Thursday, March 14, 2013

East Flatbush Memories

My heart goes out the the people of East Flatbush who are now under police occupation. Theirs is a neighborhood I know well. Every spring, for three years, between 1960 and 1962, I took the Church Ave bus from Flatbush Avenue to Kings Highway and then walked three blocks to the Highway Courts on Foster Avenue and Kings Hwy, where the Erasmus team had tennis practice, and where we played all our matches in the Brooklyn public school league. The neighborhood then was mostly Jewish and Italian, with a small number of West Indian families starting to buy homes there. It was a community of one and two family homes, interspersed with small factories, and it had two high schools with great sports traditions- Samuel J Tilden HS, the public high school and Nazareth HS, the Catholic HS.

I didn't really return to the neighborhood much until 1976 when I moved back to Brooklyn, this time to Park Slope. I resumed playing tennis at the Highway Courts which was all the best players in Brooklyn congregated. I had fierce games with three longtime rivals, John Mogulescu, Ollie Tiegerman and Allen Polen, and occasionally got my butt whipped by Brooklyn legends Kenny Lindner and Steve Ross. By that time, the neighborhood had become about 80 or 90 percent West Indian, but it still looked and felt the same as it had in the 60's, filled with hardworking homeowners who kept their lawns and sidewalks clean and patronized local businesses.

In the late 80's the Highway Courts closed so I had no reason to go back to the neighborhood until I started coaching CYO basketball and started taking teams to tournaments in some of the neighborhood churches. By the 90's, the neighborhood was close to 100 percent people of color, with some Latinos and South Asians adding to the West Indian presence

In all my times in the neighborhood, in four different decades, I never felt uncomfortable in the streets, never felt an air of menace. So what has happened in the last fifteen years to make it a flash point for tensions with the police. 

I have a few thoughts. One is the possible effects of gentrification and displacement of poor people from Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed Stuy, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights. I don't know for sure, but it may be that people pushed out of those communities have moved South into East Flatbush, doubling and tripling up to pay the rents, or taking in boarders to their homes and apartments

The other issue is school closing. Both Tilden and Nazarth High Schools, once anchors of the neighborhood have been closed, the former divided into numerous small schools competing one another. Perhaps that has undermined neighborhood stability.

In any case, it really hurts to see police drive a neighborhood into rage and despair by killing a sixteen year old boy and then putting the neighborhood on lock down.

There is a message here about what is happening to once peaceful outer borough neighborhoods and we'd better figure out what that message is

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