17th street, 9th avenue, Bengie Powers, Bob Rice, Brooklyn Gang, Bruce Davidson, Container Diaries, Football Weddings, Holy Name Church, Irish Bar, Junior Rice, Lefty Jensen, McFadden Brothers, P.A.L., Pat Fenton, Prospect Park, Sanders theater, Sorrentos, Violence, Windsor Terrace, zoo
Our own Pat Fenton with an amazing recollection of the neighborhood and the teens who lived here.
In their heart of hearts, most of the guys and the girls who appear in the Windsor Terrace “Brooklyn Gang” pictures, were really good people. Even the photographer, Bruce Davidson has said that the book is not really about a gang, it’s more about a bunch of young people and their lives together. They certainly were not the toughest guys in our neighborhood.
(Courtesy of Bruce Davidson, ‘Brooklyn Gang’)
I was very close to Junior Rice, and Bengie, and Lefty Jensen who appear in much of the pictures, and on the cover of Bruce Davidson’s book. When I was young, I stayed over at Junior’s house on 20th Street almost as much as my own. His older brother Bob Rice and I are still as close as brothers. Unfortunately for them, they got lost somewhere between the violent culture that existed in the 50′s in parts of our Windsor Terrace neighborhood, and the sweet innocence which I think really represented it. Junior passed away recently, and so did Lefty Jensen; Bengie has managed to turn his life around.
This I remember about Lefty Jensen, who I once went out to a shoe store in Bay Ridge with in the 50′s, a place that sold second-hand motorcycle boots, he had this sort of James Dean sensitivity to him. Sadly, it probably helped to destroy him. He died way too young. The only good thing I walk away with is, the three of them, Junior, Lefty, and Bengie will live on, forever young together, on the cover of Bruce’s book, “Brooklyn Gang.”
Truth is, we were all lucky to grow up in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that to me was like a working-class opera taking place every day of our lives. Yeah, it had its share of violence and drugs, but I think overall it had a certain pride, patriotism, and a strong belief in doing the right thing in life. The choice was ours. And most of us learned well from those lessons we were taught here.
It had the original McFadden Brothers American Legion Post on 9th Avenue when it was located near 17th Street in the vast former, wedding hall of Sorrentos Italian Restaurant. And all through the 50’s and into the 60’s, when neighborhood soldiers came home from the wars, they would be welcomed here.
Simple “football weddings” were made up of cold cut sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and passed across the table like footballs, barrels and barrels of tap beer and plates of cheese and crackers, some set ups of Seagram Seven and ginger ale, and a live three-piece band playing, and people dancing. And they were the best weddings ever.
On nights when Holy Name Church would have a Novena the church would get so packed with kids and adults that they had to open up the gates to the altar to let people sit there. And we all had Holy Name School yard where other lessons of life were being taught to us, lessons we would take with us forever.
Every Irish bar in the neighborhood had a baseball team, and 17th Street on a Saturday afternoon had stick ball tournaments that went on all day. Come the summer and 17th Street would be closed down from 9th to 8th Avenue for a P.A.L. play street. We had the Sanders Theatre and Prospect Park to fish in, and a wonderful zoo that we could walk to. And in the cold winter when the streets were empty and covered with new snow it was still safe enough to go down your block alone and trade comic books at friends’ houses. It was good to be young then.