Thursday, May 5, 2016

Children Need Space to Dream: Crown Heights Memories from the 1950's

I wasn't always the happiest kid in the world growing up. My relationship with my parents was always tense, and the pressure they put on me to excel academically- I skipped 2 grades and graduated from high school at 16- put me at odds with other kids in my tough Brooklyn neighborhood.
What literally saved me were two things- sports and books. Sports gave me a vehicle to release tension and win respect from the kids that were tormenting me and books gave me space to dream. And because New York in those days provided space and encouragement for children who needed dreams and fantasy to escape difficult realities, I managed to find peace in private moments that escaped me in social situations.
Let me explain. On any weekend morning, by the time I was 11 years old, you could find me in two places- at the vest pocket park shooting baskets, or at the public library taking out books.
At 7:30 AM on Saturday and Sunday morning, I turned the basketball court at the little park at the corner of East New York and Albany Avenues into my private practice space. Getting there with my basketball at 7:30 AM, before anyone else arrived, I shot hundreds of layups, hook shots, set shots, and when I reached adolescence, jump shots, imagining I was my cousin Stephen, who played basketball at Columbia, or Elgin Baylor, the NBA star I admired most. Rarely did anyone else get there till 8:30 or 9 AM so this was my private time, the place where I built up my skills and fantasize about what I could do with them. And I could do this safely because the park was never locked, and because there was an attendant there from 7 AM on.
The local library on New York Avenue just South of Kingston Avenue was an equally important refuge. The library opened at 9 AM on Saturday mornings and on days when it was too cold or rainy to play basketball, I was often the first one there. I started with books on reptiles and dinosaurs- I once wanted to be curator of the Reptile House of the Bronx Zoo- moved on to young adult sports novels by authors like John R Tunis and Claire Bee, discovered social justice fiction by Jack London and James Farrell, and by the time I graduated from high school was reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. All of this was done on my own, either in a corner table at the local library or behind closed doors in my apartment where my parents rarely bothered me if i was reading a book. I lost myself in those books, letting my mind soar to places where great deeds occurred or where conflicts such as the ones I experienced daily assumed larger meanings
I think of these moments now not only because they played such an important role in shaping the person I became, but because young people growing up in NY today don't have the same opportunities. Small parks are locked and unattended during early morning hours; library hours have been sharply curtailed. And children who need to find a private space through sports or books
have much more trouble finding it.


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