Brooklyn Tech: The fabled new building.

Brooklyn Tech: The fabled new building.

In New York City, the school year, up through the end of high school, came in two parts, fall term and spring term. I had entered Brooklyn Tech in September 1932 — fall term — which would end in February 1933. By then, rumor whispered, we might move over to the new building.

That is not what happened. We moved to a different building, but it wasn’t the shiny Amazing-Stories kind of construction I’d been hoping for. It was not only not new, it was the very opposite of new. Our home for the next term had begun life as P.S. No. 1, the oldest school building still in use in the Brooklyn system. Actually, it had been retired as no longer inhabitable a few years earlier, but then it had been resuscitated when Tech had to have space.

That must have been a tough call for some Board of Education office-holder, though. By any sensible calculation, the old ruin was uninhabitable still. The internal architecture had been up-to-the-minute when built, but that had been a lot of minutes ago. Many of the vertical room dividers were movable partitions instead of fixed walls — so they could be shifted around to make space available for special purposes — but the little wheels they rode on had long ago stopped turning. Some ceiling panels had collapsed baring patches of snowy (but not healthful) asbestos insulation. There were toilets in plenty. But not all of them worked, and in some a student would have to be really hard pressed to use them.

Or at least patient, because the best thing about having P.S. 1 for a homeroom was that you didn’t spend your whole day there. There was a whole constellation of bits and pieces of Brooklyn Tech there where Flatbush Avenue Extension ended at the East River. Ancient P.S. 1 was the farthest northwest of them, not far from the neighborhood called Borough Hall, where Brooklyn Bridge jumped the river en route to the financial district. In the other direction, that area was a tangle of transportation lines and decrepit poverty, a perfect home for decrepit P.S. 1. A few blocks east of there was P.S. 5. (Perhaps you might suppose that a P.S. 5 — or for that matter my old P.S. 9 — would have to be almost as much of an antique as a P.S. 1, but they weren’t. They were as ageless as any other school building I had attended, and I don’t know why.)

P.S. 5 was yet another annex of Brooklyn Tech at almost the end of Flatbush Avenue Extension (which is to say right as it crossed over the river on the Manhattan Bridge.) And just across the Avenue from Annex 5 was the last piece in the collection of three buildings that completed Tech: the old Main Building. (Well, actually no, perhaps it wasn’t quite the last. I believe there was yet another annex somewhere in Queens, but I never happened to attend it.)

The Main Building had begun life as a factory of some kind, machining metal for some purpose or other but I don’t know what. I suspect it was the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression that followed that ended that phase of its existence, and suppose that this now-vacant structure was the answer to the prayer of some Board of Education person who had been trying to start something like Tech up somewhere in the city. The building was structurally sound, if inelegant. Its flooring was sturdy enough for heavy machines. There was no problem with zoning regulations. There was even a complete system of power-transmitting belts and pulleys to run any number of machine tools.

It was nearly ready for occupancy as soon as bought, but not quite. Forges and foundries and chemical laboratories had to be installed in the shell of the ancient structure. But it made the dream possible to come true.

I’m not sure why, on the other hand, P.S. 5 was available to be commandeered as a Tech annex, but I have a theory. I suspect that it was begun in those anything-goes boom days of the late 1920s, when everything was growing at once and that tract of land between the two bridges must have seemed to be just begging for residential development. I knew that every other square inch of unbuilt land anywhere within the city limits had been surveyed long since.

Some of my parents’ friends had moved — a little prematurely — into model homes for grand developments-to-be in those parts of the city, but the market had collapsed. The homes that would make up the grand developments had never been built. Now those families resided in great unoccupied hundred-acre tracts of land with streets and curbs and sidewalks all emplaced, but no residences existed anywhere nearby to hold the families that would have provided the kids to populate the schools. There were no kids. There was nothing alive anywhere in sight except for burdock and milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace.

The Board of Education had built for a population that didn’t come. . . .

But we came, all the thousands of us who were attracted by the name and wanted to be something, well, technical at least. True, our old Main Building looked more like something out of Dickens than a school for the 20th century. That didn’t matter to us. The building had everything it needed to teach us what we were there to learn. Also true, the neighborhood could fairly be called a slum, but even that had its good side.

Remember, the Great Depression was still with us and money was scarce. Few of us had much of it in our pockets. What’s more, none of our school buildings possessed anything like a cafeteria. Come time for the midday meal, we were all dumped out into the local streets to glean what we could from what they had to sell. And there, although the options were few, at least everything there was to buy was reliably cheap.

The specialite du jour of my own most frequent choice for a filling luncheon was fried potato sandwiches. They were fried in lard, to be sure, and certainly were no one’s choice for a balanced diet, nor yet the sort of delicacy you begged your mother to make as a treat, but a lot of calories for a dime. For those who wanted something a bit more upscale, there was an actual hotel nearby, the Mills, and it had its own restaurant attached. None of this should be mistaken for luxury, though. The Mills was part of a chain of rock-bottom-priced hotels that were for men who were down on their luck but not yet far enough down to be driven to a Bowery 25¢-a-night flophouse, and the menu in the restaurant was appropriate for its circumstances.

Another flaw in that neighborhood was its lack of after-school entertainment. Along the way I had made a friend, Dirk Wylie — not his birth name but the one he had chosen for a pseudonym when, like me, he had begun trying to write his own science-fiction stories. We were both latch-key kids, only children with working mothers, so there was no particular reason for us to hurry home after school.

Of course, there was little that was interesting enough for us to bother with in Tech’s neighborhood.

Well, just the one thing, anyway. That was the great Manhattan Bridge. It just sat there, linking Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River, and just daring us to come and explore. So Dirk and I explored — at first just to the middle of the bridge, so we could look down at the ships and tugs and barges in the river, then out into Manhattan itself, sometimes as far north as the blocks of second-hand bookstores just below Union Square.

And then that year was over, and we had learned how to read a slide rule and prepare a green-sand mold for casting molten iron and get at least halfway up the knotted rope in gym. And we were beginning our third year at Brooklyn Tech, and, mirabile dictu, we were going to spend it in that fabled New Building at last!

To be continued.

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