We were only able to stop in briefly this evening at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street (where our father and grandfather used to have many customers for the men's slacks and jeans they manufactured).
(We'd say something nice about the Tenement Museum, but to us they are better known for their mistreatment and oppression of their workers than anything else.)
We wanted to celebrate, if just for a few moments, at the New York Writers Coalition's launch party for this great organization's latest publication, From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls. So we had time only to say hi to some of the teenage authors of the book, all of whom are students at Urban Academy High School.
We'd gotten the book in the mail earlier this week through the kindness of Aaron Zimmerman, the dynamic founder and executive director of the NYWC, which provides free and low-cost creative writing workshops throughout the city for New Yorkers from groups that have been historically deprived of voice in our society.
NYWC is one of the partners in the New York City Neighborhood Story Project, a documentary book project replicating the highly successful and innovative New Orleans-based Neighborhood Story Project.
As the NYWC website notes,
Through writing, interviews, and photography, neighborhood writers create portraits of New York City, then edit the stories with the neighborhoods to ensure authenticity. We publish the book and have block parties to celebrate. The first group of New York City writers comes from the innovative Urban Academy High School.
The 18 month project at Urban Academy began in February 2007, and engaged young people from throughout New York City in intensive instruction in creative writing, oral history, urban anthropology and photography. The students honed their skills through participating in creative writing workshops led by NY Writers Coalition, by conducting interviews with the support of instructors from StoryCorps, and meeting the young authors of the New Orleans Neighborhood Story Project books.
We loved From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls and will be using it, tomorrow evening in fact, with our own Borough of Manhattan Community College creative writing workshop students at the Brooklyn College campus. Some of them come from the same places -- Kingsbridge, Millbrook Projects, Inwood, Harlem, Upper West Side, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Lower East Side and Canarsie -- that the book's authors do.
(Hey, so do we. Sort of. The Philadelphia Inquirer review of And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street began by saying, "Richard Grayson is a funny guy from Canarsie, Brooklyn" - though we actually hail from just across the border in Flatlands - and during the second year of our MFA program at Brooklyn College, we worked as a delivery boy for Canarsie Laundry, driving loads of once-dirty duds all over the neighborhood.)
Anyway, a book like From Kingsbridge to Canarsie - edited by Kesha Young, the NYC Neighborhood Story Project's director - can tell you what these neighborhoods are really like.
Julianne Reynoso, for example, takes you on a tour of her part of the The Bronx, Kingsbridge Heights, and can tell you about neighborhood hangouts like Delis and Breakfasts, which
also known as just "Peter's," is a small store right next to Middle School 143. A most-of-the-time-grumpy Asian man named Peter owns it. All of the students from OLA [Our Ladies of Angels] and 143 go there, and he locks all the doors to the drinks and makes sure that if you want to buy something, one of his employees gets it for you so you don't forget to pay. We would always buy the giant baked cookies or blue slushies after school before heading out across the street.
Zaira Simone tells you more about the real Brooklyn than you'll read about in hipster blogs:
When my brother moved to Seaview in Canarsie and I needed a break from the crazy people in my mother's neighborhood, I would get right on the bus. These rides are about an hour long, but I needed relief from the Pratt Institute yuppies and the Lafayette Garden people. . .
Pratt yuppies are the new residents who have established cafes, bistros, and boutiques. They are the artsy, youthful class of gentrifiers who attend Pratt Institute. I have seen them buying marijuana from the local drug dealers and playing craps in front of their apartments. Some members of the community, predominately landlords, accept their presence. However, they refuse to assimilate into the community or communicate with others on a personal level. Even their favorite hangout, "Sputnik," is exclusive and rejects the people who live in the projects. Throughout the past two years, there has been only one Latino working in there. . .
The neighborhood that I once knew was changing, and I didn't fit. . .
Seaview is very diverse. Many of the residents in the neighborhood are working-class families. The majority of residents are Italian, Jewish, West Indian, and Asian. The neighborhood is also now integrated, whereas in the early '70s it was not. Between the early '70s and late '90s, it was hard for many Black families to move into the area because it was occupied by many Italian families, who, in some ways, had the power to choose who moved into the neighborhood. During this time, not much real estate in Canarsie was being sold to Blacks and other minorities. However, many Jewish real-estate owners began to rent to Black families, specifically people coming from the Caribbean. many of these owners believed that they would gain much revenue from renting to new immigrant families, because many were refusing to move into federal housing.
Seaview is green and quiet. The architecture almost seems to replicate that of Colonial times. There are houses painted in yellow and cream, with huge lawns of cedar trees and beautiful flowers. There are Black people who drive SUVs or classic Porsches. Beautiful Grenadian construction men reside there, bickering about the World Cup while renovating their stairs.
As someone who still misses the Seaview Theatre and the great charbroiled burgers with Spanish onions from the old Seaview Diner next door on Pennsylvania Avenue, we can tell you that Zaira's descriptions are as accurate as they are compelling.
In another section of the book, Upper West Sider (we lived there too!) Faith Harris interviews her Aunt Dee:
You said you lived in Spike Lee's brownstone. Did you know him personally?
Yes, I met Spike. That's when he was attending NYU, and he was doing his first film. I think it was Joe's Barbershop [Jose's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads]. I used to talk to his father, who's a musician. I got the apartment because at the time, I was working as a paralegal in Bed-Stuy for an attorney, whose name I would rather not mention. I was also going to Brooklyn College. It made more sense for me to live in Brooklyn than to live in Manhattan, so I rented from Spike's dad for about a year. It was a brownstone with a really nice apartment.
How does it feel to live where there are a lot of gangs?
When I was growing up on 116th Street, heroin was number one. My neighborhood was the hot spot in the whole country for heroin. Living on 116th Street was not a big transition because I was used to living in a very rough neighborhood. I was just not comfortable with a lot of gang activity.
Who do you live with now?
I live with my daughter, Nayo, and I have a kitten named Brooklyn.
What are some of the hotspots in the neighborhood where you like to go?
I like to hang out in Harlem. If I hang out in the neighborhood, I go to a little Italian restaurant on 91st Street. I know the owner; he's really nice, very friendly. The food is great; the prices are reasonable. It has a nice atmosphere. That restaurant has lasted more than any other, so he's doing something right. You know, we like to go to Tex-Mex every now and then.
Yeah, I also I like the Italian restaurant with the virgin Shirley Temple.
We not only like this book - we love it. The other five authors - Jennifer Arzu of Millbrook Projects in the Bronx, Noelle Tannen from Inwood, Sofija Kulikauskas in Harlem, Bed-Stuy's Alyssa La Caille and Makeda Gaillard-Bennett - also have gems on every page. Muchas gracias, New York Writers Coalition, NYC Neighborhood Story Project, Urban Academy, and everyone connected with this book.
We can't resist ending this post with Sofija's poem "Back at Ya, Boys":
What's up sexy?
He's so fresh
Ay papi chulo
What a stud!
Que gaupo papi
He's a hottie!
What a hunk.
What a book. Get a copy of From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls and you won't be sorry. It's really wonderful.