Posts tagged ‘Great Depression’

Brooklyn Central Library, 1939.

Brooklyn's Central Library, under construction in 1939.

The Great Depression is thought of to have begun with the stock-market crash in October, 1929. Not for us, though. My father didn’t lose his money then. He had pretty much already lost it all — whatever he and my mother had saved and whatever he was getting from whatever kind of job he had had — the year before. We had to leave the semi-detached house we had been renting at 2758 East 26th Street in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Where we wound up was in a tiny apartment in a tall and (then) very modern apartment building. But that was more than my mother and I could afford, so we dropped from the top of what is now called Park Slope to then 509 Dean Street, a cold-water railroad flat at the very bottom of Park Slope (“cold-water” meaning that the building wasn’t heated, although there was indeed hot water to wash with; “railroad flat” meaning that all the rooms were laid out in a single line, so to get from the living room where you entered to the third bedroom, you had to pass successively through the kitchen and the dining room and then the little hallway which preserved decency by allowing the bathroom to be private, and finally, in order, the three small bedrooms). It was, of course, a four-story walk-up apartment. Our apartment, of course, was on the fourth floor.

We stayed there through the tail-end of one bone-chilling winter and up to the late fall of the next. (That year was 1932. I can swear to this, because that fall was the first time I voted in a presidential election. To be sure, I was, at twelve, far too young for the franchise, but my father took me into the booth with him and let me pull the levers. For Herbert Hoover, of course. Till the day of his death my father was unswervingly Republican.)

That wasn’t quite the last time my father was with us, but it was the beginning of the end.

At some time that year my mother must have gone to work, for Mr. Abramson, real estate lawyer in the Chanin Building in Manhattan across from Grand Central and the new sky-scratching Chrysler Building. From then on my mother and I were increasingly solvent, or at least getting by.

Before long we began the long climb back up Park Slope.

Our first stop was two blocks higher up the slope. This was St. Marks Place, where for the two of us we rented what was called a “parlor floor and basement,” the bottom two stories in a four-story building owned by an inventor who occupied the top two floors by himself. He was childless, in fact, I suppose unmarried, but he had a pretty good idea of what ten-year-old boys might like and provided some of it for me. He gave me some easy lessons in inventing by explaining some plumbing difficulties to me and criticizing my attempts at solutions.

And when the Brooklyn Academy of Music, no more than a mile away, celebrated the coming of warm weather by encouraging all their members to come and set up their own telescopes on its roof, he took me there. That was pretty wonderful. I don’t suppose I had ever looked through a telescope before, and I saw Mars and Jupiter and the Moon as independent solar bodies, and not just as real estate for the heroes in Wonder Stories to fire rayguns at each other on.

Then the moves continued, in addresses like 349 St. John’s Place and finally 280 St. John’s Place, where we remained for several years. That was not at all a slum. It was a steam-heated three bedroom apartment in a very nice neighborhood with P.S. 9 (the school I would matriculate from to begin high school) not much more than a block away and a small neighborhood of the essential stores — drugstore, grocery, soda fountain — even nearer than that.

The IRT Seventh Avenue subway was a block or so away in one direction, the BMT Brighton line about the same distance in the other. A few blocks farther was bustling Flatbush Avenue, with every kind of neighborhood store you could imagine. I doubt that the storekeepers were prospering greatly — the Depression was beginning to ease up a little, but there still a few panhandlers on the streets. But they, too, were more or less getting by.

And, talk about culture! Our little cul de sac was steps from the tail end of busy Eastern Parkway. Cross the street, all four lanes of it, and you were looking at the vast, beautifully designed building that, when finished, would be Brooklyn’s Central Library, competing on equal terms with Manhattan’s companion on 5th and 42nd Street. (That didn’t happen, though, until after the war, when we had long moved on.) Walk a few blocks farther and you’re at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, acres and acres of lovely plants and odd ones and greenhouses. Two blocks more, and you are about to enter the Brooklyn Museum, a somewhat, but not much, smaller amalgam of the Fifth Avenue’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park West’s American Museum of Natural History.

I loved it all — well, all but The Botanic Gardens which charged something like a dime or a quarter to get in, with the result that I never entered it except after dark, and over the fence. Didn’t need to, really. Prospect Park was far huger, almost equally well tended and free.

I have never lived in a neighborhood with more graces — except possibly the year I spent, waiting for the Army to take me in, just a block or so off the theaters and restaurants of Times Square. Or maybe the semester we lived just off the Edgeware Road, near Marble Arch in London. Or —

But no, all those other places were for just a few months, this neighborhood was mine for eight or ten years I had no idea how lucky I was until I left it.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were made homeless in the Great Depression, leading to precarious "Hoovervilles."

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were made homeless in the Great Depression, leading to precarious "Hoovervilles."

I remember The Depression pretty well, not only because I saw some of it with my own eyes (I was 11 in 1931) but because I did a lot of research on it for a book I never published. What you youngsters don’t know is that it came in two halves, like a football game.

First half was The Crash, in 1929. As the country was gradually beginning to try to get over that, along came the second half, around 1931. That’s when European banks began to fail, and the contagion spread to American banks, so that when Franklin D. Roosevelt got elected in 1932, America’s banks were going bust so fast that the first thing he did after he was sworn was issue an executive order for a national bank holiday so teams of examiners could see which ones were about to fold, and keep them closed until they could be shored up. Or if they couldn’t, they would at least pay back part of what they owed their depositors. That was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as getting nothing, and the banks that stayed open had the confidence of their depositors, because the weak sisters had been screened out.

If we do come to that over Europe’s present tawdry banking messes — it seems that their bankers aren’t any more honorable than our own — I think Obama, if re-elected, would do something like what Roosevelt did, with, I hope, similar results. Mitt Romney I do think likely to perform more like Herbert Hoover. That is, urge everybody to be calm and not make things worse, while he watched the banks go under, one by one.

Oh — and speaking of Europe’s banking scandals, one of the first things Romney did on arriving in London was to go to a fund-raising gathering of London bankers. A number of them appear to be implicated in the rate-fixing Libor scandal. As long as they’ll give him money, Romney doesn’t seem to care.


Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Jack Robins

Jack Robins

Guest Post By Jack Robins

I recall many things about Robert W. Lowndes, how soft-spoken he was, how much he enjoyed studying old science fiction stories, and how warm and friendly he was.

I remember one time, when John Michel, Don Wollheim, Lowndes and I were in a bar each drinking something. Lowndes ordered a white wine, I believe it was Sauternes. He took a sip and let the small amount of fluid roll over his tongue to relish the flavor and he held it there for a long while before swallowing. He told me the only way to appreciate wine was to sip it slowly and savor the flavor. I now think that was just rationalization for not having sufficient funds to order a second glass. But at the time I was so impressed by his sophistication that for a long time, the only wines I preferred to drink were white wines and I would try to make the flavor last in my mouth a long time. Many years later, I mentioned this incident to Robert but he said he could not remember it.

Once after a meeting, when we were about to go to our respective homes, Robert surprised me by saying he wanted to go home with me. I was hesitant. My parents had no phone at the time so I could not ask my mother if it would be all right. “I have to,” he told me. “I have no place to sleep tonight.” That did it. I said, “Sure.”

When we got to my home and I explained things to my mother, she accepted Robert and fed us dinner. The apartment was rather small. There was one big bedroom, no privacy. Normally I slept alone on a full sized bed on one side of the bedroom and my father and mother shared the bed on the other side. So that night Robert and I had to sleep in my bed. There was no other room. I slept well but I don’t know how Robert fared. The following morning my mother fed us a good breakfast.

Always, whenever I went to meet with the Futurians, I had to go to Michel’s house, and later on to the apartment they shared. No one had ever come to my house. Now, having a fellow Futurian visit me at my home, sharing my food and even my bed, made me feel good. Worrying about Robert, I asked him did he want to spend another night at my house.

He said, “Absolutely not.” I asked him why. He said, “Isn’t it obvious?” He would not give any details. I did not press him to find out whether it was because of the lack of privacy, the forced sharing of my bed, the single bathroom, or the poverty he observed. But I was glad to have helped him out that one night.

Lowndes used to regale us with quotes from early science fiction stories. He would stand before us and read paragraphs from stories in old magazines from his or Don Wollheim’s collection, and we would groan at what we thought was bad writing. One such story that drove us to loud laughter involved a manlike robot that was the house servant. When providing refreshment, the robot was asked by a visitor to join him in a drink. The robot declined, stating, “The drink affects the delicate enamel of my teeth and once that is gone, the rest soon follows.” This sentence was repeated so many times in the story that I doubt any of us listeners could ever forget it. We thought that the robot was the only thing of merit in the story. It was not made clear whether the robot was referring to the effect of sugar on the teeth and that once the protective enamel was gone, the rest of the teeth soon followed, or whether, as Lowndes believed, considering what the robot was made of, once the enamel was gone, the rest of the robot would also deteriorate and vanish.

In those early days, we were often fond of walking long distances around Flatbush, Brooklyn, finally ending up in an ice cream parlor or candy store for sodas. The basic group included: Wollheim, Michel, Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and me. Occasionally Dick Wilson would join us. We continued this ritual even after Michel, Wollheim, Kornbluth and Lowndes had decided to room together in the first apartment they jointly rented.

During each of these walks, Kornbluth would relate a shaggy dog story. It was about an unemployed, destitute man who sees an ad in a paper left on a park bench, offering a huge reward for a lost shaggy dog. Just then he sees a huge shaggy dog ambling about and becomes convinced this was the one that was lost. He grabs the dog and endeavors to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, he meets up with many difficult and life-threatening obstacles on the way to returning the dog and finally, his clothes in rags, many cuts and bruises all over his face and body, he rings the doorbell of the dog’s owner. A man, obviously a butler, regards him while sniffing snobbishly and asks what he wanted. “I’ve found your shaggy dog and I’ve come for the reward,” our hero says. The butler looks at it with disdain and says, “It’s not that shaggy,” and slams the door on the man. It was a pointless and unappealing story, but the fun was in inventing the obstacles that faced the hero.

Each time we took the walk, Cyril Kornbluth would tell this story in his deep melodious voice that made each word sound like a pronouncement of doom. At every rendition, Cyril’s imagination would fly through fantastic difficulties that had us laughing despite the morbid character of the story. In Cyril’s inventiveness, the hero might struggle with someone and get a black eye or two, or he might get hit by a truck and end up in the hospital, or something else would happen to him before he could return the dog. Each time he repeated the story it had a different set of obstacles. Cyril’s vivid imagination was impressive.

One day, Kornbluth couldn’t be with us. Robert took over the telling and let his own imagination take rein. His soft, pleasant version was not as predictive of doom as Kornbluth’s, but his imagination was just as effective. I realize now that those storytelling incidents were training for later authorhood.

After the group had obtained the apartment they shared, we would occasionally go to a Chinese restaurant some blocks away and order our evening meal. We were all poor and could not afford anything sumptuous. Imagine a ceramic bowl six or seven inches in diameter, about an inch and a quarter high, filled with such recipes as fried rice or chow mein or chop suey, all for 25¢, including dessert. To us this was the height of extravagance, and during the time we were eating we felt wealthy and that we were eating like the super rich.

One day in late March, during the period when Lowndes was publishing the fanzine Science Fiction Weekly, I urged Robert to put out an April Fool’s issue. He was very reluctant. He depended upon paid subscribers to finance the publishing plus a little money for himself, and he was also beholden to various sources who revealed to him all the latest happenings in the science fiction field that he could publish. If he issued an April Fool’s issue, his subscribers might feel cheated or he might offend the ones who supplied his material. Finally I convinced him that issuing an extra April Fool’s supplement and naming it Science Fiction Weakly would do him no harm and the readers might even appreciate it. The issue he finally prepared was one page, two columns on each side of the page, each column being a single article of about 300 words. I wrote up three humorous articles, taking up three of the columns and someone else wrote the fourth. I don’t know how many of the readers took to the April Fool’s issue, but since Robert was still publishing the paper thereafter, I guess they must have been amused.

To be continued.

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Some Techies supplemented their education at Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque.

Some Techies supplemented their education at Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque.

The fall term of the year 1934: For all of us Techies, it was a watershed event in at least two ways.

First there was the sybaritic opulence of our new home. Everything was so clean! Not only that, the rooms smelled better. In every washroom, the toilets worked whenever you flushed them, and each workspace in chem lab was covered with a glass hood to contain their toxic gases, with the result that the whole building had lost that familiar acid reek. And, oh, yes, there were electric motors in every metal-working machine, eliminating the old main building’s tangle of overhead belts and pulleys. You just pushed a single button and the machine was on!

Most impressive of all, the New Building came with giant elevators, so you didn’t have to develop the muscles of a Himalayan mountaineer to get from one class to another. (Well, maybe we’re going a tad too strong here. The New Building had those elevators, all right, but few of us were allowed to use them. And compliance with the rules was enforced by a horde of student monitors, called the Longfellows because you had to be at least six feet tall to join. Dirk Wylie and I signed up at once in the hope that, as enforcement officers, we might be allowed elevator privileges, or even the right to leave the building when we had open time so we could explore the park across the street. But we weren’t.)

The second great improvement was location. The New Building wasn’t out in the unexplored boonies like the old one. The new neighborhood was a lot nicer. Just across the street was that pretty little Fort Greene Park that I just mentioned, commemorating the first full-scale engagement between the two armies in the war of the American Revolution. (We Americans lost that one, but later we came back strong.)

More immediately interesting to us newly arriving Techies, the school was only a few blocks from the very heart of Brooklyn’s commercial and entertainment life, where Flatbush Avenue crossed Fulton Street. The area was home to half a dozen huge and ornate first-run movie theaters, not to mention several live legitimate theaters where Broadway producers sometimes sent their biggest productions for their “out-of-town tryouts.” And almost any Broadway show might wind up in one of them when its New York run was finished and it went on the road. And there were perhaps one or two less legitimate live theaters — Billy Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque comes to mind — that were nevertheless so greatly appreciated by male Techies (and in those benighted days there were no female Techies) that it was sometimes called “the ninth period.”

That same neighborhood held three huge department stores plus three equally immense five-and-tens and numerous lesser enterprises of all kinds. At last we Brooklyn Tech students had arrived in the Promised Land!

But I guess I couldn’t take prosperity. I had been doing worse and worse academically, failing several subjects — even one semester failing in math, and honest, I am pretty good at math. I expect that if I had put my mind to it, I might have been able to get back on the ball, studies-wise, but, of more practical importance, the Depression turned into the Recession and there was no longer any hope that I could continue these sort of studies at some such school as Rensselaer or MIT.

I decided that what I was really failing was School. I transferred to an easier school for starters and then, as soon as I was legally old enough to do so, I dropped out and never attended an actual school again. Although I hadn’t yet met John Brunner, who did what I had done at about the same age, I adopted as my own what he announced as his rationale: “I had to leave school because it was interfering with my education.”

And so I did. But I still treasure those three years and the things I learned about math and chemistry and physics and the way things work that have stayed with me ever since.

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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.)

Continue reading ‘Early Days at Brooklyn Tech, Part 2’ »

By Frederik Pohl (’09)

In the spring of 1932, when I was 12 years old, my homeroom teacher explained to us that as we were going to start high school as soon as we came back from summer vacation, we needed to choose the high school we wanted to attend. I took the list home to study. As I had no clue in the world what I wanted to do with my life, studying didn’t help much, though there were some hints in the name of one school. It contained the word technical, which implied something sort of science-y; and that reverberated well with science fiction. (Which had begun to interest me quite a lot.)

And, a consideration not to be sneezed at, it was new, and this was 1932. The Great Depression was biting hard and all of New York’s existing schools were getting a bit tacky from postponed maintenance. So I applied, and passed the test. Summer came and went; and I was a Techie.

My parents and family friends were unanimous in letting me know that I had reached an important rung in that long ladder-climb to adulthood. Indeed there were detectable changes, but I couldn’t consider all of them to be improvements. As an eighth-grader, I had been able to walk to and from school, maybe twenty minutes each way. As a high-school freshman, it not only took more than twice as long, it required taking two different El lines in each direction with a change of trains at a station somewhere in Queens even whose name I had never before heard. (With a fifteen-minute walk to the first subway line.)

Not only that, but the building on Kosciusko Street where Brooklyn Tech’s freshman classes were held was almost indistinguishable from P.S. 9, where I had just left my eighth grade behind, or indeed from any other 20th-century New York City public school, all built from the same one-design-fits-all master plan.

The New Building? Oh, yes, there definitely was a New Building. They had pictures to prove it — a seven- or eight-story skyscraping giant structure, with a screened-in athletic field on the roof and who knew what wonders of laboratories and high-tech pedagogical hardware within. Only thing was, it wasn’t quite finished yet. It was pretty close. Indeed a few senior classes were moving in already. And they showed us pictures of them, too.

As for our own moving-in day? Next year, they said. Probably. Or at least maybe.

So much for the physical environment. Academically, the Kosciusko Street (pronounced “Kos-Key-Osco,” because hardly any of us were fluent in Polish, or in American history) annex was a little more challenging. The math was a little harder than it had been. Shop was only woodworking, but with lathes and drill-presses and other power tools. And one or two of the subjects were totally unfamiliar — what was Industrial Processes, for instance, and who was the Samuel Mersereau who not only taught it but was the author of the only textbook for the course?

But then I read the book and discovered that ‘industrial processes’ meant the way things worked — how that black, tarry stuff they pumped out of the ground in Texas became the gasoline that went into the tank of my father’s Buick, how a television receiver, when such a thing might emerge from the pages of Popular Mechanics (remember, this was in 1933), could pluck radio waves from the air and convert them into actual pictures for us to look at. There were, in short, answers that I wanted to have to questions I had actually asked, and if I had known this book existed I would have begged it from someone long since.

To be continued.

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