of civic racism working against it. The area developed slowly and hard. With its large black population it was scrupulously avoided by the builders of brownstone and villa, and here wooden tenements and stickhouses went up in their stead, giving the area a forlorn and impoverished aura throughout the subsequent years. 

Buildings did go up, and Bergen Street and Dean Street, no matter how prone to tatter, became two more of the many vast threads of yarn in the urban fabric. But these fragile yarns were soon ready to break. By my time, there was a constant drizzle of rabble passing by: drunks, brawlers, gang members and aimless, unsupervised children. It had the kaleidoscopic human garishness of Istanbul or Naples or some other Old World city, but unlike those places, it had not achieved this spectacular degeneracy over a long millenial history of conquest, tumult, revolution and renewal, but rather in a mere century of linear development. It was built in America during an era of headstrong growth that swept cities up with the white heat of capitalist energy and then sold them off in a frenzy of fire sales, all in the name of unopposable market forces and Darwinian cycles of generation and decay. 

Pessimistic residents resigned themselves to this process. Brooklyn had risen and evolved so rapidly, that looking backwards or forwards one saw just a blur of other people, all spinning in and out of the revolving door that ever reinvented the borough’s population. The slivers of history that did exist did not belong to Brooklyn at all, but to the immigrants who had lived them and still held them close to their chests, hidden even from their own children: the shtetels of Eastern Europe, the parched hilltops of Italian peasantry, the overheated hardships of colonized Caribbean, and the indignity of slavery. No one learned from the past because it was not shared. In contrast, the future looked all too predictable. Brooklyn, stuck at the worn out end of a throw-away society moving ever westward, seemed destined to die. Generation and decay. Darwin.

My family was part of that blur. Like many of the people on Bergen Street, we were not part of Weeksville’s tradition, we were newcomers, part of that explosive growth that submerged it, those waves of people pouring in, first from this country then from that. Although the African American population was replenished by migration up the Atlantic coast, it was not enough to maintain the nature of Weeksville and the arrival of so many whites meant an economic and social power shift in their favor. Although the block looked unusually well integrated, it was an uneasy biracial community where invisible lines of apartness dictated everyone’s behavior. Census data from 1900 shows a split population of African Americans and Northern European immigrants of the most modest means. Eventually, with the massive influx from Southern and Eastern Europe, the white component changed to Italians and Jews.

Arriving from their peasant town in the hills of Southern Italy, my maternal grandparents began their American lives in a crowded tenement on North 6th Street in Williamsburg, where my mother was born. When my grandfather got a job near the Brooklyn Navy Yard he took his family to the Wallabout neighborhood and they remained in that area for two decades, on Taaffe Place, Skillman Street and Spencer Street. They lived in monoethnic neighborhoods almost unimaginable in today’s society: of the 100 people enumerated on the two pages of census that I looked at, Taaffe Place in 1910 and Skillman Street in 1920, 99 of them were either Italian born or the American born children of Italian parents. The one exception was a German daughter who had married into a family there. These were entire blocks of Italian immigrants and their little American children. My mother was one of those children and Brooklyn was her world. 

As for my father’s parents, they came about the same time from the same Basilicata region of Italy. Thus, all my grandparents were regional compatriots, compari in Italian (or goombahs in Italian American pidgin). However, my father’s parents settled in a yankee town in Connecticut. They anglicized their surname, and their children became successful in business. When twenty years after their arrival, their second son married a girl from the crawling cauldron of Brooklyn, they could not accept her. So the young couple made their home in Brooklyn, taking over the house that my mother’s sister had bought in the predominantly black part of town with no name. 

Thus, for me, Bergen Street was home. Our shingled house had been built around 1880. It was dilapidated, compromised by years of poverty and minimal upkeep. It was low to the ground, the front door at sidewalk level. A bare porch ran along the front - cold and dark, and lacking railings. Overgrown hedges supported by a twisted chicken wire fence shielded us from the street because like most of the houses on Bergen Street, real life was at the rear. Back there, a lane connected us to our closest neighbors, all white. There was a carpentry shed and behind that, yet another structure, a slanted, black shadow of a building as fragile and eternal as mud and rain and the decaying debris all around it, a shack from old Weeksville. It stood a few feet off the ground atop a couple of steps, raised and settled back against a stone wall, as though heaving witness silently from its protected corner. 

This was all in contrast to busy, mostly black Bergen Street, the sticky tar thoroughfare where electric buses slid past with their peculiar highpitched whirr. Out there, I was shy and never among the boys that rode the rear bumper of the bus for fun, gripping with the tips of their fingers in the shallow grooves of the bus’ ventilation panel. Occasionally the boys avoided falling off by grabbing onto the twin cables that rose from the back of the bus, thus cutting the electric circuit. On any summer day, one would see buses stopped in mid-traffic, their drivers out reattaching the lines. Cars were huge and sometimes carelessly driven and it was not uncommon for boys, girls and household pets to be hit, sometimes seriously. My sister was hit twice, but only lightly. Both times she got up and limped to the sidewalk and the car drove away. Our dog was not so lucky, ending life under a bus. 

With the unsanitary conditions there, another major population on Bergen Street were rats. Rats lived in the basements. It was useless trying to rid your life of rats, as they would just return from the neighbors, so the best one could do was keep them out of sight. My mother beat the floor with a broom handle, chasing rats out of the parlor and back down into the cellar. Whenever I ventured down to that dank cavern, which smelled of a careless coal bin, a leaky oil burner and mold, I was sure to announce myself to the rats by stepping heavily down the stairs, as heavily as a rat who might be coming back down step by step, fat and painfully, from an adventure on the first floor. Then I only stood in the most brightly lit areas, never touching anything that I could not fully see.

A municipal obsession with wiping out this substandard housing for good led to urban renewal with a vengence. A series of public projects over the years leveled most of Weeksville, and today, little of the original streetscape remains. At the Rochester Avenue end of our street, for example, there is only one original house left among the simple modern rowhouses that have gone up. It is derelict and uninhabited. It was once owned by Gilda, a superstitious woman from Italy. She and my mother were friends, chatting in Gilda’s backyard where she grew greens and herbs. Then in February, 1958, one of Gilda’s daughters was struck by a bank robber’s getaway car at the busstop on Utica Avenue, injuring her badly. By chance, my own oldest sister was not with her that evening. Gilda blamed my mother for that accident, accusing her of giving Gilda’s daughter the evil eye. She became a bitter enemy from then on.  

After Gilda’s house came several smaller ones, where quarrelsome, deadbeat tenants would sometimes end their stays in eviction, their belongings piled up at curbside by the city marshals. And then there were “The” Marshalls, a black family that lived next door to us at number 1678. Their house was older than ours and had no foundation, just concrete bulwarks at its corners. It was small and dark and of curious proportions both inside and out, as though it had been built in the most serendipidous of fashions. Theirs was a true Weeksville home, a rare lived-in link to the past. Perhaps it once had a garden, but now its lot was completely covered by a stone paved courtyard glistening with broken glass.

At the back of their courtyard was a garage, part of the operations of Mr. Starkman, who lived in a tenement clad in patchy diamond-shaped tiles that he owned further down the block toward Buffalo Avenue. He was one of the few regular users of our backyard lane, passing from his home through the yards to this garage. He was an elderly man from Poland, a short, pudgy Eastern European, while his two sons and daughter were all enormous and obese Americans. The sons were soda distributors. In the garage they stored crates of Hoffmann’s soda (flavors from Black Cherry to Cel-Ray) and squirt bottles of seltzer. The two sons had a large Cadillac with exuberant rear fins and all day, this ostentatious vehicle would remain parked incongruously next to the Marshalls’ Weeksville home while the Starkmans worked. Somehow it never occurred to me to take a photograph of that. Pity. 

The Starkman sons would drive off in their delivery truck and their father, back at his tenement, would pull his horse out of the stable and maneuver his cart full of vegetables through the alley between the houses and out onto the street. He was one of only two horsecart vendors we would see; the other was an African American man that came around in summer with his watermelons. His son would shout out “Watee-melon!” in a chant he hung on the rhythm of clopping hoofbeats. Mr. Starkman’s Yiddish accent did not lend itself to such theatrics, so he simply rang a tinny bell to announce his approach. 

There was one more tenement among the houses beyond Mr. Starkman’s building. This one had its original clapboard façade, now black with rot. My friend Butchie lived there on the top floor in the rear. Butchie and I often spent hours on the street. We had few toys to play with and we rarely crossed the busy roadway to the playground in the projects, so we mostly just spun tops and played skully, a sidewalk game that involved flicking bottle caps from one numbered box to another. Butchie’s mother came from North Carolina, and they were the first people I knew that had not come to Brooklyn from across the sea.

It never occurred to me to invite my friend into my house. Homes were rarely shared in our neighborhood and especially not between the races. But Butchie did invite me into his, once. When I went up the creaking wooden stairs of Butchie’s tenement that day, I could smell the dead rodents decaying in the walls. We sat at the kitchen table next to a wide open window. Butchie eventually killed a fly with a slap of his hands after numerous tries and I looked outside, transfixed. There I discovered a high view of all the back yards on Bergen Street, both black and white, all the weeds and leafy sumac trees and jumbled rooflines along the lanes. From Butchie’s Carolina kitchen on the third floor, I could plainly see the beating green heart of our street as never before. There was unity there and a sudden clarity in the midst of all of Brooklyn’s blurs. I had no idea that it was a place called Weeksville and I had nothing to compare it to, as I had never been anywhere else except this block of Bergen Street, but for me it had great beauty. Just a little heightened perspective can reveal so much. It was a basic life lesson, deceptively simple and almost universally applicable: just rise a few feet above, our shared world is waiting to be seen.


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