Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Old Neighborhood

I grew up, as did Alfred Kazin, as a Walker in the City. I began in my own neighborhood, the Lower East Side. Unaware of its historic past as an immigrants' first home-- it held over a million Jewish souls during the booming years of Jewish immigration, from 1888 to 1920, when Congress decided that America had enough swarthy Mediterranean types (Jews and Italians) and needed more blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavians--I walked its length and breadth, reading every historical plaque and statue, drinking in the City's rich past, historical, cultural, and political.
My first and most important library was the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library: a small bronze plaque affixed to its facade identified it as a Carnegie gift. I had no idea of who Mr. Carnegie was, but was grateful to him for providing me with free books to while away many an Orthodox Shabbat Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, during which writing and TV were forbidden. I began on the second floor, in the Children's Books, with the Red and Blue and Green Fairy Books, reading about elves and pixies and how to ward off witches; I ended on the first floor, using a withered, green-with-old-age edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia to write my reports for Hebrew School.
And I walked-- from my own neighborhood, the twenty-story apartment buildings overlooking the East River, through the Hispanic and African-American blocks, into Little Italy, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village, my eyes taking in the endless variety of people, cultures, and art. I ventured uptown by foot, once (for a Boy Scout hiking merit badge) going so far as Central Park, there to admire General Sherman's equestrian statue before turning around and wearily beginning the trek home. I learned which streets were safe, and which dangerous; at age eleven, my friends and I once ventured out of our own turf to visit a settlement house (that was our term for a community center) in a different neighborhood, but were chased home by gentile boys for daring to take advantage of what they saw as theirs. The City was dangerous, as well as wide-open.
It would be impossible for me to list all the places I visited, and everything I learned, from my city walks. Most importantly, I learned how to survive in a city-- to look behind oneself, to keep to well-lit streets, and not to take chances. On the streets of my city, New York, I got the best education of all.