Hello and welcome back!
At long last I’m writing again, and I have MISSED it!
I’m actually putting the finishing touches on this post at 11:30 at night and am due at work tomorrow at 4 am.
I made the mistake of “napping” today – which “somehow” turned into a full blown sleep that last six hours.
Now I’m wide awake so I started cruising social media and a clip from Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” popped into my feed (the Copacabana one – pure genius), and I suddenly had the urge to go back to Brooklyn.
So I’m going to begin with photo above.
That woman is my great-aunt Cecile, my grandmothers sister. This picture was among a group up given to me years ago by my mothers cousin.
All I was told was that it was taken in New York when she was visiting them from Montreal.
“You know your grandparents lived in New York right … ?” he asked.
Yes, I know.
I used to stare long and hard at this photo when I first got it. Mostly because I was wondering if it had been taken on Gates Avenue. At the time I had no photo of their old home and I was desperate to actually see it.
I’ve always wondered about it. Who else lived there during their time there? Who owned the building? My grandfather was the caretaker, who did he work for?
And what if anything, can these connections tell me.
I know I run the risk of going down a rabbit hole with this. I may find myself scratching dirt and coming up completely empty.
But it’s digging needs to be done … so here we go.
When I first became fascinated with this story – long before Google Earth – I used to imagine going back and finding their old apartment building in pristine 1930’s condition; as if time had stopped the moment they left.
I pictured it as a kind of time capsule, keeping my grandparents secrets safe until the moment I inevitably tripped through the door to find them.
The building would smell of cigar smoke and must. And there would be a caretaker living in their old apartment who just happened to be the son of the son of the son of the one who took over from my grandfather all those years ago.
And oh yes, he remembers hearing about the family that disappeared into the night way back when, and how they left everything behind. He thinks some of their things were put in the basement and are likely still there if I want to have a look …
It’s about as ridiculous and as cliche a narrative as you can imagine.
But – before you judge too harshly, I once found a bunch of old letters in the basement of the brownstone I was renting when I lived in Saint John N.B. They were written from the front during WW I, and the story they told became a CBC documentary.
I only say that to say that these kind of things can and do happen – but not in this case.
In this case, the entire block where my grandparents used to live is now public housing.
I actually knew before I went to Brooklyn that the old apartment building was gone.
Google Earth had made sure of that, but I couldn’t help hoping it was wrong.
I confess I’ve been consumed by an inexplicable desire to want to step into their old space. To grip the bannister my aunt once gripped. Or walk the wooden and tile floors they crossed in their rush to get out.
I’ve come to call it “the pull”, and it’s the same force that pushed me to want to find answers in the first place.
On one hand, it seems completely ridiculous.
On the other, maybe understandable if you’re seeking solid connections to a story that seems to constantly be sitting on the edge of myth. It was as if finding their old home would somehow make the things I had heard more “true”.
So I kept on hoping that old building was there. I kept hoping right up until the spring morning I rode the B-52 bus down Gates for the first time watching the addresses whiz by and by and by. I kept craning my neck, waiting for something I knew simply wasn’t coming.
By the time I got off the bus, I found myself in what was at one time one of Brooklyn’s roughest neighbourhoods.
And more alienated from my grandparents than ever.
So with no literal building to give me a connection, I decided I needed the next best thing: a photo I could confirm.
I tried the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Library – nothing.
I spent an entire morning combing through documents at the Brooklyn Department of Buildings. The only thing I found was an order to have the previous building (aka – their old home) razed.
I was however, gaining a better understanding of their old neighbourhood. And the fact their building had been torn down didn’t entirely surprise me.
Bedford-Stuyvesant (or Bed-Stuy as it’s known) has a complex and troubled history.
If you have ever seen the Spike Lee movie “Do the Right Thing”, it gives a clear picture of what it was like there in the 1980’s. The film was actually made just a block or two away from where my grandparents used to live.
The story of how that neighbourhood went from the working class world of my grandparents in the 1920’s and ’30’s to the ghetto of the 1950’s and ’60’s can be summed up in three words: race, real estate and money.
I am not going to digress into a history lesson here (that could be a post all on it’s own), but suffice it to say that during this period many buildings were lost due to neglect, looting and violence.
Things are improving, but the evidence is still there.
But the first real clue to getting a photograph of their old home wasn’t going to be found with me wandering the streets or digging up old documents in Brooklyn.
Ironically, it was actually going to be found on the Lower East Side.
During my first visit to Brooklyn, I paid a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (please, please promise me, if you are ever in New York, you will go!)
The museum provides a snapshot into tenement life on the Lower East Side in the 19th century.
After doing meticulous historical research, a team restored apartments at 103 Orchard Street, re-creating them around the lives and the stories of the people who actually lived there.
Consciously, I want to believe my visit there was solely as a tourist (yeah right). I mean I did want to do more in New York than sit in a library, or say on the floor of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings waiting for my number to be called!
But what was likely happening was somewhere inside my head, my brain was doing backflips thinking … “gee, if they could re-create the entire lives of people who lived there down to the finest of details … what can I learn from that? How can that help me?
As it turned out, it would help me immensely.
Our tour guide explained that during the 1940’s, the entire city of New York was photographed for tax purposes. Every. Last. Building.
“If your grandparents building was still there in 1940, and it’s pretty likely it was, the tax collection will have a photo of it,” he told me.
The next day I hauled myself over the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan into the New York City Department of Records.
Google Earth, 1932
So this is where the story becomes a little less sexy.
It starts with this.
I like to call this “Google Earth 1932”. It’s a drawing of an old tax map for Gates Avenue and the surrounding streets. Thrilling no?
My pen (and I’m sorry I have the blunt end up there, but I was terrified of getting ink on the thing and didn’t have a pencil!) is up against the site where 851 Gates Avenue is.
I will spare you the mind numbing process of what was was involved in getting me from this document to sitting in front of a micro-film reader searching for the image of my grandparents old home. Let’s just say it involved numbers and numbers and more numbers, and numerous requests to a man wearing woefully out of date glasses.
But eventually, I got there.
It was a bit overwhelming to finally see it.
For the first time I could put a concrete image to the night they ran. I could picture the old Model-T truck idling in front, and them stepping out of the doorway into the dark.
This was their backdrop to fear.
As for where great-aunt Cecile was standing, I still don’t know.
And while these walls can tell me nothing now, the dozens of people who lived within them, may.
We shall see what secrets they give up.