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.