Memories of an East New York Childhood

by

04/18/2021

Neighborhood: East New York

Illustration by Marc Shanker

Boulevard Houses was built in 1950 and consists of eighteen buildings, six and fourteen stories high. Signs in grassy areas warned residents to “Keep Off.” Most people left their doors unlocked, so we could freely go from one apartment to another to chat, play games or borrow a needed item.  

My family did not own a car and neither of my parents had a driver’s license. We walked everywhere. Each week my mother wheeled her cart to Blake Avenue to shop at the pushcarts. Along the way, she would pass bleating goats. My grandparents also lived in East New York, and after a visit to see them we might stop at the Biltmore Theatre to catch a movie. It didn’t matter if the film was at its beginning, middle, or end when we arrived. We would watch till the end and then catch the beginning afterward.

We relied on the subway for travelling longer distances, including when we visited relatives in the Bronx. I lived by the last stop on the New Lots Avenue line of the IRT. Occasionally we ventured into Manhattan to shop in Herald Square or see a Broadway show. We always sat in one of the last rows of the theater, and once a year we went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. We would go to the morning show because it cost only 99 cents. 

Most of the families in the projects were Jewish and attended the neighborhood Orthodox synagogue. Men ran the religious services and women sat separately in a small reserved space. Despite being members of the shul, few of our neighbors were very religious. My parents were non-observant but believed that we should have enough information to make up our own minds about how or if we wanted to practice Judaism. As is the custom, my brother was bar mitzvahed and I attended girls’ Hebrew School classes and Saturday youth groups. When I excelled in my Hebrew education and was offered a scholarship to attend a religious girls’ yeshiva, my mother successfully discouraged me from enrolling. “You’ll be the only one in the family to go to heaven,” she said. “It’s going to be lonely for you because the rest of us will certainly go to hell!”

The families in the projects were working class. My father, Izzy, was a printer and active in his union. He was frequently referred to as the building intellectual because he read the New York Times. Everyone else read the Daily News. Izzy was an avid stamp collector, classical music aficionado, and fluent speaker of Esperanto, the international language invented at the end of the 19th century. He combined these interests by corresponding and trading stamps with other philatelic Esperantists around the globe.

Because of my father’s interests, mail delivery was a much anticipated and celebrated event. Frank the mailman became a family friend, and I would stand at his side while he distributed the building’s mail. On days he was absent from work, the replacement mailman would read out the name printed on each piece of mail, and I in turn would yell out the number of the apartment. 

For the first decade of my life, my mother mostly worked at home. This allowed my brother and I to walk home from school at lunchtime. Lenore, a gregarious and civic- minded woman, met my father at a fundraiser for veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was made up of volunteers who had fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. She was a seamstress and tailored clothes for people in the neighborhood. Initially, I shared a bedroom with my brother, until our next-door neighbors moved to Long Island. Then, by breaking through the wall, we were able to add a third bedroom to the apartment. My bedroom also became my mother’s sewing room, and I grew accustomed to a constant stream of women’s chatter as my mother fitted their clothes in my room. 

There was never a lack of kids to hang out with in the projects. We played running bases, stoop ball, handball, and skelly, and enjoyed hours of fun with simple toys such as balls, tops, yo-yos, hula hoops, kites, and jump ropes. One ditty the children in the projects sang went: 

Illustration by Marc Shanker

“In the land of cheese and blintzes,
There once lived a Yiddisheh princess. 
When she forgot to say her bruchas, 
Papa gave her a potch in the tuchas.” 

By the early 1960s, public housing policy began to change as the federal government put pressure on local authorities to provide housing to the very poor. Simultaneously, racially discriminatory lending practices by banks denied aspiring property owners in East New York access to mortgages and insurance that could have stabilized the community. Families who had resided contentedly in the projects for more than a decade began leaving the neighborhood in droves. Upwardly mobile families went to Flatbush or Nassau County. Others moved to Canarsie, Rochdale Village in Jamaica, and to Trump Village or the Warbasse Houses in Coney Island.  

Little by little our world began to shrink. Poverty, gang violence, and crime increased, and we were no longer able to move safely through bordering neighborhoods. In junior high and high school, the white students were placed in honors classes that segregated us from the larger school community. We often felt threatened while passing through the halls to classes. As summer vacation ended, we had no idea which of our classmates would return to school. Friends we had known from kindergarten were suddenly no longer there.  

My parents moved to Woodside, Queens, in 1970. My father’s union owned the Big Six Towers, a Mitchell Lama cooperative. It was located along the 7 train line, and my parents were thrilled that it took them only twenty minutes to travel to Grand Central Station and Times Square.

One day, about twenty years ago, I returned to my old building with my husband and two children. My son gleefully remarked, “Wow, mom.  You grew up in the hood!” If only he knew what life in the projects was like back in the day.

***

Renee Shanker is a retired social worker and public health professional. Illustrations for this story are by Marc Shanker. See more of his work at Marc Shanker.

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§ 18 Responses to “Memories of an East New York Childhood”

  • Sandra Celia Schnierer Long says:

    Loved the story of “my” life. Moved into Blvd. PJ in 1953. Moved out 1972. Thank you for sharing.

  • Harvey Wasserman says:

    We moved from East Flatbush to the Boulevard houses in 1950, I was 4 at the time, we lived 363 Wortman apt. 3E. In 1965 we moved to Fairfield towers, then in 1966 I went into the military. Eventually my parents moved to Bensonhurst, then to Florida. Growing up in the projects was fantastic, I truly miss that time !

  • Arlene Levy Cohen says:

    I can’t tell you how this truly brought back my incredible project memories living at 756 Stanley Avenue. , apartment 1B. They were special years, sharing a small bedroom with 2 sisters, which eventually increased to 3 bedrooms when our neighbor moved. I remember my father, who like your Dad read the NY Times, The Guardian, listened to classical music and went to the Opera. My friends would come into my apartment asking what my Dad was listening to.I also remember all the neighbors sitting on the bench on hot summer nights and then going back to the hot apartments with big fans in all the rooms.
    Thanks for the wonderful memories… it was a neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other.
    Arlene Levy Cohen

  • Anne Metaxas says:

    Reading Renee’s words here reminds me of the years I lived in Laurelton, where a new high school was built to integrate four neighborhoods – Rochdale, Springfield Gardens, Laurelton and Rosedale. For a brief period of maybe 10 years, since the inception of this real estate/social engineering experiment (1968 was the first graduating class of SGHS), to the mid 70s, we lived in solidarity, with great hope about the future of humanism. I experienced the same white flight phenomenon at the same time. If it wasn’t for Laurelton, I probably wouldn’t have black friends today. I often yearn for that environment, where people felt commonality, community, curiosity. Loved reading about East New York!

  • Steve Lang says:

    I too grew up in East New York in the sixties. (JHS 166, TJHS 1969). You write beautifully. Somehow, you managed to capture a time and place that no longer exists.

  • Michelle Migdal says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece about time gone by. I grew up in the projects after my parents migrated from Brownsville. We moved to Mill Basin in 1969. It was a slice of time we will never forget.

  • Ann Smith says:

    Well said, Renee! So many memories of such a wholesome place to grow up. I often compare it to socialism in a unique version. We were all similar in income, schools, clothes, vacations/or none, mostly stay-at-home moms, fathers who worked hard and yes, most of whom read The Daily News! I was uniquely — “not Jewish” which for the longest time made me feel very different until I found my own group at St. Gabriel’s as a teen. But, I am still lifelong friends with many I attended PS 273, JHS 166 and Thomas Jefferson HS with. That is an unusual thing and I treasure the gift of both these memories and the friends I still have.

  • vicki kravitz says:

    Loved thus essay and look forward to the next installment!!

  • Marissa Piesman says:

    I love reading about borough girls, even if they’re not from the Bronx. Renee, you had me laughing all through your East New York recap. Keep writing; you have a great voice.

  • Susan Elias Goldberg says:

    Oh, to be back in those years of comraderie and innocence. Wonderful years of my life. 630 Stanley Ave. in Linden. One of many in JHS 166 that I remember is Miss Olanoff and the marvelous school plays she put together. So many fond memories. The De Milos, The Mints, just a few of the groups that we longed to belong to.
    To all who shared those happy years with me. I wish you long and healthy lives and happiness, and please be safe!

  • Myra Keller Pettibone says:

    756 Stanley Ave 1F
    1950 – 1965

  • Steve Pertusiello says:

    Great work Renee. Every word brought back memories of Schenck Ave., 273 & 166. Although most of the neighborhood went to Jeff, I went to Tech. That meant subway rides every day. Looking forward to your future work.

  • Cheryl Ratner says:

    My earliest memories of ENY are from when I was about four years young. We apparently had lived on Stone Ave until moving to 277 Pennsylvania Ave, corner of Belmont Ave, 2nd floor apartment. The front steps of our apartment building faced Belmont Ave, where a Chinese laundry was across the street and a synagogue was across Pennsylvania Ave. I have many memories of that neighborhood and apartment. My maternal grandparents lived at 312 Wyona St, near Belmont and we often took the walk to their three family house. My maternal grandfather’s family had a fruit and vegetables stand in Grodne Guburnia Poland and my grandpa was college educated in the old country. He couldn’t write English, though he could speak it, Yiddish and other languages. Embarrassed in NYC to admit he couldn’t write English, he accepted a job as Head Counterman with Ratner’s Restaurant on Delancey St, years before his daughter met and married a Ratner unrelated to the restaurant. My paternal grandfather was a scrap metal collector and worker. He had a horse and buggy and would collect metal which he and his four sons (including my father) would use to build things, like my brother’s first bike. Around 1957 when I was about ten, my father survived a massive heart attack that had put him in a coma. My mother went to shul, gave him a new Hebrew name and prayed for twelve more years so my brother and I could have our father til we grew up. [[My dad passed in February 1969, two months before his 51st birthday.]] I love remembering my parents, brother and grandparents. All gone but they live on in my head. In 1960 when I was about twelve years old we moved to the Boulevard Projects, a 1st floor, 2 br apartment at 857 Schenck Ave, between Stanley and Wortman. I had spent most of the 7th grade at JHS 149 (later named the Danny Kay School, after its student who became a famous entertainer) and I transferred to George Gershwin JHS 166. I went on to Thomas Jefferson HS and graduated in 1965, then to Queens College night school so I could keep my well paying after school and summer job in Manhattan. That pay allowed me to take great vacations! I have told my daughters not to complain about living in suburbia because WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE I lived in Brooklyn, took trains and busses to and from home, my Manhattan job and my college in Queens. Three boroughs via public transportation. My parents would bribe my brother to pick me up by car at night at the train station. I miss them all💔 and am grateful for the memories of my loving family ❤.

  • Theo says:

    This article and artwork really brings you to that moment in time! Fantastic work!!

  • Celia Levy Ihne says:

    I grew up in your building too, and remember your family well My mother,Joy Levy, worked alongside Rabbi German and knew all the Bar Mitzvah boys. My dad, Julie, was a truck driver and everyone could hear him bellowing up to his friend, Harvey, when he arrived home. Lots of the women in the building held their weekly Mah Jong games and the children could hear them calling out “one bam, two crack……”.
    We had so many friends within arms reach, and more in school and Hebrew classes. It was amazing!
    Not to mention going to all the rock and roll shows at the Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount, I never could figure out why my strict mother let us go, unaccompanied, at tender ages and before the sun came up!
    People give me side eye when I say I grew up in Brooklyn Housing Projects, but I consider myself fortunate that I did.
    756 Stanley #1E

  • Renee Shanker says:

    Celia, thank you for sharing your memories of our old building. I remember your family well. What I remember most about your father is that he would always pinch my cheek when he saw me. I have carried on the mah jongg tradition of our mothers having taken up the game about 14 years ago while unemployed for a period of time. I had a weekly game with friends until the pandemic upset the routine.
    I also remember your sister, Vivian. Any news of her?

    Thank you all for reading my story and commenting so favorably. I am deeply touched and hope we can connect again through another story.

  • Sandra Beller Brill says:

    Lived on Elton and New Lots.

  • Rob Tobing says:

    My parents moved into public housing in 1961. The new development allegedly was “dubbed” middle income to distinguish it from nearby low income developments. It’s hard today to convince many who associate the projects with substandard conditions and crime. Unfortunately, through neglect and the fiscal crisis of the 70’s, many developments began to deteriorate. These events cannot erase all of the benefits offered in these communities.

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