In the Country of Brooklyn
The is one of those magical experiences where at the beginning of the process you wonder if any publisher will be savvy enough to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to do, and at the end of the process you say to yourself, “How in the world did I accomplish this?”
Let me start at the beginning. When I wrote the book Bums back in 1984, my superb editor Phyllis Grann cut two chapters from my manuscript. One was about the Irish enclave of Windsor Terrace. The other was poet Donald Hall’s reminiscence of what it was like for him to root for the Brooklyn Dodgers. For years I wondered if I could come up with a book idea about Brooklyn that would allow me to incorporate those two chapters.
Then a couple years ago baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced that every April 15 would be Jackie Robinson day in every major league ballpark, and I got to wondering, Why was it that when Jackie came up to the Dodgers in 1947 he was beloved in Brooklyn, but he was hated just about every place else? After all, when the question of whether to bring Robinson up to the majors was put to a vote, Branch Rickey was outvoted fifteen to one. No one wanted him integrating baseball. That became a key focus, and that led to explorations of broader subjects including racism, bigotry, immigration, and assimilation. My goal was to try to do for Brooklyn what John dos Passos did for America: let the participants in the struggle for freedom tell the stories of their lives and at the same time reveal the history of Brooklyn and also of America.
I have been witness to and a participant in this struggle when for two years I was a law student working for Williamsburg Legal Services, a federal program designed to give the poor decent legal representation. Run by Cesar Perales, one of the finest public servants I have ever known, our small office represented wives abandoned and abused by husbands, tort victims, and I can recall one instant where a woman hired me to get her son out of Vietnam. Her older boy had been killed, and she was a widow, and she wanted her other son brought home to safety. Following Mr. Perales’ instructions, I made the appropriate application, and I was amazed when one afternoon I received a letter in the mail: “Dear Dr. Peter Golenbock and Dr. Perales, I, very grateful for the favor you did. I haven’t any words to express my feelings for all your help to get my son out of Vietnam. There is no money in the world to pay for the favor like that only the Lord can repay a favor that size. Sincerely, Benita Soto and family.
Unfortunately these successes came too far apart. Most of the time the people we went after had more money and better, more experienced representation than our clients. I can recall my last case. A woman came to see me. She had four red marks on her cheek where her husband had stabbed her with a fork. Shortly thereafter he abandoned her and their three children. She said to me, “You are the only thing keeping me from suicide.”
I did what I could, but her husband had disappeared into the bowls of Brooklyn, never to be found, leaving his family to starve or apply for welfare. I counseled the woman as best I could about how to go about applying. I never saw her again. My failure to help her gnawed at me. I was the only thing keeper her from suicide, and I hadn’t been able to help her at all. After two years of arduous work to help the poor fight uphill battle after uphill battle, I left Williamsburg Legal Services wondering if I was in the wrong line of business.
After graduating from NYU law school in 1970, I was working for the Stamford Advocate as a weekend sports writer. In exchange for a press credential to every professional team in New York City, I wrote articles for free on such teams as the Yankees, Mets, Rangers, Knicks, and Nets. I wrote articles on Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, and Dr. J. I became close friends with Knicks forward Phil Jackson, and watched from the press row as the Knicks won the championship in 1973.
I was also close friends with Carol Neukrug, who worked in the Manhattan D.A.’s office. She was close to the famed crime fighting team of Bobby Greenburg and David Hantz, otherwise known as Batman and Robin. They were narcotics cops with so many arrests to their credit that they had become famous on the force. I asked Carol if they would let me write an article about them for The New York Times magazine.
Greenberg and Hantz were game, and during two weekends, I rode with the two narcs through their Bedford-Stuvesant beat, chasing after drug dealers and arresting careless buyers along the way. We entered one apartment so filthy that a half-eaten bolony sandwich lay on the floor. I doubted that the rats were far behind.
We did surveillance from the tops of apartment buildings, jumping the spaces between the buildings. Once Bobby burned rolled newspaper under a door, yelling fire to get the man they suspected to open the door. When he did, Bobby had his gun out. I was standing right behind him, directly in the line of fire. The entire experience was thrilling, and at one point I was informed that The Times was going to run the article (and pay me a thousand dollars), when Greenberg informed me that the brass had asked The Times to kill it, because he and Hantz were getting too much press as it was. Later another journalist wrote a popular book about the two, and the book was made into a movie. This was before my own book career.
After this disappointment, I was given an opportunity to spend more time in Brooklyn. This time it was Leon Borstein, Carol’s fiancée, who came up with the idea. He too was a Manhattan DA, and he had in his custody a man by the name of William Hampton. Hampton was a material witness in a case against a man Leon was prosecuting. Leon wanted to keep him happy. Hampton wanted to write a book about his life as member of the Black Panther Party. Was I interested in working with him?
I had read Black Like Me and was a fan of James Baldwin, and I had the sense that being black in America in 1973 wasn’t much fun. I was curious to hear from Hampton about his take on race relations in America. Leon gave me his address in Bed-Stuy and his phone number. Hampton was waiting for me when I arrived.
My first car was a gray 1964 230 SL Mercedes convertible. It was my baby. I drove it into the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, parked it in front of Hampton’s house and wondered whether it would still be there when I was done. I shouldn’t have worried. In Bed-Stuy William Hampton was God. No one was more respected in black America than the Panthers. The FBI had portrayed them as vicious killers who were a threat to our nation, but after talking to Hampton for an hour it was clear to me that the real villain in the battle was the FBI, which was systematically killing Panther leader after Panther leader. Hampton spelled out graphically the plight of blacks in America, citing their lack of economic success and the way they were kept from being able to vote, and he talked about how if blacks were to succeed in America, they needed to fight for their rights. None of this sounded particularly seditious to me. Why should the guy accept being a second-class citizen?
After our meeting, I returned to the street and found one of Hampton’s friends standing outside the apartment building. I can’t swear he was there to watch my car, but that was my impression. When I reached my car, I noticed that my left tail-light had been broken. I learned later that a policeman had broken it with his nightstick so he could follow me to see where I was going. He must have been very disappointed when I ended up in my seedy apartment in The Roger Williams Hotel in Manhattan.
I met with Hampton one other time, and then he disappeared into thin air. I have no idea what happened to him, but I never forgot the experience. For me, Brooklyn was where people who wanted to better the lives of others lived.
It’s impossible to write Brooklyn’s history without first discussing the influx of Jews who came to Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing with them a fear of the fascist, murdering czars and a penchant for the isms that they hoped would defeat the czars – communism and socialism.
History is always written by the victors, and the losers become mere footnotes. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the worst thing you could call a person was a Communist. That meant you were anti-American, that somehow you didn’t believe in democracy. This is how our history books are written. But I discovered that the truth lies elsewhere. Just as evil people use scripture as a mallet against those with whom they disagree, other evildoers used the Communist tag for unjust ends. Anti-Semites and racists could accuse people whose intentions were honorable, righteous, and good of being communists and use the tactic to destroy them for their own venal purposes. The worst of the accusers, such as A. Mitchell Palmer and Joseph McCarthy, were politicians who used their power to for their own self-serving ends. I came to discover that the worst bigots, like Palmer and McCarthy, were entrenched in government and that the most effective bigotry was carried out by those in the government. Without government sanction, anti-Semitism and Jim Crow segregation could not have lasted all those years. When I came to interview victims of the Red Scare, I put myself in their shoes and was shaken to the core.
The other group which brings hatred to our land, despite their refusal to admit it, is the fundamentalist Christians. The religious bigotry and narrow-mindedness was first brought to America from England by the Puritans. They came to America to escape religious persecution, but like abused children, they set the standard for it. The nadir of their craziness was the spate of well-chronicled witch burnings in Salem, Massachusetts. Dangerously conservative, the leaders like the Rev. Cotton Mather made the rules and set the punishments which included shunning and the branding of a scarlet A on the breast of any woman found to have committed adultery. Brooklyn, it turns out, started out as an unusually tolerant community in that it was founded by a woman who left Salem to escape the Puritan madness.
Though the Puritan sect no longer exists in America, its conservative brethren still are powerful, and if you delve into the history of bigotry, you discover that at the forefront of the segregationist and isolationist movements.were white Christian ministers and their followers. The Christian South justified segregation using quotes from the bible. The Ku Klux Klan was a faith-based organization. The White Citizens Council was made up of devout church-going Christians. There were the people who hated Jackie Robinson, decrying the fact he was playing a white man’s game and threatening his life.
As for how the Jews were treated in America, most twentieth-century presidents were unabashed anti-Semites. Woodrow Wilson hated Jews and Bess Truman, Harry’s wife, vowed never to allow a Jew to set foot in her house. Congress was so upset by the influx of Jews coming from Russia and Poland that in 1921 it passed a bill effectively stopping the flood of Jews into this country, resulting in the deaths of millions who had no place to escape to when Hitler started rounding them up in Europe.
In the 1920s, and again in the 1950s, thousands of American Jews – including a significant number of Brooklynites -- accused of being Communists lost their jobs, were deported or jailed, and some took their lives. Only later, these victims of the Smith Act and of McCarthyism would be cleared of all wrong-doing. As it turned out, these people posed no danger whatsoever to America. Their only treasonous behavior was in wanting to teach equality and justice, or wanting a fairer shake from Big Business, or wanting equality for all. Twenty years after their arrests, the Supreme Court would rule that the victims of the Smith Act had been unconstitutionally arrested. For the victims, it would be twenty years too late.
Even Franklin Roosevelt, hamstrung by politics, did little to help the Jews during the war. He made have had Jewish cabinet members, and he appointed Louis Brandeis, a Jew, to the Supreme Court, causing anti-Semites like Ezra Pound to call him “Franklin Roosenstein.” And yet when the S.S. Saint Louis docked in Cuba with a cargo of Jewish refugees, he refused to let the passengers enter the country and he did nothing to derail the trains heading for the concentration camps.
The story of how far blacks have come in America also has strong Brooklyn ties. When I wrote Bums in 1984, I stated that Jackie Robinson was as important to the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King. In this book I have interviewed a group of people who expound on that theme, talking about how integral his role in becoming the first black baseball player was to their lives. Robinson spawned not only Brooklyn fans around the country but men and women – black and white -- who became passionate civil rights workers and social activists.
Spurred by Robinson and their own history of persecution, Jews fought alongside blacks for civil rights. Then in Brooklyn in the 1960s a rift developed between the two groups. Black parents who accused white Jewish teachers of being prejudiced against their children demanded local control of the schools. The teachers union fought back. There was a long strike, and the two groups were never as close again. And yet the various ethnic groups that make up the borough get along better today than ever before.
By the year 2030 it has been estimated that whites will no longer be in the majority. The ability and willingness to incorporate the newcomers to this land will determine how we as a nation fare into the twenty-first century. Perhaps the experiences during the transformation of Brooklyn can be used for the rest of America. While it’s often said that “New York City is not America,” one in six Americans can trace their family back to Brooklyn. If your family came to America from another country, chances are pretty good your great-great-grandparents lived in Williamsburg or Flatbush or Bay Ridge or Brighton Beach.
The 70.61 square miles of Brooklyn include densely populated urban areas, suburban-like areas with beautiful private homes, public housing projects, and luxury high-rises, co-ops and condos, and the structure that will forever be associated with Brooklyn – the brownstone. Brooklyn has beaches, swamps, city parks, state parks, and national parks, an army base, a former Navy yard, a Revolutionary War battlefield, railroads, subways, highways, tunnels, bridges, churches, synagogues, mosques, a minor league baseball stadium, and nearly four hundred years of history.
According to the 2000 census there were 79.56 people per square mile living in the rest of the country. In Brooklyn, there were 34,916 people per square mile. Demographically, Brooklynites were 41.2 percent white, 36.4 percent black, 19.8 percent Hispanic, and 7.5 percent Asian.
Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, Brooklyn went from farmland to suburb to suburb to thriving metropolis to the poster child for suburban flight, crime, urban decay, and drugs, and then it became the poster child for urban revival and gentrification. Brooklyn is booming again, real estate prices are out of sight, crime is down, and Brooklyn has even become a tourist destination.
So while the Brooklyn of today and tomorrow may about be unrecognizable to the generations of Brooklyn’s past, some things have remained constant throughout Brooklyn’s history. One is change as Brooklyn always seems to reinvent itself.
Like many urban areas, it struggled through the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. But unlike other areas that have fallen on hard times – Detroit, Buffalo, and Camden, New Jersey, come to mind, Brooklyn has risen from the ashes. This is not a unique phenomenon – Newark, Cleveland, and the Bronx have made great strides, but Brooklyn has risen in grand style. New money has come in. New immigrants have come in, as the less fortunate are pushed out.
The new replacing the old has been an occurrence since Brooklyn was founded. The Dutch settlers came in and pushed out the Native Americans. Then the Dutch were replaced by the English who were replaced by the immigrants of the 1800s – mainly the German and Irish. And after the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge led to the influx of Jews from the overcrowded ghettos of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the German immigrants fled from Williamsburg to Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens. Those same Jews and their children fled to the suburbs in the 1950s, an exodus which accelerated in the 1960s with the migration of black and Puerto Rican populations. The Hasidic Jews moved in and lived in an uneasy harmony with the Hispanics. And then came the artists – Williamsburg hipsters who took over the old empty factories, the run-down apartment buildings, and the dilapidated stores, making the `Burg a cool destination like Soho in Manhattan in the 1970s. After the artist crowd fixed up the buildings, the developers and the yuppies came in behind them, flashing their money to buy big, glass luxury condos, pushing the artists out to Bushwick, pushing out the remaining Hispanics and Hasidim who couldn’t afford the rising rents. Change: it’s a story as old as Brooklyn.
To survive in Brooklynite, you have to be tough, and you have to have an attitude. When you ask a Brooklynite to talk about his or her life, the circumstances depend on age and which part of Brooklyn the interviewee came from. In this book I have interviewed people from all different eras and all different sections of the borough in an attempt to depict as best I could Brooklyn’s past, present, and future.
To accomplish this, I knew who to call first. Ten years ago I was invited by Professor Joseph Dorinson to visit the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University to take part in a symposium celebrating the life of Jackie Robinson. Professor Dorinson invited dozens of fascinating speakers. I listened to Lester Rodney, whose decade-long campaign against racism in The Daily Worker helped paved the way for Robinson. I had lunch with Howard Fast, the author of Spartacus and dozens of other historical novels. Fast had been jailed for refusing to name names in front of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House on UnAmerican Committee. I asked Mr. Fast whether he had been scared to go to jail. I never forgot his reply. “Oh no,” he said, “I looked at it as a great opportunity.” I thought to myself, This country sometimes has a strange notion of who’s a hero and who’s not. I began to question just who we in America anoint as heroes and who as villains. There are a lot of unsung heroes in this book.
I knew that I needed to interview Lester Rodney. It was too late for me to talk to Fast. He had passed away. When I told Professor Dorinson what I was planning, he enthusiastically provided me with leads. Through Professor Dorinson, I was able to interview Rodney, Henry Foner, Dorothy Burnham, Stan Kanter, Ted Rosenbaum, Abe Smorodin, important figures in the long drawn-out fight for social justice. Professor Dorinson was also kind enough to review some of the chapters and give his helpful comments. I owe him a lot, and it is to him that I dedicate this book.
My close friend and neighbor, Professor Ray Arcenault, also provided me with invaluable contacts. It was through him that I was able to interview John Hope Franklin, Justus Doenecke, Si Dresner, Ira Glasser, and Janet Braun-Reinitz.
My fine, supportive editor, Doug Grad, led me to his father Ian, and also to Curtis Sliwa, Abram Hall, Harry Schweitzer, Robert Crosson, and John Mackie. Howie Greene was kind enough to connect me to Neil Sedaka and Bruce Morrow. Peter Meinke and Dave Radens I met through tennis here in St. Pete, and I play softball with John Ford. Four stalward Brooklyn politicians who demonstrated their love their borough and their constituents – Marty Markowitz, Charles Barron, Alec Brook-Krasny, and Victor Robles – graciously made themselves available to me. Through the efforts of Barry Baum of Forest City Ratner I was able to interview Jim Stuckey and Bruce Bender. For all of them and the other interviewees, Peter Spanakos, Pete Hamill, Clarence Taylor, Joseph Boskin, Charlotte Phillips, Marvin Miller, Gene Brock, and Monte Irvin I owe you all a deep sense of gratitude.