Walking in the Footsteps of Kazin

by

01/02/2002

234 Utica Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

This is a re-appreciation of Alfred Kazin’s classic Brownsville memoir, “A Walker in the City.” Published in 1951, the book captures the summer of 1932 before he went off to college.

Some books practically walk on their own, as if borne from the streets they describe. None, perhaps, leaps from their pages quite as emphatically, as lovingly, as Alfred Kazin’s slim 1951 memoir, “A Walker in the City.” “Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away,” he writes, as he steps out of the elevated train on Livonia and is flooded by the sights and smells of his old neighborhood. And yet it is no simple homecoming, for he is returning from Manhattan (“the city”) to this old, run-down Jewish slum in the depths of Brooklyn, and his feelings are a blur: “From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.”

But it is the tenderness that in the end overcomes him, and sweeps up the reader as well, following Kazin along on the clattering train to “the city’s back door, in New York’s rawest, remotest, cheapest ghetto.” Here, in Brownsville, Kazin says, “We were of the city, but somehow not in it.” And yet, the streets–and fire-escapes and rooftops, subway platforms and stairwells–practically shimmer with the glow of his memories. What visions does he see, does he recall, returning to this place now as an adult? He sees his mother, again, on her hands and knees scrubbing the dining room floor, and it “filled me with such tenderness that I could feel my senses reaching out to embrace every single object in our household.” He remembers reading Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” on the fire escape, and swells with “such a depth of satisfaction that I could never open the book again, for fear I would not recapture that first sensation.” Even simply hitting a ball down his block once inspired rhapsody: “As I ran after my ball with the bat heavy in my hand, the odd successiveness of things in myself almost choked me, the world was so full as I ran….”

Kazin touchingly retraces the simple but beautiful epiphanies of the summer of 1931–the second summer of the Depression–when he was fourteen and exploring head-long both the enclosed world of his neighborhood and the expanding world of books. You can feel every step he takes, every street he crosses, as it pinches his heart. “Pitkin Avenue weighs on me,” he writes of the street cluttered with pushcarts and sellers, crowds gathered outside the banks arguing Socialism and Zionism, unions and war. Or of his street, Chester Street, and the lifelong stain it’s etched into him: “The block: my block. It was on the Chester Street side of our house, between the grocery and the back wall of the old drugstore, that I was hammered into the shape of the streets.” The streets are as ecstatic, as fired with imagination, as he is. Even when he is bent over in exhaustion, they spring to life: “when I stopped to catch my breath under the shepherd’s crook of a lamp pole in Brooklyn, the streets themselves reeled for joy.”

If there are books that both walk and sing, this is certainly one of them. And what does its song sound like? Perhaps like Mischa Elman, a musician the Kazin family listen to together. “When Mischa Elman played some well-known melody we sighed familiarly at each other–his tone was so warm; he bubbled slowly in my ears like the sound of chicken fat crackling in the pan.”

Brownsville is still there a half-century later, crackling and ablaze with its sound of feverish life–in the shadow of the elevated train over Livonia, in the rickety homes down on Chester Streets, in the walk up to Highland Park, overlooking the stretches of Brooklyn and the distant “diamond-lighted wall of Manhattan skyscrapers.” Brownsville is still a world away from that city, still of it but not in it. It’s tied in other directions, to other worlds (der heym, the old world home, in Kazin’s words). And though now Brownsville’s sounds and smells blow in more from the islands of the Caribbean than the Russian Pale, the streets still act like mirrors for its walkers. As Kazin discovered, it was hard not to stumble across himself at every turn: “But the large shadow on the pavement was me, the music in my head was me, the indescribable joy I felt was me.” It’s hard, too, not to be spell-bound by this book, that place, and the wondrous music in his head.

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