I return every four or five years to my old neighbourhood and home borough, the Bronx, out of a sense of curiosity and a need to replenish my memories. On my last visit the infamous garbage-filled lots, shattered streetlights, abandoned and burned out buildings, drug-and crime-ridden wailing siren wasteland of earlier decades had over the years turned into cleaner streets, new prefab private homes, and Section 8 assisted low-income red brick buildings. The Bronx was no longer an ominous, desolate urban wilderness, having been transformed into something more intact and liveable.
The statistics bear this out as, overall, the Bronx has regained nearly three-quarters of the population lost in the 1970s because more people are choosing to stay in the Bronx and raise their families there. In addition, the borough has become a magnet for immigrants from West Africa, Mexico, Albania and Southeast Asia (over 30 per cent of its population is foreign born). In fact the Bronx today is being redefined by hundreds of units of affordable housing, and a plan to create a waterfront district along the Harlem River containing both affordable and market housing. The High Bridge, the City’s oldest bridge and a national and City landmark has been rehabilitated and reopened, and nearly 15,300 jobs were added between 2007 and 2012.
Still, though there are positive changes taking place, the unemployment rate remains high. The crime rate is much higher than the rest of the city’s, educational attainment is low, and many residents still live in poverty. Riding with a friend through my old neighbourhood, what I observed from a car window and walking its streets felt inert and lifeless. The best one could say was that it seemed a more stable, viable place to live than in the past, but there was little for one’s eyes to focus on – no vibrant street life or shopping districts whose variety and intensity could give one sensate pleasure or the good feelings that arise from observing an interactive communal life. What’s more, the changes no longer allowed me to get easily in touch with images of my childhood and adolescence. No memories were resurrected when I tried to remember what these same streets looked like during my growing up. These sights just left me cold.
However, as I grow old I don’t really need to jog my memory by returning to those timeworn streets to recall my growing up in the Bronx. For I have reached that age where childhood memories have become almost as vivid as my adult ones. It’s not that my childhood was full of family drama or traumatic experiences, but that relatively ordinary life was filled with images and incidents that remain indelible and that helped shape my adult self.
What I remember are the street games – tame ones like marbles, red light-green light, pitching and flipping baseball tickets, hit the penny, slug, boxball, off the stoop, and the more daring and adventurous ringolevio and the slightly more athletically challenging punch ball. The latter was a game I constantly played in whatever space could be utilized – from ample schoolyards to small playgrounds to oddly configured apartment house backyards. Though if most of the games offered little that was physically exhilarating, they did allow me my own realm – free of parental watchfulness – while I played on safe, sometimes chaotic streets with various children from my own and neighbouring apartment buildings. I can remember many of their faces, but few of the children were friends, merely interchangeable playmates who made me feel part of a world.
These games took up much of my life on the streets when I wasn’t spending lengthy days (including Sunday) at my airless and oppressive orthodox yeshiva (where religion was force-fed and teachers didn’t hesitate to use rulers when punishing students for minor misconduct), which my parents compelled me to attend. That was until I discovered at the age of twelve that if I received low grades my parents would take me out of the yeshiva and send me to the more emotionally and socially expansive neighbourhood public school. Though a great deal of the classroom teaching provided there was almost as pedestrian and rote based as what I had just fled from.
I can also conjure up the Bronx institutions and parks that had a powerful impact on my childhood. I remember the red brick, musty, and dark Tremont Library branch, built in 1905 and located in a more dilapidated part of my neighbourhood, which I visited regularly – first with my mother and then alone. The library had a white-haired, crinkly-faced kind librarian, who steered me to Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colors, junior bios of historic figures like Garibaldi, Jefferson and the Curies, and Scribner Classics with some memorably illustrated by Howard Pyle like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers. The library provided a refuge – a world filled with books and committed to the imagination – that provided a temporary escape from home, school, and neighbourhood, and shaped a lifetime as an avid reader.
In my neighbourhood, Crotona Park was our extremely modest version of Central Park. It was where in winter I took what I imagined as perilous sled rides down the mildest of hills with my father, and where I had gone rowing with him on the 3.3-acre artificial Indian Lake in the fall. I also turned climbing and sliding down rock outcroppings in my imagination into feats of daring do, and went on long walks there with my parents, where I learned to observe local wildlife – squirrels, robins, crows, and sparrows. It was not a beautiful park, but a functional one. It lacked verdant green meadows, woods, hiking trails, formal gardens, or interesting topography. However, the park with its drab, fenced-in plots of grass and trees offered a great deal of activity – from bocce and handball to basketball, football and softball, from a Farm Garden that taught children plant science to an enormous swimming pool complex. It was an unadorned green space built for an immigrant and second-generation working class who had neither back yards nor country houses, nor the leisure or money to go on long summer trips. Crotona Park was also relatively serene until the middle fifties, though there were always “wild” boys who vandalized trees and public bathrooms by indulging in gratuitously destructive acts.
I also have a stirring memory of being lulled to sleep listening to older families sitting in the late spring on the park benches and singing in full voice Russian and Yiddish folk songs like Meadowlands and Tum Balalaika. (In this post-war, pre-McCarthy era, most of the people who sang were politically naïve fellow travellers or Communist Party members who had sentimental feelings for the Soviet Union.) In the summer people picnicked on the grass, or during a heat wave couples would sometimes take blankets and sleep in the park. During the Jewish New Year neighbourhood Jewish people from miles around would gather to walk around Indian Lake for Tashlich – a solemn religious ritual that involved the symbolic ridding of one’s sins. In my eyes, it was less the religious significance that mattered than the feeling of human connection and community that existed for that moment. The memory remains especially strong, since my parents avoided socializing with neighbours, and that day in the park gave me a different view of the kind of links they had with the outside world.
My parents almost never left the Bronx to attend Manhattan’s theatres and concert halls or visit its museums – it was basically an alien world for them. Consequently, they turned to the Bronx’s parks for an escape from their daily life. They often walked with friends and relatives in the Bronx’s New York Botanical Gardens – a 250-acre lush landscape that supported over one million living plants. They also took me to the world famous Bronx Zoo (a walkable distance from my apartment) that always excited and beguiled me, even though the Zoo in those years kept most of the big animals like the lions and gorillas in small, claustrophobic cages, where they paced about tensely and unhappily and the buildings they were housed in seemed fetid and unclean. Still, given that our neighbourhood contained little to excite the senses, the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens provided an opportunity to have a unique, even exhilarating experience not far from home.
Crotona Park in the forties and early fifties was a tranquil place, but as I got older and the neighbourhoods surrounding the park changed, it became more threatening. I continued to play ball there in the fall and spring. But there were muggings, and one no longer ventured in the park at night, and my parents became warier when they took a casual walk in the daytime.
The parks, the library the street games, and the yeshiva were elements that shaped my growing up in the Bronx. I can recall some of my daily interactions with my parents as a child, but the most powerful memories are of places. As Joan Didion has written: ‘A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself’.
Leonard Quart is a Professor Emeritus of Cinema— CUNY and COSI; Contributing Editor, Cineaste; co-author of American Film and Society Since 1945 —4th Edition (Praeger), and The Films of Mike Leigh (Cambridge University Press). Writer of innumerable essays and reviews of film and other subjects for magazines like Dissent, Film Quarterly and Logos.