The Neighborhood: A Memoir

Dear Reader: Before you read further, I must warn you that some parts of the following entry are quite graphic and could disturb sensitive readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Dancing with my mom at my wedding.
Dancing with my mom at my wedding.

Nestled within the southeastern portion of New York City’s Queens County is the section in which I live, a place of tree-lined streets and wood-frame houses that have been the home of my family since 1958. Geographically, my neighborhood lies southeast of the transportation hub that is Jamaica, northeast of the land of two-family homes that is Springfield Gardens, and pretty much due north of bustling Kennedy Airport.

My earliest recollections about the neighborhood start from around 1967 when I was five years old. I remember that the area was still somewhat integrated at that time, with a few white faces starkly visible in the landscape of dark-skinned people. None of the blacks with whom my parents associated referred to the white people by name, opting instead to refer to them by nicknames. Among those so nicknamed was “Legless Charlie,” a double-amputee diabetic; “Doc,” meaning Doctor Schwartz, a kind, elderly physician who both lived and worked in a large house just a few blocks from my own; the “Crazy Lady,” a scrawny witch with salt-and-pepper-hair who would stand in front of her house in a nightgown and scream about “You damn [N-word]s!” at the top of her lungs for hours on end until her throat turned raw, even as her sheepish husband hid from view; and the “Scaredy Cats,” a family of terrified whites who were absolutely petrified at the thought of living in an increasingly dark-complexioned neighborhood.The area began as a haven for white suburbanites in the mid-1920s, changed to become a community of middle- to upper-income whites, hepcats, athletes, and soul musicians from the 1940s through the 1950s, and by the time I came around, it was a racially mixed, middle-income neighborhood. But as more financially secure blacks came, more and more racially insecure whites fled the area in an exodus of pink.

I didn’t know of “White Flight” when I was a kid. I had no way of knowing that the area was formerly an all-white neighborhood, and that when the inflow of middle-income black families such as ours progressed from a trickle to a Biblical flood, whites moved out as fast as they possibly could, and that those few I saw were merely the last of a vanishing breed.  People had different colors, that much I saw, and I realized that people of one color didn’t talk to people of another color–at least, not at length. An uneasy peace existed between the races locally, and it extended from adults to children. Like some of the other white families, the Scaredy Cats had children who would play by themselves in their yard behind a newly built fence, their smiling faces beaming from behind the enclosing steel like caged sunlight. Conversely, black children romped freely in and out of yards and roamed up and down sidewalks, their movements unencumbered by the restraints placed upon their fair-skinned counterparts. The different children never talked together, never played together, and never went to school together as the white parents moved their children to distant private schools. I would never have an opportunity to play with any of the white children, never learn their true names, and never learn if they liked “Gigantor” or “Speed Racer” or the “Eighth Man” on TV. I liked the Yankees. Did they? What did they eat? Would they like my mom’s West Indian-style chicken chow mein? Her chicken roti? What did white people eat, anyway? Did the white children have similar questions about black people?

Despite their close proximity, I first learned about white people by watching TV in the early 1970s, and I did so by watching families named Partridge and Brady. As I watched the absolutely clueless Mike and Carol Brady, I naively came to believe white parents were hopelessly detached from reality and suffered from borderline retardation at the very least. To me, only the savvy, quick-thinking Shirley Partridge offered any ray of hope for the viability of white parents. White girls were whiny and vain, or so I mistakenly thought at the time, because the Partridge’s Laura and the Brady’s Marcia, Jan, and Cindy certainly were. White boys, I understood from my one-sided observations of the youngest Partridge boy, Chris, and his counterparts Greg, Peter and Bobby Brady, all suffered from issues of dependence and were nerdish beyond redemption. The only thing that prevented me from writing off white boys in the same lump-sum fashion I dismissed white girls was the “existence” of Keith and Danny Partridge. Heck, Keith Partridge wasn’t just nice, he was downright cool. And that Danny! Avaricious, mischievous, and world-beater smart, that kid was. To this day, I believe I can link several personal traits to that redheaded wunderkind.

By the mid-1970s, Legless Charlie had died, the Scaredy Cats had fled, and Doctor Schwartz had passed away, leaving the Crazy Lady and her poor, beleaguered husband as the only whites in the immediate vicinity. The Crazy Lady would continue to stand before her house dressed for sleep, raging about us darkies, us [N-word]s, us Godforsaken heathen jungle bunnies. Unfortunately for her, times had changed by then and the black residents actually replied to her. However, the language used was the kind that would prompt my mother to clamp her hands over my ears and usher me away. Oh, and that’s when I also noticed black people offering the Crazy Lady a funny kind of wave, one with the middle finger extended all the way up and the rest of the fingers closed into a fist. My mom would cover my eyes when that happened. She spent a lot of time trying to shield me from the not-so-nice things that existed.

The late 1970s saw the neighborhood change further. Local politicians and know-it-all social advocates brought the horror that is low-income housing to the area in a misguided attempt towards civic responsibility. Several houses were destroyed, then replaced by two-story rows of apartments. What moved into the apartment units was the lowest form of human life: drug addicts, ex-convicts, and other kinds of criminal scum. And faster than you can say “thank you very much, you liberal know-nothings,” the apartments became filthy, garbage-strewn eyesores, and the residents within brought their illegal activities to the wholly unprepared area. Many residents fled, fearing the area would become another Watts. Perhaps they were all soothsayers because the negative elements began to spread like cancer, and the neighborhood quickly began its transition from a vibrant black community to a dangerous, lower-income ghetto.

The crime rate soared. Night, once a thing of peace and tranquillity graced only by the chirping of crickets and the silent flashes of lightning bugs, erupted in bursts of gunfire and the wail of sirens. My parents installed bars and floodlights on our house. Other residents installed steel doors, bought trained attack dogs, or installed alarm systems. Why we didn’t move was unknown to me at the time. Personally, I would have pulled up stakes, loaded a covered wagon, and moved the family to anywhere except Beirut rather than stay in a part of town police would eventually refer to as “Dodge City.” The answer, I would later learn, is that my parents–especially my mother–did not believe in running away from life’s many problems.

I recall one particular night during which my mother, a UN employee, worked late to complete a project early. She stepped off a bus on a clear, cool night just two blocks from our house, stopped into a supermarket, and proceeded to finish walking home. She never saw the men approach her from behind. She never saw the fists that hit her, that beat her senseless to the ground. The thieves took her purse from her limp form and ran off into the night laughing, never to be seen again. My mother gathered her groceries, dragged herself home, and collapsed on the first floor. Though she was hurt, she was adamant in her resolve–no mugger was going to scare her out of her home. She told that to police who investigated the mugging and to all others who would listen. Fittingly, I would later learn that one of her favorite movies was “Shane,” a classic Western fable in which the title character is locked in a situation where the lives and possessions of both a family and an entire community depended upon the title character’s ability to combat seemingly invincible foes.

Drug and alcohol-related incidents steadily rose, and drunk-driving accidents became a weekly occurrence at various nearby intersections. One drunken louse actually struck me with his vehicle as I rode a bicycle, and he was never caught for his crime. And then one day an intoxicated driver provided an image that haunts my sister to this day. It was summertime in the early 1980s, and on one July day she decided to enjoy the warmth in the company of Sparks, our beloved dog. Sparks was a medium-size mixed-breed dog with a black-and-white coat of short hair and a seemingly boundless supply of energy. Starting from when he was a puppy, he was a walking, barking, lightning bolt of fur as he darted around our yard, so he more than earned his name. Yet despite the speed and energy he exuded, he was no match for the drunk driver who carelessly swerved towards my sister as she walked along with him. Sis was able to jump out of the way. Sparks wasn’t as lucky. My sister watched as a pickup truck ran over him, forcing a horrendous yelp of pain out of him as he died. She staggered home in shock after that, her clothes dotted by red specks of fresh dog blood. The driver escaped since my sister didn’t react fast enough to read the license plate. Then again, she was busy trying to save her life, so her failure to record the plate number is understandable. Not surprisingly, the police never caught the driver. A sanitation crew later arrived and unceremoniously tossed Sparks’ lifeless body away like any other pile of neighborhood trash.

Adding to the misery was a family of 12 in close proximity, many of whom were suspected of selling drugs or being engaged in other criminal affairs. In their quest to intimidate the neighborhood and establish a local presence, they sent a bullet tearing through our house, shattered windows, dumped bloody feminine sanitary napkins into our yard and gutted our dog, leaving his bloody, empty corpse in our backyard as a warning. Through it all, my family’s resolve remained strong. The drug dealers would go on to similarly assault another family, only to discover that while it was relatively easy to outnumber our little family of four, it was another thing altogether when dealing with a mad, machete-wielding South American who, at a moment’s notice, could (and did) call in every friend and relative he could muster to surround the nest of dealers and force them into submission. The police eventually ended the dispute by arresting not the drug dealers (whose ill-gotten wealth enabled them to adopt the veneer of upper-class existence), but the poor South American man.

The rest of the 1980s saw the neighborhood decline further. Drug use was rampant, fear ruled the streets, and those persons moving into the area were mostly poor and uneducated. The local private schools closed for good, unable to function due to lack of attendance. Single family homes were illegally converted into apartments. Drug addicted vagrants prowled the streets. Hopelessness became a way of life for some–Gerald (not his real name), a short, illiterate young man affectionately called “Double-G” by me and the rest of his friends, went on a trip to Dixie one year and enjoyed a way of life he could’ve scarcely imagined beforehand, and on the day before his scheduled return to the neighborhood, Double-G put a loaded .45 into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The end of the decade saw a turning point for the area. The nearby drug dealers shot a man in the back, killing him as he passed before our house. Our driveway was blocked by his dead body, our sidewalk was covered in his blood, and the air we breathed befouled with a faint, coppery odor. Bad for the victim, but good for the neighborhood. The dead man, I would later understand, was connected with very powerful underworld bosses–criminal overlords who wanted the shooters dead. The murder spurred a vicious underworld campaign that I am only partly aware of, one that forced the drug dealers next door out of their house and into hiding. They never returned.

The 1990s saw somewhat of a resurgence of the community. Street-level crime plummeted, but gang activity rose. Crime was no longer one-on-one or even three-on-one, but eight, or twelve, or even twenty against one. Fewer crimes, more perpetrators. Community activism rose. The Crazy Lady died. Block associations formed or re-formed. Several crack dens were shut down by police, while others were somehow overlooked. A local politician was imprisoned for laundering drug money. The bad guys were getting nervous, but they stood firm as well.

Today, the neighborhood remains in a volatile state. There is still crime, but it factors slightly less into the quality of life than before. There are still drugs and gangs, but we are no longer treated to nightly serenades of gunfire. There is no longer a drug den in close proximity, but there are several in walking distance. A little better, a little worse–that’s the neighborhood.

My mother is gone now, her point proven. We didn’t run. We didn’t cower. We held our ground and remained firm. This family will move out of the area sometime in the next few years. When we do so, it will be known by all that this family, the second oldest within the immediate area, left on its own terms with heads held high. Mom would be pleased.

-Keith V.

 

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