Something evil is going on in New York. But in order to justify resorting to this strongest of all epithets, I need to tell the story of the twists and turns I personally have witnessed and experienced as a native and lifelong resident of the city.
Perhaps as good a place as any to begin is with a phone call I received some years ago from a woman doing publicity for the Brooklyn division of the New York Public Library system. From her broad midwestern accent alone, I could tell that she came from neither Brooklyn nor anywhere else in New York, but even without that detail, the question she asked me would have proved definitively that she knew next to nothing about the city.
The question was this: As one of a number of “prominent people” born and bred in Brooklyn, would I be willing to have my picture included in a brochure celebrating an upcoming anniversary of the library? I would be honored, I said; just send the photographer up to my office. “Oh no,” she answered, “we want to take your picture in front of the local branch you used as a kid.”
I had to pause before replying with a laugh that I had no objection to this arrangement provided they could send me in a tank, or at least with a police escort. And they had better do the same for the photographer. Even if the branch from which I had regularly borrowed books many years earlier was still standing — which I doubted — the neighborhood surrounding it had become a war zone, and any middle-class white who ventured into it would be lucky ever to get out in one piece, if at all.
It was clear from her hemming and hawing that she was trying to decide whether to take this as a piece of especially extravagant hyperbole or a shameless display of racism; and since I never heard from her again, I concluded that she had opted for the latter. Yet I was exaggerating only slightly about the danger of setting foot in the 1970s or ’80s into the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where I had spent the first twenty years of my life (1930-50), during most of which Fiorello H. LaGuardia was the mayor of New York.
Admittedly, it was not exactly a peaceable neighborhood even then. In my own corner of it, immigrant Jews from East Europe lived side by side with Italian immigrants from Sicily, and Negroes from the rural American South who, if they were not strictly speaking immigrants, were no less foreign to the ways of the big city than their white neighbors. In these three groups, the adults had as little to do with one another as physical contiguity permitted. But their children (most of them, like me, born in America) all went to the nearby public school together, except for those who were sent either to Catholic or Jewish schools.
Throwing the children into the same educational “melting pot” unquestionably worked to reinforce the process of Americanization that would eventually differentiate us in ways both large and small from our parents. Yet as opposed to what school “integrationists” would naively have expected, there was scarcely any lessening among the kids of the ethnic and racial suspicions and hostilities pervading the immigrant generation. On the contrary: Animosity was still strong enough in the second generation to erupt periodically in fistfights or turf wars. By the murderous standards of the future, these battles were relatively tame. Never did they involve guns and only rarely knives (though stones, bottles, and baseball bats could be pretty lethal themselves).
But what I want to emphasize is that such intergroup and interracial clashes were confined almost entirely to the kids. Among the adults, the only violence that ever broke out was black on black, usually (in a carryover from a southern tradition) on Saturday nights in and around the bars in which no white person was ever seen. Yet (in another carryover from the South) neither was any white passerby ever assaulted.
My father’s experience was typical. He worked all night long delivering milk, and on his way home from the subway, he had to pass those bars. Usually this was about 7:30 in the morning when they were still closed, but every Saturday he spent the whole day collecting the week’s bills from the customers on his delivery route and did not get back until dark. And so as he walked past the bars and the clusters of drunks invariably hanging around outside them, the pockets of his uniform would be bulging and jingling with the coins that would remain in his care until he could turn them over to the company on Monday. Yet even at the height of the Great Depression of the ’30s, never once was he mugged or robbed.
Subsequently, in the late ’40s, I myself commuted daily by subway from Brownsville to the Columbia campus in uptown Manhattan. Two nights a week I also attended the academic division of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was somewhat farther north than Columbia and only three short blocks from Harlem. Even then, a group of us — including a number of girls — thought nothing of saving some time after classes were over by cutting across a very dark Morningside Park at 10 o’clock at night to a subway station in Harlem itself.
When precisely it became almost suicidally foolhardy to do such a thing I cannot say. Almost certainly, like so much else by which we have been cursed, the new danger was born in the ’60s. At any rate, I can remember going to a Harlem nightclub as late as the late ’50s without feeling fearful or unwelcome. But I can also remember looking back on that experience a short time afterward with incredulity. By then I was married and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the menace in the air of my childhood in Brooklyn was now becoming palpable in my present neighborhood as well.