Monday, October 05, 2009

A big-city kid in the 1920s and 1930s

This account, by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl, sure feels like "early history" to me.

Some excerpts:

I count it one of the great good fortunes of my life that I grew up with all the resources of one of the world’s greatest cities within my reach. Young kids of the present, I do devoutly pity you, stuck in your pasteurized suburban developments except when Mom chauffeurs you into town. I had the city streets, always exciting in themselves, and I had the subways.

Of all the modes of mechanized urban transport man has devised, the subway is the most nearly perfect. I love them all, from the creaky tiny cars of Budapest to the shiny streamliners of Toronto, under ground and above. Moscow’s is beautiful. London’s is marvelously efficient. Paris’s runs engagingly from the super-technological to the quaint. But first loves are best, and New York’s subways are what I grew up on.

In the days of my youth the five-cent fare was sacred, and so for a nickel you could be carried from the Bronx to Coney Island, from sylvan Flushing to Wall Street. If you were a young boy and willing to take minor risks (jail, electrocution, things like that), you didn’t even need the nickel. I was six years old when I learned that you could ride free from the Avenue H station of the BMT just by climbing over the exit doors. If I chose to visit friends in Sheepshead Bay, I could ride there free, and ride back at the same economical rate just by climbing an embankment, stepping carefully over the third rail, and entering the platform of the station there.


It wasn’t my first burlesque show. Not by, even then, a number of years. ‘When I was a little kid, five or so, my parents had taken me with them to the Oxford Burlesque, near where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues met in Brooklyn. I liked the baggy-pants comedians, didn’t understand what the stripping was all about, but was thrilled to be included in something Grown-up.

I kept in touch with the Oxford, one way or another, all through my childhood. When my parents stopped taking me, as soon as I was old enough to pass the ticket taker’s scrutiny, I went by myself; and in the famine period between I would still skate down to the nearby Loft’s soda fountain, and often enough I’d see the chorus girls, makeup an inch and a quarter deep around their eyes, sipping sodas through a straw and gazing at themselves in the mirrored walls.


Let me tell you about Brooklyn. For the first part of Brooklyn’s life it was not a conquered province of New York City, it was a competitor. Even after the consolidation, it still competed. Brooklyn had its own baseball team (the Dodgers), its own library system (better than New York’s in every respect, except for, maybe, the Fifth Avenue reference facility), its own parks (after Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, he took what he had learned to Brooklyn and laid out the even more spectacular Prospect Park), its own museums, its own zoo.

Downtown Brooklyn had its own department stores — Namm’s, Loeser’s, A & S — and I still think they were nicer than, and almost as big as, Macy’s or Gimbels. Downtown Brooklyn had four or five first-run movie houses, including the Brooklyn Paramount, as lavish a marble-staired temple as any in the world, at least until the Radio City Music Hall came along.

On Fulton Street, it even had legitimate theaters, with the same sort of bills as theaters in Boston or Chicago. Road companies of Broadway shows played there after the New York runs had closed, and sometimes Broadway shows opened there for tryouts...

Go read the whole thing.

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