Wednesday, March 23, 2005

You Can't Go Home, But I Guess You Can Shop There*

Finding myself with time to kill on Monday before the Harvard Club fundraiser I took time for a personal history tour of New York. My grandmother (Dinah Cohen) grew up in Brooklyn, specifically an ill defined area called then, as now, Boro Park (not sure why they couldn't afford the prestige of "Borough" Park, but apparently the extra ugh was too much). I wasn't ever completely sure that I was in Boro Park. I just saw the occasional Boro Park Realty or Boro Park Dentistry and took those as a clue that I was still in the neighborhood. Grandma grew up above her father's candy store at 3820 Fort Hamilton Parkway. That residence no longer exists. It's been replaced by "Lamp Warehouse," where the slogan is "Everything in Lighting...Discounted." The Lamp Warehouse bricked over the windows and painted giant cameos of Thomas Edison and a man they call "The Maven". Edison says "Let There Be Light" while The Maven says "Let There Be Discounts." So, it's changed a little since grandma lived there.

It's been almost exactly 70 years since she was in the neighborhood. On March 15th of 1935 she married my grandfather, and never returned to the old neighborhood. I'm not sure why. I'm grateful for this trip and for the questions it leaves me. I just hope to get answers before being 94 years old catches up with her. But in the days when she lived in Boro Park the apartments were filled with Irish, Italians, Poles, Swedes and Jews. Now the neighborhood is a strange mix. Fort Hamilton Parkway (in the high 30s) is full of car shops--places to install a stereo, fix a dent, sell you tires, fix your garage door, check your emissions, and insure your vehicle. The strange part (over and above the sheer number of car places) is the diversity. Boro Park east of my grandmother's place is full of Hassidic jews. While her area is largely Hispanic. Thus, I saw a Hassidic jew leaning over the engine of Hispanic customer's failing Buick. I've never seen that in Columbus, nor could I.

I wandered around this Jewish neighborhood for an hour or two. It was among the most powerful experiences of the past year or two. I've never been in a white neighborhood and felt so out of place, so foreign, so conscious that I don't fit it. In my life I've never seen as many mezzuzahs as I saw in two blocks there. There were Hebrew posters for Hebrew boybands. And hosiery shops. Boy were there hosiery shops. I saw a woman leave a 99 cent store and pause to kiss her hand and put it on the mezzuzah in the doorframe of this store. It was tremendous. I don't know how different that is from the place where grandma grew up. But it was just about as far from Westerville as I've been.

A few random observations:

How are there so many 25-45 year old Hassidic men walking around in the middle of the day? Where are they working? I'd had Hammentashen. But not really. The piece I had on Monday was a whole different creature. I realized why New Yorkers are fiercely proud, there are few places where you could wander from a Kosher Bakery to an Italian deli, to a Polish restaurant in 150 yards.

Finally, I jumped back on the subway to travel to Southern Brooklyn where my grandmother went to High School (New Utrecht High). When I departed the subway I saw hundreds of students milling about (it was 1:30). I wandered past them and took a few photos of the school. After taking a shot or two a breathless reporter ran over to me and asked, "Do you have photos of the guy?" I asked, "What guy?" "The shooter, the guy who shot up the school?" At the time everyone was under the impression there was an attack and a student had pulled a gun. I learned later that some kid brought a gun to school, put it in his backpack and it went off into his leg during math class. My guess is that New Utrecht High has changed a bit since 1935 as well.

*Name that movie reference

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