Monday, October 22, 2018

Before & After

Girls in First Communion Dresses, 15th Street, 1975

Often, before we began "house calls" (as he called them), Dr. Williams was quick to tell his young listener to "look around, let your eyes take in the neighborhood - the homes, the stores, the people and places, there waiting to tell you, show you something." It was as if to this traveling and now talking "doc" (as he wanted to be called by the "folks" in whose homes he came - "Doc Bill" or often "Doc W." not Doctor Williams) there were voices out there, in buildings as well as individuals, having their available say, if only "we passers-by" would willingly "give them a hear, let them get to you."

                                                             House Calls with William Carlos Williams - Robert Coles

I've had my copy of Larry Racioppo's  Brooklyn Before for several weeks now. It's a beautiful book, and I keep returning to it to look at the photographs again.  There are plenty of things in it that  I remember, but I wasn't a part of the time-frame. From 1971 - 1983 I was mostly living in the North of England. I got to this part of Brooklyn three years later, in my late twenties.

It's hard to believe that the earliest photographs were taken almost fifty years ago.  It's strange to think I've been here a while myself, though thirty years is nothing in the scheme of things.  A spit in the ocean.  I look at the photographs and see a landscape shift through time: on the page, just when it met the lens, in my head, the way it was my first years of living here, and just as it looks today. It feels like a flip book you had as a kid, your fingers flickering a transformation.

Growing up in the neighborhood, Racioppo documents it as an insider. The photographs in Brooklyn Before radiate from his own family life, from shots in living rooms, doorsteps and backyards out into the street life of the wider community.  The work is set in the context of the Catholic calendar: Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday.  You can count Halloween in there too.  It witnesses first communions, a bride to-be, and privacy intact, a funeral.

Conga Players, 7th Avenue, 1977

It observes other communions, at a time when life was lived more fully on the sidewalk, in  gatherings of families, elderly men, teenagers, kids.  The sound of drums or saxophone, or maybe a boombox, drifts. Everything's less virtual. The street itself, mercifully lighter in traffic then, is not yet out of bounds; ball games abound.  When did the ball games disappear, I ask myself when looking at a photograph?  Somewhere in the 90s, I seem to recall.  The century wrapped up a lot of things like that.

Boys Playing Handball, 21st Street, 1975

Everything about the photos fascinates. The grid's intact, the familiar streets and landmarks of church, school, expressway, make navigation easy, but other, small but significant landmarks have vanished. I find myself playing photograph detective. The location of that diamond-patterned corner store in 1976 is easily identified as another grocery today - Junior's at Eighth, in the spirit of things.  Some places are harder to trace- a bar I never knew on Sixth is now a private residence, and a pillared entrance of a corner luncheonette is squared off & sealed under brick.  No entrance here.  There are boarded up buildings, walls overlaid with an anthropologist's trove of graffiti, and the old facades of asphalt shingles have seen better days. The chain link fences guarding empty lots provide no boundary to kids with an imagination. Every inch is lived in.

The landscape back then - almost entirely low level, with little higher than four or five stories - is now disrupted by taller, newer, boxy buildings. Parishes consolidate; the old parochial schools go condo. Today the kids round here aren't shinning fences; you'll find them supervised in after-school robotic labs or signed up for The League of Young Inventors.

Kitty and Lucky in Their Doorway, 6th Avenue, 1972

Racioppo's photographs are loving, but unsentimental.  The closest, family portraits generate warmth.  Take aunt and uncle Kitty & Lucky, caught on the doorstep in summer's heat.  Kitty, slightly off-guard, is smiling broadly.  One of her hands rests loosely in Lucky's, while the other moves instinctively to straighten her hair.  Lucky, bare-chested, with belt undone, looks calm, affectionate, implacable.  There's a gentle, honest, intimacy here.

Kids are everywhere. They own the place.  Responses to the camera differ, especially as adolescence sets in. When surrounded by a gaggle of their peers the kids are at ease in front of the lens; preening & goofing around, the thing's a game.  Older, or alone, self-consciousness seeps in.  This is the way of things.  Sometimes the effect is humorous; a couple of those first communion boys have all the awkward staidness of middle-aged men.  It's partly the suits and the occasion I guess.  Sometimes we see the strange, unknowable gulf between child and adult.  Boy with Toy Rocket and Leaves is like thatThat wary look in the kid's eyes & the purposeful arrangement of the grasses suggest a special, ritual world we've aged out of.

Boy with Toy Rocket and Leaves, 12th Street, 1975

In Brooklyn Before, time moves more slowly.  Curtains wave through open windows, and laundry dries on endless Brooklyn lines.  Youths lounge in basements.  The afternoon TV plays on.

It's not an Eden.  Like elsewhere in the city there are all the problems & tensions of the period: the grip of drugs, abandoned buildings, the steady ebb of jobs that fed a family, & racial tensions. Some of the graffiti on the buildings is bluster, some of the phrases are vicious.  Back in the 80s I spoke to a guy who belonged to the first Puerto Rican family to move to a 16th Street block in the 60s.  He'd never wish those years back again, he told me, laughing bitterly.  But school, and church, and street life also helped kids and teens & young adults cross boundaries, make connections.

Building for Sale Across the Street, 15th Street, 1974

I walk these streets endlessly.  The other day, on 15th, I passed a building Racioppo photographed when he lived on the block. A dog days hangout on the fire escape & a woman, leaning on a sill, looking up the street, belong to a time before air conditioners and security cameras, and keeping tabs by cell phones.  The eyes of the block saw everything.  The sale sign, of course, presages a time when a building like this would cost millions.  Who'd have guessed?  The building still stands, though it's changed hands several times since 1974.  And apart from a shell of aluminium siding it looks pretty much the same.  I spoke to a tenant there who'd been around for decades.  He missed the vitality of earlier years, with kids in the street and parties all around.  You could hear them everywhere.  There are too many permits for everything today, he said, and too many complaints called in from neighbors.  He remembered everything, he said emphatically.

Everything does change, so what do you do?  Resist it, accommodate yourself, move on?  You may well have no choice.  And where do you go next?  Sticking around, you have to be open-minded, always resist a rush to judge the new.  You were a newcomer once yourself, remember.  Everything takes time to settle in.  It is different though.  The money involved, the Fresh Direct trucks idling on the night-time streets, the realtor hype.  I'm not a Before but neither by the standards of the present am I After.  I'm somewhere in-between.

When I arrived on my block, the nearby brownstone Park Slope pioneers were well entrenched, but below 9th and west of Sixth, the scarcity of co-ops and the shift of housing stock from brick to frame made for a slower transition.  Change was still coming though, pushing inexorably south.  Stretching down into the teens & twenties, with boundaries uncertain & hotly contested, the name of the area's defined by the time you got here: South Brooklyn, Park Slope, Sunset Park, South Slope, Greenwood Heights.  Whatever street divide or name you pledge allegiance to, it's an older Brooklyn.  This is not brownstone history, the domestic province of burghers and wealthy industrialists.  It goes deeper than that. The yellow markers on the property and Sanborn maps show its early wooden houses set in islands of blank space.  The grid fills in, piecemeal, as semi-rural Brooklyn gets urban. This is the blue-collar history of the immigrants who lived here, who did the hands-on work to build the borough.  The story's still here, beneath the vinyl, aluminum, perma-stone, shingled asphalt, wood.

Rents & housing prices rose steadily here, though it would take another decade or so before the physical look of the place started to alter dramatically.  Back then it was still just wooden rowhouses interspersed with small or mid-sized frame or brick apartment buildings.  When we moved in, in the 80s, we were part of the change but the decade's new arrivals, on my block at least, were a far more diverse bunch than you'd find arriving on the scene today.  Taxi drivers, schoolteachers, church deacons & transit employees moved in along with the social workers & college professors: Irish, Haitian, Puerto Rican, African American, Dominican, white.  That didn't last much longer.

Girl with Cotton Candy at a Street Fair, 4th Avenue, 1974

Brooklyn Before was still in the air.  The street life, the ball games, the parties, the laundry lines. Today I have the block's's last laundry pole; I'm English - the habit dies hard. The street was, for the main part, Irish, Italian & Puerto Rican, but it also included newer Mexican and Central American immigrants.  It was a vital mix.  On one side of us, our elderly Italian neighbors Connie & Carmine - retired from the Navy Yard - who'd moved here from Red Hook in the 60s.  On the other, Puerto Rican Manny & his brother David, who moved in a year or two before us, from a flood-prone house on 9th near Second Avenue.  I couldn't ask for better neighbors.  It wasn't a pretty or sedate block back then.  It was louder.  Its attitude to laws & regulations was more casual.  It was a narrower world in a way, but its stories were wilder.  They were better stories.  It was harder, and funnier. There was a kindness to it, and a tolerance for the frail or the misfit.  The block wasn't pretty or desirable; it was well-used.

An Irish family lived in the house before we did.  Eight kids, two sets of twins.  The kids had all slept at the top of the house in a partitioned attic. Boys on one side, girls on the other.  The kids grew up and most of them moved out.  When their elderly mother died the house was sold.  We still have the rosary and the print of the Last Supper that was left behind.  Clearing a boarded up fireplace, we found traces of earlier residents: soot-stained pages of the Eagle funnies, and Johanna Popp's fourth grade Holy Name schoolbook.

The neighborhood is wealthier today, and whiter.  Corner bodegas become reborn as restaurants.  Functional businesses go niche. To newer residents today, Brooklyn Before might be a foreign country.  For those who've been here long enough, the book's a joy, conjuring up a tight-knit community life that was lighter on material goods, but rich in spirit.  I'm lucky to have caught a glimpse. There's also a sadness there; it shows us the racial and economic diversity we've lost, not just in this strip of Brooklyn but all over the city. 

Two shots stick in my mind. You turn the page to find them with a jolt.  These are the wide-angle shots of Good Friday Processions, one on 21st Street, outside St. John's, and the other at Fifth & 15th - Penitentes, Herod and Other Participants, Good Friday Procession, 5th Avenue, 1981.  Look at the second one.  You can spend some time on the retail of course, with the fruit and vegetables, and fabric stores and the Key Food supermarket long gone.  Little thoughts come into your head - I shopped for vegetables right at that corner, there's the liquor store, still around. You can slot in the higher-end replacements - the gym that rents for a million bucks a year. But it's the people that matter.  The photo's so raw it's not just the day of the year, it's a whole neighborhood marching to confront whoever's looking at them now. This was us, they seem to say, this was ours once.  You have to know it.

Penitentes, Herod, and Other Participants, Good Friday Procession, 5th Avenue, 1981

All photographs © Larry Racioppo

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