Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!": John Khoury's Stories Of Growing Up In Brooklyn In The 70s

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John Khoury as a young boy growing up in South Brooklyn
John Khoury today
Khoury's childhood world: Henry Street
Every one has a story to tell, but some tell theirs better than others. And if, like John Khoury, one grew up in South Brooklyn in the 1970's and 80's, well, one certainly has lots of wonderful anecdotes to share. Luckily for all of us, Khoury sat down and put them all down on paper in his self-published memoir "Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!".
In his book, Khoury takes us back to a time before Carroll Gardens was known by its yuppified name, long before it became the new "it" neighborhood filled with trendy restaurants and outdoor caf├ęs, when it was the home of many Italian working-class families, where everyone knew each other, where three generations shared a home and where kids were allowed to stay out on the stoop or hang out at the corner till dinnertime.
John Khoury was born in Bensonhurst in 1967, but moved to Henry Street in South Brooklyn with his family in 1971, right around the corner from Mazzola's bakery and Nino's pizzeria, a few blocks from Ferdinandos on Union Street and close enough to the local candy store to drop by regularly for a piece of Bazooka. He attended PS58, then MS 142, before enrolling at Edward R. Murrow. Though he eventually moved out of the neighborhood in 1991, married, moved to Long Island, raised a family and pursued a career in television, it is obvious that he still has a strong bond to the place and to the people of his childhood.
"I inherited my love of storytelling from my father" Khoury told me a few evenings ago, when I sat down with him to talk about "Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!". His tales of his childhood spent in South Brooklyn always entertained and charmed co-workers and friends, he explains. It was at their urging that he started to write some of the anecdotes down. He passed around the manuscript to family and friends and then quickly forgot about it. He never intended to write a memoir, but when his mother Rose passed away in 2010, he found the manuscript laying on her nightstand when he emptied her apartment. This prompted him to complete it and to make it available to a wider audience. "I wrote the book with love, honor and honesty" he explains.
Khoury is indeed a great story teller. During the interview, he recounts his days at PS 58 on Smith Street. He seems to remember every teacher by name. There was Mr. Ringston, who visited him at Long Island College Hospital and brought him a milk shake every day, when he was hospitalized because of a ruptured spleen. There were Ms.Cavicchio, Ms. Adamski, Ms. Hogan, Ms White, Ms. Horvat, but most importantly, there was Ms. Nicholson, who, after his mother, he calls the most influential woman in his life. "She was feared, respected and beloved." (Ironically, my own kids had some of the same teachers at PS 58 in the 1990's.)
Khoury hoped that his stories will resonate with others. He reminisces about a simpler time, about his mother "who was a character in her own right," about teenage crushes and failures, and the church, which was "feared more than the mafia."
Khoury was careful not to romanticize the period. Crime was rampant in the 70s and 80s, the streets were dirty and the air was thick with racial tensions. There were good blocks in the neighborhood. Others were better avoided. Carroll Park was considered a dangerous place back then. However, when Khoury's local softball league played in the park, everyone in the neighborhood came out to cheer. "The crowd looked like at a Mets game" Khoury remembers.
I ask him if Smith Street in the 70's was really as bad as I had heard. He explains that the street was lined with one shoe store after another, including Johnny's Bootery, which just closed a few years ago. "Your mother would take you to buy a pair of shoes on Smith Street once a year and you got out as fast as possible." He pauses for a moment. "Things are better now in the neighborhood. I wish Carroll Park had been like it is now when I was a kid."
Yes, in recent years, newer, younger residents have brought about many changes in the neighborhood, but he finds that "every generation has its magic."

"Go Sit On Your Own" will be available through the website, through Amazon, at Farmacy and at Lucali's on September 28, Khoury's birthday . In October, his friends in the neighborhood are planning a proper book release party at a real social club on Henry Street.

An excerpt from "Go Sit On Your Own Stoop!":

I grew up on Henry St. in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, NY in the 1970s. I don’t recall hearing the neighborhood referred to as Carroll Gardens back then. I always thought I lived in Cobble Hill or more simply, South Brooklyn. Unlike today, my childhood was spent in a borough that had many links to Brooklyn of the 1940s and 50s. As big as New York City was, it had some “small town” or “mom and pop” elements that, amazingly, somehow still survived into the 70s.
For example, every morning we had a man delivering glass bottles filled with milk. My job, before leaving for school (which I walked 6 blocks to…alone!) was to remove the ice-cold bottles from the metal milk box in the foyer of the hallway and bring them to my father without dropping them. I was not always successful.
In the afternoon, all the neighborhood mothers (not called “stay-at-home Moms” back then…they were just “mothers”) would stream from their brownstones to look at the latest produce available on the fruit and vegetable truck that parked on the corner of Mazzola’s bakery. And Mazzola’s bakery was just that…a bakery. There was no coffee, no skim-milk lattes, no low-calorie cookies. There was nothing but Italian bread. And that bread was good! You could choose from plain loaves, seeded loaves, lard bread (loaded with salami and black pepper, but no lard!) or a Sinatra (long and skinny, just like Francis Albert was at the Paramount Theater in the 40s). It was amazing! My mother would give me 40 cents to buy a loaf and I would eat half of it by the time I brought it back for dinner and I only lived two apartments away!

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Anonymous said...

I moved here in 1983 and the deciding factor was safety. No rampant crime that I was aware of. I got home from work after midnight and walked home from wherever I parked with no problem.

A memorable article in the Brooklyn Paper at the time ranted about car theft/break-in in Carroll Gardens being the highest crime in the neighborhood. In the last paragraph they noted that CG was the second lowest precinct in the city for car theft. Hardly a hot bed of crime.

Drug dealing at night in Carroll Park - yes. And quickly put to a stop. A short stretch of Smith St with no stores that was dark in the evening was a little creepy but I walked home every day from Metrotech starting in 1992 and Smith St was otherwise lively with stores - just not the "trendy" ones there now.

Much more night time foot makes it feel more comfortable now but I'm not so sure it was unsafe before.

These types of "memoirs" come up periodically I have to wonder about them. And PS, I'm a petite woman.

John said...

Hello anonymous-The rampant crime referred to in Katia's post and in my book is more about New York City as a whole, specifically during the late 1970s, when I was a young boy and my mother and other neighborhood mothers were concerned (even scared) to venture too far out of the neighborhood, which they felt very comfortable and safe within. Smith St and Columbia St were bookend-type boundaries they didn't walk past, as there was a genuine fear of being mugged and robbed.

However, their feeling of general comfort with the rest of the neighborhood supports your comment and view about the safety of Carroll Gardens when you moved here in 1983 and I couldn't agree with you more.

For the most part, during the 70s and 80s, Carroll Gardens (South Brooklyn, thank you) was seemingly immune to the spiraling crime that was prevalent in so many other sections of the city. So, relatively speaking, this area was indeed very safe, for both children and petite women (if you don't include the countless packs of stray dogs that roamed the streets at that time, which were a genuine hazard and threat to everyone, especially kids playing on the sidewalks all day.)

For me personally though, everything changed around 1987, when the crack epidemic was in full swing. Among genuinely terrible crimes such as routine muggings and a rape in my cousin's vestibule on Union St, my car was broken into and/or stripped of parts on 5 different occasions. In fact, I walked out of my apartment one day to find a man in my trunk- literally crouched inside my trunk-rifling through my belongings, before I had to chase him down Henry St. I hope he enjoyed that unopened bottle of window washer fluid.

So while I understand and appreciate the cynicism regarding any types of 'This is the way it REALLY was in my day!' statements made by authors of memoirs, rest assured my memoir makes no sensational claims that Carroll Gardens of the 70s and 80s was a modern day version of the wild, wild west. It wasn't, not by a long shot. But it wasn't Disneyworld either, especially to a child, which is the perspective of many of the stories in my book.

Thanks so much for your feedback. I genuinely appreciate it!


Joey - also from Henry Street said...

Hey Anonymous,

In 10 minutes, I can call at least 25 people who will not only vouch for every recollection and personality recounted in John's book, we can introduce you to them!

You can wonder all you want, but John John's "memoir" is spot on in almost every detail of the life we experienced growing up during the 1970's on Henry Street - in South Brooklyn.

One day in 1973, in Carroll Park,
playing on the see-saws, when Carroll Park had see-saws (and kick-ass monkey bars!), I broke my leg. With no adults around, my brother and best friend Mario, practically dragged me to Long Island College Hospital. I was 8. I didn't call my parents because I thought I'd get in trouble. It was indeed a different time.

We would spin tops, play fist, stoop ball- when a rare open parking spot permited it- skelly and ring-a-levio in the streets to keep us busy. I still own a pimple ball!

As John mentioned, it wasn't Disneyland, but we didn't know any better. Looking back, we wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Katia, thanks for allowing John the opportunity to tell his story. He captures that period of time perfectly and I am happy he put it out there.

I only wish he would have mentioned how Nicky Neck would spit at you though the hole in his throat when we ranked on him.
Ahh, good times!

Katia said...

Would LOVE to hear more of your stories. If you ever wanted me to interview you, send me an email to pardonmeinbrooklyn at gmail dot com.

I remember the jungle gym and the see-saws as well as the wading pool in front of the park house.
Does anyone remember Walter, the full time Carroll Park worker?

Anonymous said...


Congrats on the book. I now like in NJ but born and raised on First place between Henry and Clinton.

I attended Sacred Heart and judging by your photos we're about the same age.

I intend to buy your book. But I think you are way off base with saying it was a rough neighborhood.

Carroll Gardens was the safest place around. Maybe a little bit rough when you apprached Columbia St.

FrankiePitt said...

I'm looking forward to reading this. I was born in 1966, and grew up on President and Henry Streets. I went to P.S. 58, then St. Mary's for seventh and eighth grades, and Mimi's candy store was owned by my cousins. I expect I'll be able to relate to many of John's stories.

Regarding the crime rate, though, I have to say that while my immediate area was always regarded as safe - back then there were ALWAYS people hanging on on their stoops, especially during the warm weather (and during the cold months, women were always looking out their windows) - there were some areas to avoid. As kids, we never went towards Hicks/Columbia Streets, Red Hook was a no-no, and my parents and I were actually robbed at gunpoint on Smith Street in June of 1980.

But generally, the "small town" atmosphere of the neighborhood made living here a wonderful thing. And although things have changed in many ways (not necessarily for the better, despite how many restaurants and boutiques pop up), I never left.

John said...

Thank you, Frankie. You seem to articulate perfectly what I tried to say in my last post.

By no means was Carroll Gardens a scary neighborhood, when compared to the rest of NYC, but you had to watch certain areas. Period. I even reference in my book the 'mom and pop feel' of the city in the 70s so it's nice to hear someone corrborate that!

Thanks again and I hope you enjoy the book!


Maria said...

Sadly, crime still visits the streets of Carroll Gardens:

It probably always will. Because everyone's experiences are different, it doesn't mean it never occurs.

Born and Raised in C.G. said...

Hi John & Katia,

My family has been in Carroll Gardens since before St. Agnes was built - the 1st time. I'm still here.

Sure you didn't walk along Smith Street after dark for a few years, but that went for almost any "commercial strip" in the 70's 80's 90's in NY.

But the people on YOUR OWN block knew you & looked out for you - again like almost any Brooklyn side street in the 60's & 70's.

Carroll Park was a drug hangout - mostly it was for getting stoned. "Drug Crime" was limited to break-ins through roof tops via connecting buildings. Top floor aprtments were the main target - and it never hit the papers & you generally knew the person who did it.

During hard times things get rough! So it was then, so it is now.
Gun shots in Carroll Gardens were discussed just this past week at the station house. I-pods Stolen BY kids, teens throwing rocks at parents in the park. Cars being broken into infront of the church on Clinton & Carroll. Teens & young adults making 'transactions' in Carroll Park at night, using Pit Bulls as look outs.

There are still rough times ahead - but this time there's no network of neighbors looking out for each other.

To ALL Carrol Gardens residents: Get to know your neighbor! At least to the point where you can recognize who belongs to which building. I don't care if you're family has been here 100 years or if you moved in 100 days ago - - - Be Aware of your surroundings and get to know your neighbor.