Does your grandma ever tell you that the South Bronx used to be great? Does she tell you how you could walk around at night without getting killed, never have to lock your door? Mine does, and that’s because she lived their when it was so damned nice. Now that was in the 1940’s, long before the Leave-It-to-Beaver suburbs lured everyone out, long before the expressway cut the borough in half. Ah, those were the days.
But how many of our grandparents talk fondly of the Lower East Side? Not mine, that’s for sure! My grandmother grew up in the Bronx, and her one short visit to Hester Street didn’t make a great impression. All she has to say is “garbage, filth, and stink.” My great-great-grandfather (on my mother’s side) took one look at the place, couldn’t breathe, and made a run for Rochester. As for my grandma, the first thing her immigrant parents did was move to a tenement on Orchard Street. The second thing they did was find another neighborhood. When the Lower East Side became expensive, she said “why would you want to live in that dump, we were all desperate to leave!”
Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive is an ode to the Bronx, while Bella Spiwak’s Streets is a piss at the LES. It’s no wonder the LES was a mess, if you look at it topographically; it was low-lying, polluted, and the drainage was lousy. The buildings were packed tightly, so there was no quiet or privacy. Horse shit filled the streets, garbage lined the sidewalk, traffic was impossible. If there’s anyone out there who remembers A Stone For Danny Fisher, it makes the LES look bleak. Danny Fisher takes place in the 1930’s, and even by then the neighborhood was dangerous. Most of the Jewish residents had since moved to Brooklyn.
My problem with both books is that they are repetitive. Simon writes over and over again about hanging out on stoops, and eventually I got too bored to finish the book. With Spiwak, she keeps saying how crowded the place was, how everyone had to take in boarders, how she was stuck taking care of her siblings. Everything Simon and Spiwak wrote could be done in a short essay.
It’s not to say, however, that their lives were ruined. Spiwak went on to write the musical Kiss Me Katie, and Streets was shelved for years. She wrote it in the 1920’s and put it away, thinking nobody would care about it. She was right, nobody cared, and it wasn’t published until after her death. Both of these books are out of print, and when a book has been out of print for years, there’s usually a good reason for it. Some writers do a great job telling stories of their childhoods (remember Angela’s Ashes?) but some don’t.
“The South Bronx was a great place to live,” says my grandmother. “It was safe, you never had to worry about anything, and James Monroe high school, we had Nobel Prize winners coming out of there.” As for the Lower East Side, my mother has fond memories of my grandfather taking her to the Forward building, with its kosher cafeteria in the basement. That would’ve been in the late 1950’s, long after most of the Jews had left. I asked her what it was like at night, and she said “you had to be crazy to be there after sundown, all the junkies came out of the woodwork.”
The Jews were the first to leave the LES right after WWI, then the Italians left, and by WW2 it was half-empty. It was full of empty buildings until the Chinese moved in, and even after that it wasn’t so great. But since 2000 the Lower East Side has become a neighborhood where you can raise kids. The run down schools have gotten better. The streets are clean. But the people that gave it the old character are long gone. Maybe the “good old days” aren’t worth bothering about.