Former immigrants who dug deep roots in Sunset Park

The Art of Seeing by Michael Milton

in our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, (we) get better air in our lungs  Walt Whitman, poet, writer and former Bed-Stuy resident

Walt Whitman towards the end of his life

Brooklyn means different things to different people; it can be edgy, artistic, a quiet neighborhood to nest in or a thundering urban sprawl to flee from.  It is definitely eclectic, ethnically diverse and most importantly, always evolving.  Movies paint pictures of Brooklyn tenements, cobbled streets, peddlers with fruit carts, wild eyed gangsters, grateful immigrants, dock workers, Brooklyn-ese thick all around and a civic pride surpassing even that of most Manhattanites.

Walt Whitman loved Brooklynalmost as much as my friend Wayne Lydon does. In Whitmans epic poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Whitman–while looking for our humanity within our common and shared experiences– ponders what newcomers might see as they approach our city:

Stand up, tall masts of Manhattan!stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklynothers will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore; others will watch the run of the flood-tide;  others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west,  and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east

Wayne: “The unicycle in the photo is still the same one from my teenage years. I finally treated my self to a new unicycle in 2013. I don’t ride often, but when I do, you can be sure all of my Chinese neighbors are gawking. LOL”

I met Wayne at a Pride Toastmasters meeting.  (Toastmasters, for anyone not familiar with this excellent organization, empowers individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.) He was, from the very beginning, an outspoken advocate of all things Brooklyn.  In fact, when I joined the organization last year, I heard Wayne say in speeches on three separate occasions, Im Brooklyn: born and bred until Im dead.  He was half defiant, half proud, chin slightly jutted forward, his sharp, crisp accent undeniable.

I couldnt help but wonder what tied someone so tightly to their neighborhood. Wayne lives in Sunset Park, in the house where his mother Ida was pregnant with him.  Ive always been proud of my roots.  Im a blue collar guy, a Brooklyn guy.  When I joined a gay bowling league years back, someone teased me saying, Youre a Mary, sissy faggot like the rest of us!  I snapped back, No, youve got it wrong.  Im Brooklyn first, a bowler second and I happen to be gay!

From there on out, the team has simply called him Brooklyn.

My family has been here for three generations, Wayne tells me.  Immigrants.  Always lived within the same square mile.  On my Moms side, the familys beginning was in vaudeville. Idas grandfather headlined and toured the country as Upside Down Emanuel and also with a partner under the stage name The DeCaro Brothers.

Wayne: “Pop traveled across the country with the vaudeville circuit, but he and his wife raised their daughter and grandchildren on 29th Street, just off of 3rd Avenue, in Brooklyn. Back then, it was all called “south Brooklyn.” Sunset Park as a neighborhood didn’t happen until the 1960s.”

Before the invention of television, everyone toured; big Broadway stars like Helen Hayes, Eva LaGalliene and The Lunts rubbed shoulders with members of hundreds of vaudeville acts: Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Burt Lahr, all had their movie beginnings out on the road with the likes of the DeCaro Brothers.

Emanuel, Kate and Frieda: “Pop looks so joyful in this shot,” said Wayne. “From personal experience, I can tell you that the rings on him were made of wood and were heavy. My mom and her sister Laura used to juggle with them. If you missed and one of them hit you in the wrist, you would howl like a banshee!”

Yeah, my great grandfather Pop– travelled the States, but he always came back here to Sunset Park.  Just like me. To prove his point, Wayne introduced me to albums filled with photos of his own round-the-world journeys Peru, Italy, China, to name a few.  I travel to reset.  I know how I can get a sort of tunnel vision if I stayed in Brooklyn ALL the time. But like Pop, no matter where I go, I always come home.

Wayne: “Grandma Helen (Mom’s mother) by lake in Sunset Park. PS 169 in the distance.”

Wayne leans in, conspiratorially, Did you know that I live 10 blocks from Spectrum?  My blank look encourages him to add, Oh, come on!  It was called Club 2001: A Space Odyssey when they filmed Saturday Night Fever there.  whether youre a brother or whether youre a mother, youre just stayin alive  I nod gamely.  It was a gay club for 18 years after that.  And they kept that crazy lit up dance floor, the one they used in the movie!

Sunset Park doesnt have the grand bones of Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights, nor streets lined with the turn of the century mansions of Bay Ridge nor the street cred of BedStuy. Were a working class neighborhood, Wayne says.  Sunset Park has always been a spring board for new arrivals to catch their breath, make some money and then head off somewhere else The Scandinavians and Germans, then the Irish and the Italians, now the Chinese and Mexicans.

I asked Wayne and Ida who they think will be part of the next wave of change.  Well, the Chinese arent done with us yet, but the Millennials are already comingdefinitely.  You can already see some of the houses around here undergoing the fancy Home Channel changes.

Billy Joel sang, Ive been stranded in the combat zone, walked through Bedford Stuy alone  back when that would have been a real badge of courage.  Not so much anymore.  Bed Stuy has changed.  Park Slope has changed. And so the world goes.

but whats good about this place never changes.lots of heart here

Wayne recalls that, from his bedroom window when he was a kid, he could sit in his room and see from the Verrazano Bridge on his left and all the way to the Empire State Building on his right: the entire harbor.  He watched the Twin Towers being built and watched them come down.  He watched the ships going and coming.

Walt Whitman saw his own 19th century version of that view, too;

     Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor, 

    The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars, 

    The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants, 

    The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses, 

    The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels, 

    The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset

I started my own New York adventure in  pre-renaissance Park Slope in the early 80s, feeling safe and cradled, a wonderful place for my younger self, still nervous about the utterly foreign city across the East River, a metropolis bigger than any I had ever before encountered.

I wish I had known about Spectrum back then.  Its even possible (or probable) that Walt Whitman would have enjoyed the availability of a gay dance club here in his favorite neighborhood back in the day, too!

He was, after all, happy enough with his life in Brooklyn to write,  I am satisfied; I see, laugh, dance, sing.    

Michael Milton

Michael Milton worked as an Associate Producer with Marty Richards, Sam Crothers and Robert Fryer at The Producer Circle Co. in New York City for over twenty years. Broadway: THE LIFE (2 Tony Awards),...

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