Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It Happened in Brooklyn : An Oral History of Growing Up in the
Borough in the 1940S, 1950S, and 1960s (A Harvest Book)

Re-Release: SUNY Press, March 2009, ISBN10: N/A, ISBN13: 978-1-4384-2750-8

Previous printings: Harcourt Brace 1993, Harvest Books 1995, Paperback; ISBN: 015600237X;
University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback, 272pp, 09/2004 ISBN: 0299206149

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Quoted NY Times

Quoted Haaretz


"How far away/Philadelphia P-A/Little Rock A-R-K/How far away. . ." For weeks after seeing the 2008 revival of "South Pacific," the song lingered -- its plaintive melody and musing lyric going straight to the heart.

How easily it becomes "How far away/Brooklyn, USA . . ." for the Brooklyn recalled in this book is also far away, in time, if not distance. Actually "South Pacific" opened on Broadway in 1949, during the era when It Happened in Brooklyn begins; for many of the people interviewed here, it was the first Broadway show they ever saw.

Already a work of memory when it was composed more than fifteen years ago, It Happened in Brooklyn conjures up a world that recedes ever more into the past, shrinking like images seen through the wrong end of binoculars. Overwhelmingly a paean to a particular past, it is a collective recollection of growing up in a largely working and lower middle class environment bathed in the optimistic glow of the post-war years. It describes an urban setting of shared domestic spaces embraced by the warmth and security of extended immigrant or first-generation-American families, enlivened by games played on sidewalks and in gutters, marked by schools that were secure and staffed with quality teachers, and enriched by the beaches, parks and multitudinous attractions of New York City that were but a cheap and safe subway ride away.

But as the story moves into the 1970's, the storytellers -- now moving into adulthood -- confront a changed Brooklyn of new demographics, declining neighborhoods, and rising social instability. Many join the mass exodus to the suburbs, and the book ends on a note of loss.

Brooklyn continues, however, and by the mid 1990's as artists begin to stake claim to warehouse space in rundown waterfront neighborhoods, a sense of renewal emerges. Young professionals arrive in their wake, drawn to the urban life their parents shunned. Attracted to historic brownstones in areas like Park Slope, they begin the process of gentrification. Real estate operators take a new look at the old borough. They buy up land in downtown Brooklyn, Red Hook, and Greenpoint. Grandiose plans, from the construction of a basketball stadium designed by Frank Gehry (on the land Walter O'Malley wanted for his Brooklyn Dodgers) to high-rise luxurious buildings overlooking the Coney Island boardwalk, are projected with much fanfare. This is new Brooklyn -- hip, fashionable, au courant.

Urban blight has hardly evaporated. There are still unsafe sections, looming low-income housing projects, persistent poverty. But, at the same time, many neighborhoods are thriving with new populations: Jamaicans, Haitians, Russians from the former U.S.S.R. (who transformed the Brighton Beach area into Little Odessa), Pakistanis, Lebanese, Chinese (the third largest Chinese community in New York City), Puerto Ricans, Dominicans -- a wealth of new Americans.

What happened in Brooklyn is but one instance of what happened in American cities all over the nation as it crossed into the new millennium. Only in Brooklyn everything is a little more: starker, more dramatic, more defined. Perhaps because of the shoreline, ever the grand entrance: the Atlantic Ocean moving into the harbor with the Statue of Liberty at its apex, then turning right into the East River. Perhaps because it is part of New York City, linked to Manhattan by three bridges like bright necklaces in the night. Perhaps because it was and remains such a popular point of disembarkation for people coming to America from someplace else. Whatever the reason, Brooklyn abides.

One of these days, we must go back. Cross the Williamsburg Bridge and drive around the blocks of old tenements, spot the warehouses that are now artists' studios, streak down Bedford Avenue, pass the enclaves of Chassidic Jews who've been living in Williamsburg since shortly after World War II, cross Flatbush Avenue and turn down Ditmas Avenue. Cut through the heart of leafy Flatbush, its side streets lined with big Dutch colonials, cross Ocean Avenue, Coney Island Avenue, then Ocean Parkway where the bridle path is but a dim memory. Turn left on McDonald Avenue where the elevator train still roars overhead and right onto Bay Parkway. The big cemetery is on our left. We pass it and go all the way down the big broad boulevard, almost -- but not quite -- to the end, the end being Gravesend Bay just below the Narrows. Before we get there, we turn left on Benson Avenue and drive a few blocks to Bay 43rd Street.

We stop. Lafayette High School should be here. The square orange building standing on a block all its own, splendid in its isolation and simplicity. Behind are the playing fields with the bleachers we were always raising money for but which weren't installed until years after we graduated. In front is the broad stairway where we'd hang out after classes, a bright white expanse leading up to the entrance.

We'd heard there'd been problems. Violent episodes. Low rates of graduation. It seems order could not be maintained, and that city officials had decided that along with Tilden High School, it was going to be closed down. But, of course, we don't believe it.

Myrna Katz Frommer
Harvey Frommer

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