Saturday, August 11, 2012
Fourth Avenue Blues- A Brooklyn Story
When Liz and I first moved to Park Slope in 1976, our preferred route from our old neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was to take the West Side Highway to the Brooklyn Bridge, go straight on Boerum Place to Atlantic Avenue, then take Atlantic to 4th Avenue where would make a right and take 4th Avenue down to 3rd street and make a left, which would take us into the portion of the Slope where the half of a brownstone we just purchased was located. The journey along 4th Avenue was a trop in itself. There was no street in Manhattan quite like 4th Avenue. Three lanes wide on each side of a raised divider, it was zoned for commercial and industrial development, and cars and trucks sped down it with lightning speed, requiring quick reflexes and a strong constitution to avoid an accident. And that wasn’t the only hazard. Groups of teenagers, most, but not all, Black and Latino, would periodically play chicken with passing vehicles, sauntering slowly across the street in defiance of lights and other traffic rules, daring you to hit them provoke a riot or a much needed insurance payout. If you didn’t have strong nerve and a sense of local urban etiquette, it could easily force you off this street onto Flatbush Avenue, where traffic never moved fast enough to produce these danger. As for me, I became expert at shining the teenagers shoes with my car, by heading straight toward them and staring them down with my legendary “ice grill.” I didn’t record a single fatality The establishments along the street told a story in themselves. In the mile from Atlantic Ave to Third Avnue, there were at least five small tire repair stores, all run by Latino men, at least as many Pentacostal Churches, several places where homeless people could line up to get food, and apply for jobs; multiple bodegas, several taxi depots, and several large home repair outlets that served people from all over Brooklyn, interspersed with vacant lots filled with weeds and an occasional abandoned warehouse. As for food choices, one lonely McDonald’s stood among the pizzerias, fried chicken stores,(one of them serving Halal food), run down coffee shops, and small Spanish restaurants. The landscape was working class Brooklyn Americana, with a street atmosphere reflecting the increasing presence of Black and Latino families in what was once a heavily Italian area. If you turned up 3rd Street to head towards Prospect Park you saw remnants of the Italian presence in the form of a group of very tough looking swarthy young white men holding forth on the corner of 5th Avenue, wearing wife beater tee shirts and sporting tattoos on arms honed by years of lifting weights. Their conversations were loud, filled with hand gestures and constant threats, sometimes made toward one another, sometimes made toward the universe, and sometimes, you were sure at the people in your car. I always found myself silently praying that there would be a green light when I got to that corner, or the red light would last a very long time. The only time I had seen white guys that tough was on the detention floor of the Brooklyn House of Detention when I had spent three days there in 1969. Two other aspects of this landscape were worth noting. First was the Junior High School across the street from that infamous corner, JHS 51, or ‘Fifty Ones as it was known in the neighborhood, which took all comers irregardless of race, class and ethnicity. Both of my children, Sara and Eric, would eventually attend that school, play on the school’s basketball teams, and learn to navigate the urban landscape with considerable aplomb, all though my son Eric would periodically have to pay a “hat and backpack tax” to the students from John Jay HS who would swoop down and confiscate their property. The other landmark was Second Street between 4th and 5th Avenues which was entirely composed of vacant lots except for two five story tenements that had been left standing after an arson abandonment cycle swept through the neighborhood. Yes, there were abandoned buildings all over Park Slope,and not only near 4th Avenue. There were abandoned buildings on Garfield Place between 7th and 6th Avnues and along 7th Avenue south of 9th Street. This is why struggling hippie professionals like us ( a college professor and a book editor, both under 30) could afford to buy a house in this area Now segue to 2012. Fourth avenue still has lots of traffic, but no one has played chicken with the cars for at least fifteen years. The tire repair shops and pentacostal churches are gone, replaced by one luxury condo after another, some of them upwards of ten stories in height,all of them filled with young professionals who have moved to the area from Manhattan, or in some cases, Europe and South America. Fourth Avenue still has food places, but except near Atlantic Avenue, they are all cafes, bars, pastry and bagel stores, some with arrangements for outdoor seating, and a few upscale diners. As for Fifth Avenue, the young Italian men are long gone, second street has been rebuilt with luxury condos, “fifty ones” is a majority white school, and bars and restaurants serving an upscale clientele are everywhere. And as for me, I feel like a fish out of water in this “paradise” of Urban Revitalization. I miss the excitement, and yes the fear, that came from being in a place where none of our problems and cruelties were hidden, where you had to face the reality of a race and class divided city every day where you lived. And if you could survive it, and take ownership of it, and bring up your kids in it, your children would be ready for anything when they grew up. I miss the 4th Avenue of old. I just hope there are people who took a lot of pictures so it doesn’t entirely fade from memory August 11, 2015 .
Posted by Mark Naison at 3:24 AM
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Great post. I came in ten years later than you, in a similar two-teachers manner, & live in the South Slope, near Fourth. This area has changed beyond recognition & I share your fish-out-of-water-feeling. There are still a few auto businesses left on Fourth, but their days seem numbered. How do you feel about the traffic changes/beautification of the avenue? To me, Fourth is a much needed traffic artery in a clogged borough, & if the lanes are reduced it will just create more driving nightmares & divert traffic onto formerly quieter, smaller streets. Marty's Brooklyn Boulevard vision thing? Hah!
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