“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
Thanks to JFH for this essay on her days growing up in the neighborhood.
Lately, nostalgia has been calling my name and I often find myself surfing the net for any information about my old neighborhood, Park Slope, Brooklyn.
You can imagine my surprise when one day I keyed in Brooklyn and the 50s and the name of the Jokers, which was the gang from my old neighborhood, appeared on several websites. I excitedly opened one of the sites and couldn’t believe my eyes. Several photos of the gang members from the Slope, in which Park Slope, Brooklyn was known at the time, were posted. These pictures were taken by a professional photographer, Bruce Davidson, who had hooked up with a social service agency working with juvenile delinquents of the 50’s, and the Jokers in particular. It’s hard for me to describe the feeling of euphoria I encountered upon seeing these photos. To say I was elated would be an understatement. Memories of my youth bubbled to the surface.
These gang members, who used to fight the Puerto Ricans or anyone else invading their territory, as most sections of Brooklyn were partitioned off according to turf, hung out at the candy store around the corner from the tenement where I had lived. The photos displayed many of the gang members who were familiar to me: There’s Joey Douglas who always got in trouble. There’s Michael Galvin, my girlfriend’s brother. There’s Cagi with whom I had a crush on as a 12-year-old. There’s Tony, the only Italian in an Irish neighborhood. I wallowed in the surroundings of my youth depicted in these pictures: Pictures of Prospect Park. Pictures of Holy Name of Jesus. Pictures of Coney Island. Pictures of a ride that used to come around and I could swear my older brother and sister were on it. Pictures of the candy store where Helen, the proprietor, used to make the most delicious chocolate egg creams.
As 12-year-olds, my friends and I would call the Jokers at this same candy story pretending we were older in order to talk and make dates. We would arrange to meet them at the bus stop and when the day arrived we would be sitting on our tenement stoop watching them waiting for the bus and making fools of themselves. Each time a bus came they would kick it when their so-called dates did not appear. Of course, they did not notice the 12-year-olds sitting next door.
Other memories of the old neighborhood began to emerge. When I was much younger. I would put on my bathing suit and walk around the corner in my bare feet successfully avoiding broken glass or any other obstacles that might appear on the pavement to cool off under the Johnny pump. This is what a fire hydrant in Brooklyn was called. Cannonball, a member of the senior Jokers, would open the Johnny pump in the sweltering heat to the delight of all the little kids in the neighborhood. His wife was the exact image of Bridget Bardot.
The claim has been made that there are “six degrees of separation” between each person. I truly believe this finding. After I excitedly told my dear friend about my discovery on the internet, she nonchalantly stated that she has these photos in a book given to her as a present. The book is called the Brooklyn Gang: Summer 1959. In my mind, the chances of this happening, especially because of our dissimilar backgrounds, were nil.
I guess you can also call this Karma.
The last few days we have been discussing ‘The Jokers‘, ‘Bengie‘, ‘stabbings‘ and ‘gangs’; a change of direction to say the least, huh?
For the past five years we have been talking about a lot of positive situations that went on in the neighborhood. I hope everyone is cool with the latest topic. I understand it’s painful for some, but on the other hand, it makes for a very intriguing discussion.
As for the book, I checked on-line and Bruce Davidson’s “Brooklyn Gang” is running close to $1,000. Mamma Mia!
Davidson, in 1959 made a visit to the neighborhood and followed a few teenagers around and snapped pictures of them and came out with a book. Not a bad deal, huh?
There’s no way I could afford the book today but I did go to a local library and I happened to come across some of Davidson’s work.
One image in the book that I thought was really cool is of the girl in the mirror. (Cathy O’Neal)
I also found a quote from Davidson when he went back a few years later and paid a visit to Cathy.
(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)
“In Brooklyn I had found the girl who combed her hair in the Coney Island mirror. She had married the gang leader. Their daughter is fifteen, the same age she was then. She said, “We all had a dream, but we lost it. Most of the kids we knew are on drugs, in crime or dead. You meant a lot to us because you were someone from the outside who had a camera and was taking pictures of us.” I told her that her picture is hanging in museums around the world. When her teenage daughter came into the room, she turned to her daughter and said, “Look, this is a picture of momma when she was your age.” The she turned to me and smiled, “Maybe my dream isn’t quite lost.” (Courtesy of Bruce Davidson Photographs)
I’d love to hear about Cathy from anyone who knew her…
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.