My Parkside/ My Flatbush
Thoughts on a Neighborhood and Change
As I was walking through Prospect Park one morning, I thought of the way I have seen Flatbush over the years and contemplated writing about it. This thought became rather persuasive, morning after morning, and so I decided that I would give in and paint the picture of Flatbush and in particular Parkside Avenue as I have seen it over the years. In this piece, I use the words Parkside and Flatbush interchangeably. I also use mixed genre in my description. Some of this is written as a personal narrative, using first person point of view, and other parts are written from a third person perspective. I hope that through this piece you, the reader, will get a sense of what Flatbush was like some 40 years ago and why longtime residents have nostalgia for that Flatbush.
So I came to New York almost forty years ago and settled in the neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Garden. For almost 39 of those years I have lived on Parkside Avenue. As I think of Flatbush then and now, I cannot help but think of what my neighborhood used to be and of what it is now. I call it my Parkside because when my children’s friends, or relatives- no mater where they resided referred to my house- it was simply “Parkside.” They would say they were going to Parkside, and it would be to our house.
The Flatbush I knew then, and the Flatbush my children grew up in, was a vibrant one in which one felt a sense of community. The neighbors were constant with very few changes. Yes, a few moved away, but for the most part we have had the same neighbors, some for over for thirty-seven years, and some for over fifteen. It was a neighborhood in which, my mother–in-law was called Grandma by the neighbors and one in which the young men were kind enough to carry a bag for her or even for me and my daughters if it seemed too heavy as we came from the grocery store. In fact, this Flatbush was one where people would ask for you if they didn’t see you. So I would ask for my neighbor if I didn’t see her looking our of her window, and she would ask for me if she didn’t see me going running, or for Grandma if she had not seen her passing by during the day. Even the lady in the Green Grocery Store would ask for Grandma if they had not seen her wondering if she had gone to Jamaica or if she were ill. This is the Flatbush I knew. When grandma fell ill in the laundromat on Flatbush, the people there knew which bell to ring to let us know that she was taken to the hospital. How did they know this? They knew because they would often help grandma pull her cart home. This is the Flatbush we knew and loved, a place where the neighbors were neighborly without being too invasive, but where everyone seemed to know each other either on a first name basis. Camraderie built as summer gatherings were held at the houses and people hung outside the apartment building. It was a place where the children played and rode their bicycles up and down the block, and where a neighbor would teach your child to ride a bike. It was also a place where the children looked forward to the yearly block party when they had an opportunity to ride on a pony, or to climb onto the fire truck, and to eat hot dogs and burgers fresh off the grill.
Flatbush, as it was then and now, afforded many opportunities for the development of children, and one could make use of all these venues:
- the Linden Boulevard and Grand Army Plaza libraries
- the Prospect Park Zoo
- the Brooklyn Museum
- the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
- the Leffterts Homestead, now the Lefferts Historic House that offered interactive activities.
Not to mention, if one ventured a bit farther, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. With all of these, no child could be bored and since these are still around today, no child should be bored. On a personal note, my family would take a ride on the bus to Brooklyn College where my children learned swimming and where many cultural events took place. Then, there was Little Theatre Dance Studio on Martense and Flatbush that afforded so many children the dream of being ballerinas, [I remember Miss Patti and the many shows she had at the Ark]. There were other dance studios that taught children the cultural dances of their parents, and in our case, the Motherland- Africa. On another level, my Flatbush still houses Medgar Evers College, named after Civil rights Activist, Medgar Wiley Evers who was assassinated in 1963 in his fight for equal justice. This college has been a bulwark in our community and it has been known for providing quality education for members of the community, especially immigrants from the Caribbean.
The drummers, be they from Trinidad, Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, or of the Mother Land would assemble in Drummer’s Grove and the pulsating beats of the drums would talk creating a feeling of unity, and no one would complain of the music being too loud for they spoke a language that connected people together with “chords” that could not be broken. Some would sway to the beats, and others would allow their body to give way to dancing. That was Flatbush.
Sundays in Flatbush took on a special aura. Flatbush boasts many churches and one could see many people coming from houses of worship, after all Brooklyn is the borough of churches. For those who live in the vicinity of the Prospect Park and even for those who did not live nearby, the park afforded us a time of bonding. After that special Sunday dinner, Prospect Park was the place to go. The drummers, be they from Trinidad, Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, or of the Mother Land would assemble in Drummer’s Grove and the pulsating beats of the drums would talk creating a feeling of unity, and no one would complain of the music being too loud for they spoke a language that connected people together with “chords” that could not be broken. Some would sway to the beats, and others would allow their body to give way to dancing. That was Flatbush. However, the greatness of Prospect Park was also to be found in the meandering paths that one could explore and the historical lessons that the various statutes present such as statues of Lincoln, Irving, Mozart and Beethoven. Children would want to know who these historical figures were and this provided an opportunity for research for those who did not know. -Oh, what about the pedaling boats that one could enjoy and the ice-skating rink!- These all bring back memories, and I am glad to see that these are still around. The park with its swings and monkey bars has been a delightful place where children had and still have a space to play, a place to be kids. My, how could one forget the carousel and the cotton candy! The park was, and is still, a wonderful place to enjoy, and it provided a great place to keep in shape, and even after these many years, I can still recall the shirtless “birdman” who showed us how to walk properly with arms pumping up and down as we circled the park, the man who would yell “ Jesus Loves you, “ and the one who would just give the thumbs up, or the young people who would encourage you to keep on going up the hill. These reflect the culture of the park.
Another fixture of Flatbush, near enough to Parkside Avenue and Prospect Park was Empire Skating Rink. For many young people, that was the spot to be on a Friday or Saturday night as they rolled to the beats of the then popular songs. This was a safe haven for many young people, and children from far away as Brownsville enjoyed this rink, as schools would take trips to provide students with the opportunity to roller skate. I can remember my first attempt to skate and the fall I suffered much like my first attempt to ride a bike. These first attempts were never repeated.
How can one write about Parkside and Flatbush without referencing the Labor Day Parade, the Kiddies Carnival and J’ouvert? On the Saturday before Labor Day, one would see the young children dressed in carnival attire celebrating their heritage so that a culture would not die. Then late Sunday night into early Monday morning, one can hear the sounds of music and see the bacchanal taking place as j’ouvert happens. This has always been a time of great excitement whether one was involved in the activities or just looking as people enjoyed themselves dancing to the sounds of the islands. For years the dancers would come up Parkside Avenue and I would go to my window to watch them. There have been changes to these activities over the years, but thankfully the culture has not died out despite efforts to curtail what is typically West Indian in a community that has always been known as a West Indian. Sad to say then, and now, there were and are often violent activities associated with the celebrations, and what is meant to be a day of sheer fun can leave some in despair. However, we return year after year to mingle with and celebrate what is inherently ours, our mixed culture.
Along with the carnival celebrating the musical culture or the West Indies, is the yearly festival of Las Posadas, a religious ceremonial parade that begins at the beginning of Flatbush and which travels up Parkside each year. [This is also celebrated in other communities.] One is drawn to the parade as our Mexican brothers and sisters celebrate this religious festival with their statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The people are dressed in white ad they carry flowers. This is a great contrast to the West Indian Day Parade where colors reign and immigrants proudly wave their flags. This adds to the diversity that is Parkside and Flatbush where immigrants live together acknowledging our differences, but not building walls.
“Back in the days,” to use an urban slang, one did not have to ride the trains to go shopping. Flatbush provided many shops where one could find just what they needed for the entire family. There were Woolworths, A&S, Macy’s, Loehmans, Bertos, Sears, and Thom McAn, to mention just a few. Even the bride and groom could be properly fitted by the bridal shop that has stood on the corner of Ocean and Church Avenues and the tuxedo shop on Martense. Today, there are many mom and pop shops on Flatbush and they serve the community fairly well, but now for certain goods one must make the trip to Manhattan, to Downtown Brooklyn, or to Kings Plaza since certain stores no longer dot the avenue.
The Flatbush of years ago boasted magnificent buildings. Some of these buidings include the banks such as the Lincoln National Bank on the corner of Nostrand and Church, and the Bank, which in my time has seen many name changes, on the corner of Flatbush and Caton Avenues. These banks have since been restructured and the architectural style changed as they have been subdivided and smaller businesses now occupy these spaces. The opulence of these banks and also of theaters on Church Avenue and Flatbush Avenue are now gone. Thankfully, Kings Theatre has been re-opened bringing back to us in Flatbush some structure that reminds us of a time of yore. Unfortunately, the cost to attend the events that take place there are often out of the financial range many.
Flatbush had its share of problems, and it still does. I don’t want anyone to think that it was “Golden Pond.” Even today it isn’t a perfect haven. Robberies took place, and not every one was neighborly, but it was still the place where you knew who the grandparents were, to whom the children belonged, and who your neighbors were. The friendly nod was there and that made up for what was missing. People acknowledged each other.
Now, there are many new establishments, which offer a new aura to our neighborhood. The new delis and cafes offer new tastes to the pallet especially for those who never ventured beyond the boundaries of Flatbush. There are new places where people can go to connect to the internet and this is advantageous. There are many different ethnic groups and the languages are so diverse, and though this makes for difficult communication they add a metropolitan feel to the avenue which creates a sense of “distancing.”
I think that if we, especially those who live here, could just try the friendly nod, that would be a good place for starting the process of melding and creating a new Parkside, a new Flatbush, one that will maintain and yet combine some of the ambience of the old with the newness of the present. This way, my Parkside, my Flatbush will not feel so new and strange, and those who return to Parkside and Flatbush after having been away will not ask, “What has happened here?”