"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?" Jacqueline Kennedy

Monday, June 22, 2015

Memories Of Growing Up In The Gowanus Houses At 426 Baltic Street, South Brooklyn.

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My friend Genevieve as a child in front of one of the (still) green lawns at Gowanus Houses
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Genevieve with her brother Lenny in front of their buildings at  the Gowanus Houses
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Genevieve, her mother and her brother in Carroll Park
Easter 1966
Genevieve with her mother this past May in front of the building they lived in at the Gowanus Houses
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Genevieve with her mom in front of her old pre-school 
Genevieve and her mother remembering how it looked back then.

Little did I know, ten years ago, when I first started writing this blog to document the changes in our neighborhood, that it would allow me to meet so many incredible, inspiring people along the way. What started as a deeply personal labor of love has allowed me to forge wonderful friendships and has made my life so much richer.
I treasure one of these friendships in particular.  I am sure you will understand why.

I met Genevieve on one of the hottest days in June 2010.  She had stumbled upon Pardon Me For Asking while planning a trip with her husband from South Carolina, where she lives,  to New York.
During her stay in the City, she wanted to take her husband to Brooklyn to show him the neighborhood where she had spent her early childhood, including the elementary school she had attended , the park where she had played, and, most importantly, the Gowanus Canal,  where she had "always dreamed to sail the ocean to far away lands."
She contacted me via email to ask me if I had any recommendations for lunch in the neighborhood. (I sent her and her husband to Vinny's on Smith Street.)

Since Genevieve had not been to the neighborhood since the 1980's,  I wanted to welcome her back personally.  We met for a few moments in Carroll Park on that hot summer day in '10, but I immediately felt connected to Genevieve.
When she came back to New York the following spring, we made a point of having lunch together. We also took a very long walk, from Carroll Gardens to Gowanus and all through Cobble Hill.
And we talked, talked, and talked some more.
Ever since, we get together once a year when she is back in town and the rest of the year, we check in on each other via email. A deep friendship developed and she has become one of my dearest friends.

A few months back, Genevieve told me that she would be bringing her very young 79 year old mother along on her next visit to Brooklyn.  Her mother had not visited since 1972, when the family moved to Queens. Genevieve wanted to revisit the neighborhood together, so this past May 2015, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mom, who was every bit as delightful as her daughter.
Of course we met for lunch and took our usual walk, which led us to number 426 Baltic Street in the Gowanus Houses, where Genevieve had spent the first 9 years of her life.

Genevieve's memories of her childhood in the Gowanus Houses were so delightful, so happy and carefree, that it offered a much different picture of what most of us have of growing up there.
Genevieve told me that it bothers her when she hears of the “crime laden elements that breed in the projects. "I have nothing but fond memories!" Genevieve said to me.
"Sure, I was a kid, and parents don’t discuss adult things with children, but I never was told anything except the usual “don’t talk to strangers” or “don’t accept candy from strangers” and the other standard things an urban child is told. It was a place of family and friends. We had room to run and play! (our 5/2015 visit back showed LOTS more concrete than there was when I grew up there)."

After our visit to the Gowanus Houses with her mother, I asked Genevieve if she would please, please write down her memories so that they could be shared with others.
I am delighted that she agreed and happy that her mom supplied some adorable childhood photos.
Thank you, Genevieve and Mom! Can't wait for your next visit.

Here now, Genevieve's 

Memories of growing up in the Gowanus Houses at 426 Baltic Street, South Brooklyn.

Everyone I knew had a married mother and father in the home (requirement on the application to rent my Ma said). Our building was kept clean. Of course our apartment was as well, Ma wouldn’t have it any other way.

We kids were allowed to play outside unsupervised, although I’m sure some adult would keep watch somewhere – because for some strange reason, our parents knew what mischief we participated in by the time we hit our front doors. Miss Virginia comes to mind. Ms. Virginia saw EVERYTHING!!! She would chastise you just as soon as your own mother!! THEN she’d tell your mother!!!

Our teachers cared (me, P.S. 32 – my brother’s school was the middle school further up on Baltic St. – which is now the Cobble Hill School of American Studies). School and camp trips to museums and such abounded. From the Statue of Liberty, to MoMA, to Coney Island, to Sunken Meadow Park, etc., I look back and realize how much of New York I had seen thanks to said trips!

My earliest memories are during spring. The bushes and trees start to bloom. There were shrubbery (some) with the fragrant flowers that bloom in spring and fade, leaving just bushes of deep green in the summer. Everything looked bright and refreshing to this kid’s eyes! Better yet, summer would soon follow and that meant outdoors which meant PLAYGROUND and PARKS!!!!!

We were a collection of FAMILIES. Most of the fathers worked and the mothers stayed home. I remember when it was a big deal when Ma wanted to work. I do remember that Pop-O wasn’t too thrilled about it. In the end, Ma went to work once I started elementary school, but was home by the time I got home.

I remember my Father teaching me to ride a bike one summer. That proud day when he let the seat go and off I went past the basketball courts to my left and the monkey bars/slide/swings to my right.

The “Lawn”, a huge oval plot of perfect grass was the courtyard in the middle of the section of buildings. There was a sign that said keep off the grass and for the most part, we did! I remember Ma taking photos of my brother, me and other kids standing OUTSIDE the oval. Only when my day camp class (based in another building in my section) had a May Day did we break that rule! We had arts-and-crafts, the boys flew a few kites (staying within the fencing of said oval, miraculously). We did a few ring-around-the-rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall dowwwwwwwwn. Not too long after that, our teachers told us off the grass!

Day camp also involved swimming at McCarren Pool weekly. What fun!

My best friend Sherice lived in the building off Hoyt Street. Her play area had stone whales and such. The most one could do was run from one to jump on the other. We didn’t play in her area much, although her building was closest to the candy store. A nickel got you 5 pieces of candy. A quarter would get you little brown bag full of goodies! Bazooka Bubble Gum was a penny! Wow!

Summertime meant the mothers would sit outside on the benches with each other and talk while we kids played. They packed bags with some snacks and drinks and we would be out until darkness came.

We kids (girls – we RARELY played with boys) would intensely play at whatever game, i.e. roller skating (with key), hot peas and butter, ringolevio, skelly, hopscotch and of course jump rope. However, when we heard the first note of Mr. Softee’s truck, we would immediately disperse and run to our perspective buildings and yell under our apartment windows to our mothers for money for ice cream. The mothers would throw down the money – or ignore your cry. [When we moved to the house in the suburbs, we had time to run into our houses to get the money. It wasn’t Mr. Softee either, it was the Good Humor Man. No jingle, just bells. Not as good either!!!]

Mothers would take turns walking us to school.

Great were the memories of venturing out of our building. Ma would take us to Carroll Park often, (which looks MUCH greener now) to play on the swings, slides and see saw. There was also an old fashioned soda shop my Dad used to take me to now and again owned, I think, by an old Italian couple. I couldn’t tell you more but I do remember one particular time when Dad took me there, the lady made a fuss over me when I spilt chocolate sauce on my white dress. I told her Ma was gonna kill me. She was speaking Italian while rubbing and dabbing and got the spot out. When we got home, the only thing that gave it away was that I had a wet spot where the chocolate was. The gig was up – Ma knew! The spot came out so no harm, no foul.

We walked everywhere! We would walk to downtown Brooklyn on occasion. I remember McCrory’s Department Store especially. McCrory’s meant something big, like clothes or furniture.

Picnics were in Prospect Park! There were blankets, food, music (radio – with batteries thank you) and family. I’d get to see my cousins and we’d play for hours until we were MADE to eat!

I remember getting super scrubbed up for church on Sundays. Concord Baptist Church. I admit, mostly, I would sleep in Ma’s lap.

Thankfully, Ma took LOTS of pictures, especially on Easter Sundays. My brother and I would have our new outfits on all poised for the camera! The old Kodak click-and-advance -the-film camera. Ancient!

The view from our apartment living room was the Williamsburg Bank tower with its illuminated clock to the left. From my parents bedroom, in the distance, you could see the Kentile sign. K-E-N, then T-I-L-E, then TILE, then K-E-N-T-I-L-E, or some such sequence. I LOVED that sign. Also from my parents room, in the distance there was the elevated subway line. I used to love using my Ma’s binoculars to look at the skyline and see the pigeons flying in a long swooping circle. I promise, I never looked at other apartments, and now that I think about it wonder why not? Just wasn’t interested, I guess.

Here’s one for you Katia, we left our doors unlocked at times. I remember obviously getting of the elevator on the wrong floor and mistakenly walking into the apartment a few floors below. I quickly saw two boys (pre-teens, can’t remember their names, they were my brother’s friends) in their full underwear (undershirt and briefs – we wore full coverage underwear back then), opening a bag of Wonder Bread (remember that) about to make sandwich. I quickly, quietly closed the door and looked at the apt. number quickly realizing my goof. Whew! Close one. I paid better attention you better believe from then on!

Certain events would happen in our common areas like Broadway in the Streets. There would be skits, singers and dancers. Couldn’t tell you who they were, but our parents seem to enjoy it as well. Of course Ma took pictures.

Toward the end of our run, yes, things began to change. For the first time I saw urine in one of the elevators (the super quickly cleaned it up). I don’t know if it was me getting older and being more aware of things, but the energy did start to change. The air seemed a little more chaotic, if you will. My parents were all along saving money to move the suburbs. Our new house was great, my own bedroom, a yard, a basement, etc., but I cried for weeks. I SO missed my friends, school, camp counselors and teachers.

I’ve always wanted to find my old teacher ( 3rd grade) Mr. Crea. Ma would always call him Mr. McCrea to which I would always correct her. He had shoulder length hair like a hippie, but it was kept neat. Looked like a well groomed John Lennon during the Beatles Sgt. Pepper days. He had a neat mustache and beard, wore glasses, and always a shirt, tie and slacks in school. He was the gentlest soul. The class gave me a going away party when we moved. Toward the end of the party, it started to hit me that I would never see these people again. I started to cry. He came over to me and told me moving was great! That my parents loved me, that I was getting my own house, yard and bedroom. He told me to look at all the friends I had at this party. He assured me I was going to make new friends in Queens too. Soon after, the class (he) presented me with the best art kit ever. He knew I LOVED to draw and paint. This kit had watercolor paints, crayons, colored markers, colored pencils, paper – the works. I stopped crying. I’ve never forgotten him and his kindness. Called P.S. 32 a few years back to start my search for him just to tell him what he meant and still means to me today, but they “couldn’t help me”.

Childhood was great in the Gowanus Houses! I would do it all over again, just the way it was!



Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lovely account which brought back so many memories, which are so similar even though I grew up on the Manhattan side of the bridge. The experiences she recounted are strikingly similar. New York in the 1960's - seems like a millennium ago! Thanks again.

Louise said...

I grew up in the Red Hook Projects from the time I was born until I got married in 1961. Your story sounds the same as mine growing up. I had wonderful times and great friends back then..things do change but the memories we have stay the same...

Melissa Walker said...

What an evocative account--lovely! I hope someone who can help find Mr. Crea sees it!

Anonymous said...

What wonderful memories. Thank you for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

Nice to know the joy and glad they were able to rise above and move on.

Jim Kenna said...

A beautiful story!

Margaret said...

What a lovely remembrance, and so sweet that Genevieve and her Mom came back to see the old neighborhood together.
Reading Genevieve's memories - I wonder, maybe life WAS better then. (I also remember my roller skates with the key! Wonder bread. When we came to the USA as immigrants we used Wonder Bread to make ice cream sandwiches. That's what we thought ice cream sandwiches were!) And Easter photos - the nostalgia. Thank you so much for sharing your memories Genevieve, and what a wonderful story of how you and Genevieve met and became friends, Katia.

Katia said...

Thanks, Margaret. Miss you!

Mary said...

I grew up in London in the same era and I'm struck by the similarities - our mothers throwing down the money for ice cream when the ice cream trucks came around - I had forgotten that. Playing outdoors from morning till night and having so many play mates. We used to go to a "common" - a very large park dating back to English "common lands," that had a wading pool for kids. That's where we spend summer days until we were old enough to take a bus to a very large public pool a couple of miles away. It was also about the size of the Red Hook pool and with its aqua blue water, we thought we were in Spain or some other exotic place. If you add the back track of the Beatles, Stones, reggae and Motown, it was a really wonderful time, and such a rebuke to those who condescend to "inner City" kids. They don't know any and don't know how rich their lives can be and how many thoughtful teachers and mentors can be found at urban schools and day camps.

Thanks, Genevieve, for taking the time to write such lovely memories. Mary

Anonymous said...

Thank you Genevieve. This made my day.

Jeff said...

What a great story.
I've lived on Hoyt Street since '09 and always what was going on around here in the years past. Thanks for sharing your story Genevieve. And thanks again for your great blog Katia.
And, wow, how great would it be to track down Mr. Crea.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s in this neighborhood can relate to, and identify with, Genevieve's experiences. Our parents weren't rich, but they gave us everything they could within their means. We had what we NEEDED, and that was just fine for us. I went to St. Agnes elementary school, just across the street from the Gowanus Houses, and many of my classmates lived there. We were a little "United Nations" all in one school building back then. The Sisters of St. Joseph were dedicated teachers, and they made sure all of us got an excellent -- and equal -- education. At home, we were fortunate to have one television, one radio, and even one record player (remember those?). While we didn't take vacations in Europe or go to Disneyland in California, we had Coney Island in the summer: the vast, clean beach, the amusement rides, fireworks on Tuesday nights, and, of course, Nathan's -- all a 20-minute subway ride away. Very conveniently, we had Carroll Park just up the block. And yes, it was a very popular place for family Easter photographs, many of which I have myself. We played street games, as well, waited for the Mr. Softee or Cubby Cone ice cream trucks, and we couldn't wait to get our ice cream treats from them every day. I agree with Mary above..."inner city" or urban kids of that era had a great upbringing, and I wouldn't trade it in for anything. Thanks to Genevieve for a great story full of memories that many of us share with her.

growler said...

I somehow fell out of the habit of reading this blog (maybe there was a lull in posts and I just gave up? I'm not sure why), but the Gowanus Current Facebook page linked to another post here, and I came back, and stumbled across this post. It is, simply, wonderful. Thank you so much.

Katia said...

Growler, glad you are back.

Gowanus Old-Timer said...

Great work, Katia.

Lydia said...

Beautiful recollection of childhood memories,oh, the good old days! Nice to read about coming up in the 'old' NYC. Kids spent more time socializing and playing outdoors. It's true most did not lock their front doors. Always there was that watchful concerned neighbor who looked out for the kids' best interest and chided whenever necessary. The elders were always respected and addressed as ma'am and sir. Candy was so cheap, goodness! Life went at a much more easy pace. I pray every child can experience these golden moments of carefree happiness and one day tell their stories to someone younger. Nice work, Glad I happened to stumble across this site!

Katia said...

Glad you came across my site as well and I hope you will come back often.

Tony Kelly said...

Grew up in Gowanus, first 414 Baltic street....then 195 Hoyt street.

Unknown said...

Wow.. an awesome trip down memory lane if Gowanus Housing Projects.. 414 Baltic St. was my building growing up. Discovered lately many of my childhood friends & aquaintences have passed on.. smh.. sigh..

Katia said...

If you ever want to share some of your memories of growing up in Gowanus, I would love to post them.

Rgiegel said...

In 1949 my parents were able to qualify for the Gowanus houses, we moved to 414 Baltic st. and were the first tenants to live in that apartment. Everything was brand new, the trees , saplings, the grass newly planted, we were so exited to have such luxury. The apartment, on the 10th floor faced the harbor and I could see the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline from my bedroom window. That would be a million dollar view today! Yes, I agree with everything that was said..we lived in a different time then, I felt I lived a perfect childhood. In 1954 we took a trip to Florida, my father had been stationed there during the war, the weather cinched the deal for, so we decided to move there. After all these years I still reminisce about the gowanus houses and going to school at Nathan Hale Jr. High, half a block away from my front door.

Unknown said...

I lived on Baltic Gowanus projects on the first floor.I remember riding my bicycle, playing baseball as a kid until we move to Bushwick Projects.I also remember the hip hop break beats being played in the parks.