My View of Sunset Park

by

10/14/2018

Neighborhood: Papua New Guinea, Sunset Park

Fifth Avenue entrance to Sunset Park


My five-year-old daughter Claudia loves to go up and down the hills of Sunset Park on her scooter. We put her little crash helmet on and push her up the park hills, but she loves to go down them herself, having become an expert braker and master of turns. She loves to go fast and have me run after her, leading us up the hill from 41st Street toward the small, often overcrowded playground on the 44th Street side of the park.

When we are sans scooter, she loves to run from the high point of the park, down the hill toward 5th Avenue and have us chase her. She follows other paths through the park. One is up the hill past the flagpole that marks the old site of a dismantled merry-go-round, and then down toward the sprinkler pool—an open concrete field with a huge geyser of water where in the summer  neighborhood kids play.

Often we walk together along Fifth Avenue, past all the Mexican grocery stores and taquerias. On weekends the taquerias turn into dancing halls—the young Mexican migrant workers come pouring into Brooklyn after having finished a week of work out on the farms of rural Long Island. They eat and drink and pay to dance with the restaurant waitresses. Claudia asks why the workers all wear cowboy hats. I tell her that it’s to make the neighborhood seem more interesting.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings we enter the park pavilion to watch the dances that are taught there and to hear the music. We watch the couples, mostly Chinese women, do line dances and what appear to me to be versions of the waltz. My daughter sometimes tries to dance along with the couples, urging me to take her hands. And, I love her more than anything or anyone in this world when she asks me to dance with her. Other times, we join hands and walk up and down the park’s hills watching kids fly their kites. We take in the view of New York harbor and consider the different kinds of ships that we see. In June and July, Claudia loves to chase after the dragonflies that dart and hover above the patches of grass. And then there are all the Easter egg hunts, birthday parties, and the play dates in the park with other children.

Claudia has taken possession of Sunset Park, made it part of her life in an easy and natural way.  It’s a big backyard to her.

I could never manage such an easy acceptance of the park, though I have been coming to it most of my life. Yet, slowly but surely, I am beginning to understand that the park and the neighborhood have always been part of my emotional geography, just as it is for Claudia. One day, as I watched my daughter run down the park path leading to our apartment building, I felt enormously dull not to have noticed this.

Today we live directly across from the park in one of the old co-ops, the ones started by socialist Finns at the turn of the last century. Our third-floor walk-up has a direct view onto Sunset Park.

The park, its spaces and pathways; the pool, so busy in summer, crowded with neighborhood kids and moms and dads and teenagers and neighborhood toughs cannon-balling into it (though they’re not supposed to); the basketball and handball courts; and the hills that have now been turned into soccer fields by the new Mexican immigrants— all these spaces are coming alive to me again because of my daughter’s relationship to the park.

Those who think about identity and memory often have recourse to the cliché of inner conflict, and this has some relevance for me as I think about Sunset Park. Many write about identifying with a place or ethnic group, a social class or a culture, while simultaneously fighting this feeling of identification. And, before my daughter and I had begun experiencing the park together, it had always been a space that stirred up feelings of ambivalence about my life choices and identity.

Now the park gives me a feeling of sanctuary. Going there with my daughter is like following a path home—a place whose features, contours and objects remind me of who I was during different parts of my life. If certain places feel like home to us it is because they contain us by sheltering our identities and by holding our life memories, however painful some of those memories might be.

View of Sunset Park from my apartment


The hills and paths of Sunset Park


My first memories of the park are from thirty-five years ago. Then, Saturday was the day when I would most often be in the neighborhood. My high school girlfriend Linda lived, adjacent to the park, one apartment building from where I live now. Her mother would leave the apartment on Saturdays to go shopping and visit her parents and sister, but mostly to give Linda and me a chance to be alone together. Our sexual lives began in that apartment across from Sunset Park. I think that beginning was a little too powerful for both of us at times.

“Where’s Tommy? Why is he so late?”

Linda would call our family house if I was late getting to her house, and my mother would usually answer the phone. Linda’s voice would be cracking with emotion and desperation when she made this sort of call. Often my mother could tell that she had been crying and would try to calm her.

“Linda, we had to go shopping. We just came home and gave Tommy the car. He’ll be over soon.”

My mother was taken aback by the desperation and passion of these calls; but there was no stopping them if I was a little late. The straightforward and intense expression of longing in Linda’s voice made my mother uncomfortable and violated her ideas of sexual modesty.

On a deeper level, I think my mother understood these feelings very well and had a deep sympathy for Linda. The calls stirred up certain disturbing feelings my mother would never speak about. But I could see her face and I could read her own feeling of inner conflict. The calls also made her feel protective toward me. She did not want this sort of involvement for me when I was still in my teens. Better that I wait. She would say “wait to get serious with a girl.”

One Saturday, right after a snowstorm, I met Linda at the park. I had brought an old Eagle Flyer sled from home. We took the sled up the hills and rode up and down the ice and snow-covered pathways all the way down to Fifth Avenue. After, we went to her apartment and the lovemaking went on for some time. I still remember what that day felt like in my body. There were a lot of Saturdays where a date served as a pretext for us to get back to her apartment. Looking back though, I see that after a while I had begun to take what I thought was my mother’s point of view. And now, rather than remembering the lovemaking, I mostly remember the powerful feeling of wanting to get out of the relationship and get out of the neighborhood.

“It would be such a full life, Tommy.” Why do I have to beg you”? We’ve been together so many years now, time to get started,” Linda would say.

“You’re afraid of what I want to do with my life and where I want to go. You don’t want to come with me. You don’t want me to go even. You want me to drop the whole thing,” I would say, more than once.

Toward the end of our years together I was thinking about life as an academic and as an anthropologist, a word my mother and Linda could barely pronounce.

“That’s for rich people; that’s a mistake. You’re making the wrong choice, son. You have a wonderful girlfriend. What do you think you are doing?” my mother would say.

My mother had wanted me to wait a little while, but then to give in to what was being offered me. I suppose you could say she did not want me to travel too far from the neighborhood and distance myself completely from the place, the values, and mindsets that gave the place its character

Often now, when I walk past Linda’s old apartment, I remember how her Norwegian mother and grandparents and aunt were always hoping we would marry, get an apartment in the neighborhood, start a family. I remember the collusion between them and my own family as they tried to buy an engagement ring for us to get us started in our lives together.

“Tommy, I’ll buy the ring for you. Your beautiful girlfriend wants to get married. You’re out of college now. What will you do? You’ve had some time. I want you to be set in life now. The other way is too hard.”

My mother often spoke in this gnomic, allusional way. What did she mean by “the other way is too hard”? I think what she meant by being “set in life” was not going against the grain and taking what was offered if that thing was good, and building on that gift to go forward in life. Somehow I managed to say no to the offer and saying no took everything I had, because part of me wanted very much to say yes.

The idea of neighborhood is very romanticized these days in New York. The new middle class settlers of the neighborhood who I meet at all my daughter’s play dates are always extolling the authenticity of Sunset Park. For some of us who grew up in “authentic” neighborhoods and its web of family, religion, feast days, rituals, expectations and obligations, ideas of authenticity and community, well, let’s just say we’re conflicted about them. We see their power and know that the institutions and beliefs that sustained them also sustained us. Yet, many of the friends I grew up with chose to opt out of all that. They and I were learning self-authorship and all it entailed.

And so now when I see, as I did a few Good Fridays ago, a procession re-enacting the drama of the Stations of the Cross on the Sunset Park hill I can feel the old atheistic, anti-traditionalist oppositional spirit stirring. I don’t view these performances as a tourist might view them, celebrating the color, drama, and authenticity they bring to the neighborhood, or even as an anthropologist might, as interesting cultural phenomena, showing the richness of neighborhood culture. I feel a resistance to them, as I felt a sense of opposition to the neighborhood, and what it was offering me, when I was young.

Even now, as I survey the democratic scene of Sunset Park on sunny spring and summer days, when every square inch of the park is taken up by soccer and baseball games, with balls coming at me and my daughter right and left, the feeling of opposition can well up again. Have I not evolved beyond this place? Am I back-sliding, downwardly mobile, beginning to adopt sloppy and questionable habits, like buying scratch-off lottery tickets at the corner deli, picking up cheap beer and takeout a little too often? I recognize a certain improving, missionary quality within myself. Can’t the neighborhood ever clean up its act? Can’t I ever really clean up my act? Do we both need to be saved in some way.

I spent many years away from Brooklyn and Sunset Park. I had started down the road of becoming an anthropologist and, ironically, became hell-bent to do field work among a group of people held tightly within the web of kinship, tradition, and community. One could call them a tribal group, though the word is no longer used in anthropology. They were a people of Papua, New Guinea.

Also, ironically, this Papua, New Guinean people was becoming beset by missionaries. They called themselves the New Tribes Mission, not observing any stricture about nomenclature. In the missionaries’ understanding I was the backslider, as I identified with the people’s ceremonies and religion and sexual attitudes, its way of looking at the world. I was also a backslider because I felt it to be a great privilege to be allowed to live with this tribe, in order to, in the missionaries’ views, glorify its pagan traditions while opposing myself to their Christian traditions and doings. I was, as Claude Levi-Strauss says about anthropologists, a conservative defender of old traditions while abroad doing my work, and a rebel at home, setting myself directly against the traditional life-ways and beliefs that I experienced in Brooklyn.

I did not have the moral imagination to transcend that most tired of anthropological clichés—the opposition between missionary and anthropologist. I acted rather badly toward the missionaries and was repaid in kind.

How can we reconcile the multiplicities and seeming oppositions that we carry within ourselves? This is our great life mission, to try to bring a certain peace to our inner, warring factions. And also, to try not to be a cliché. My time away provided me with some perspective on these matters.

I would say people in New Guinea had a greater sense than we do of the fact that the thoughts and feelings and characters of those close to us help create our own identities, that we are composed of others. The creation of the self is not simply a project of personal authorship. To put it another way, my “tribe” had a rather more enhanced sense of the multiple, relational nature of the self than we do. They felt that the more we absorbed from others, the more human we became. As I consider the meaning Sunset Park has for me, I remember that this insight about identity was even woven into my tribe’s sense of geography, its sense of place.

The geography of place in New Guinea had a human face, an anthropomorphic symbolism. Most significant places in the landscape were named after people. Elders knew thousands of place names. As I sat in the ceremonial house, where I would go to interview people night after night, they recounted these names to me, and I dumbly wrote them down, trying to understand what this place naming meant. Then the New Guinea elders spoke of the people who had lived on the land before them; sometimes they also spoke of the events and activities that had given a place a name. As I listened I gradually began to realize that this recitation of place names had the quality of a social or historical narrative. I began to understand that learning places, or learning about places, gave people the sense that their world was composed of many identities—that others had come before and had made a world of sorts by investing something of themothermselves in the land. The memories of these people deepened one’s experience of place. And, if the very land from which you drew your life, your sustenance, was composed of multiple identities, well, so too were you. You too, were composed of these others.

There was sense that learning the history of your place deepened your person, making you more aware of where you stood in relationship to the past and to others. These are some of the thoughts I bring to my reconsideration of the place called Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

——–

Some years after I came back to New York, I had a jarring phone conversation.

As my future wife Lauren spoke to me on the phone I was spooked by the fact that she lived two houses up from my high school girlfriend’s old co-op apartment on Sunset Park. Lauren had lived there for the past fifteen years or so, participating in the non-self-improving neighborhood spirit by not finishing her dissertation during all that time. She was writing, or not writing, a dissertation about her past and present identities. As she went about it, she grappled with her own problems of multiplicity and inner conflict. I think she was tortured by a series of questions. Was she doing an academic dissertation and following in her mother and father’s footsteps? (Her parent were professors.) Was she resisting these identities and just doing a sort of trade degree in clinical psychology? Was she destroying herself by not writing the dissertation and remaining in a state of limbo, or was she building an identity and life for herself? I don’t know if she knows the answers to any of these questions. But, in any event I remember how she really liked Sunset Park. She loved the views from the top of the hill of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan. I think she liked the idea of being able to see and contemplate Manhattan from her vantage point, but of not actually having to live there. The separation gave her a sense of safety I think.

I remember her mother coming to visit, walking up the hill at Sixth Avenue with me and some of her academic faculty friends, looking toward Manhattan and saying that the view looked great, but that Manhattan seemed distant, as if it was forever out of reach. One should evolve beyond “the neighborhood,” I think, is the sentiment expressed by the remark, the point of view of many of a generation and social class who were born and bred in Brooklyn and escaped it.

Lauren’s mother recently died. We thought of having her ashes held in a niche at the nearby Greenwood cemetery, but remembered that she had spent much of her early life trying to “leave the neighborhood,” trying desperately to get out of Brooklyn. Probably not good to keep her ashes here.

View of Manhattan from Sunset Park hill


Basketball courts Sunset Park


About three and a half years ago, my best friend from when I was a teenager decided to look me up and come for a visit to Sunset Park. I hadn’t seen him in twenty-five years. We had been inseparable back-in-the day though. I was the quarterback and he was the tall wide receiver at all those pickup touch football games we played. He was the center and I was the shooting guard at all those pickup basketball games we played. He played guitar and I sang in the “band” we put together.  It was a shock to see him at my door suddenly after all those years. We talked awkwardly for a while in my apartment, and then decided to go for a walk up through the park. We took the same route that Claudia and I take now, walking past the flagpole and then across toward the 44th Street playground. Slowly, magically, the years seemed to melt away. I started to feel so comfortable with him the way I used to feel walking with him from one of our football games. As we walked, I was beginning to feel that he and I and Linda and my wife Lauren and Claudia and all the others who were involved in my Sunset Park life drama were part of an ensemble of sorts. I was beginning to feel that the park sheltered and held all our identities.

We walked up to the basketball courts, which were empty that day and remembered how we had played a game of two-man pickup basketball there against two Hispanic kids. That must have been thirty-four years ago. Usually we won our pickup games, and Jan had felt so certain that we were going to win that day that he had laid down some money. But, we had been carousing and drinking, though it was the middle of the day, and being drunk really affected my outside shooting. We lost the game. I don’t remember why we were in Sunset Park, but sometimes Jan and I would pass through different neighborhoods looking for excellent teenage adventures. We laughed, remembering the day, and how I couldn’t hit a jump shot and that we had to walk all the way home because we had lost our money on the bet.

I never saw my friend Jan again. Sometime after his visit he sent me an email and wrote that he had some sort of growth or infection on his tongue that he was dealing with. Then, there was no further word from him. He kept things quiet about his cancer and died, about a year and a half ago. Maybe he knew he was sick when he came to see me and was really coming to say goodbye, but I don’t really know. And now Claudia scoots past the places Jan and I walked, and it was just a few weeks ago that I took her up to the basketball courts and we threw her child’s soccer ball up toward the basketball rims.

My way of accepting or embracing Sunset Park today is to think of it as having assimilated the stories and memories and identities of the people I have talked about here. This gives me a sense of fullness or plenitude, reminding me that I am composed of all these people. I think of the park in these terms when I see Claudia scoot past places that Jan and Linda and Lauren and her mother and others walked through, talked about, and played.

***

Thomas Maschio is an anthropologist who studied the religious and ceremonial life of a Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea. He is the author of many academic articles and  the book, To Remember the Faces of the Dead: The Plenitude of Memory in Southwestern New Britain, published by The University of Wisconsin Press in 1994. He also writes personal essays and some of his pieces have appeared on the literary sites Anthropoid and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Tom lives in and was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

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§ One Response to “My View of Sunset Park”

  • Antonella Fabri says:

    I deeply enjoyed reading this article. It took me through places I don’t know but that I was able to envision through the passages. It makes you realize how our existence is entangled with so many others, things and people

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