Saturday, September 12, 2015


You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined.  You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone’s yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement.  The tree knew.  It came there first.  Afterward, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds pushed out on the windowsills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished.  That was the kind of tree it was.  It liked poor people.
Betty Smith A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The NY Parks & Rec Dept has a literary tour of Brooklyn – pretty abbreviated since it focuses on Brooklyn Heights.  I never participated in it, preferring to explore further afield, and almost right away after moving to Brooklyn I took my own literary tour.  It was not to see where an author lived particularly, but to see the part of Brooklyn described in Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The appeal was the reality that Betty Smith created for life in Brooklyn as she was growing up.  The richness of the weather,  cultural mix, morality, survival of poverty and rise from poverty, neighborhood streets, and a child's thoughts about all of it.  Smith's love of Brooklyn was compelling – a place so difficult, dirty, rough, vulgar, violent and scary and yet so beautiful, passionate, creative, vigorous, historic, intense and fun.  You can’t know Brooklyn from the outside or a book. I had to experience it for myself.

I reread Smith’s novel just before moving to Brooklyn and made notes of the streets so that I could pinpoint Francie’s apartment building and other places that Betty Smith describes in the book, hoping somehow to capture a sense of what Brooklyn was like in the 1940s.  That tree by the way, that Francie called Tree of Heaven, is also known as ailanthus altissima.  It is everywhere in Brooklyn.  Surviving.

At the beginning, when Francie and her brother Neeley are carrying their junk and rags to sell at Carney’s, she names all the streets they pass as they walk down Manhattan Avenue – Ten Eyck, Stagg Street to Carney’s on Scholes Street.  After selling their rags, they walked further south on Manhattan Avenue past Meserole, Montrose, Johnson, Boerum, McKibbin, Siegel, Moore, Varet, and Cook to the nickel and dime store on Broadway.  The walk Francie and Neeley took is the now in the vicinity  of the Williamsburg Public Housing Buildings (blocks of them) and about a half-mile from the Williamsburg Hassidic community.

The area is now filled with small discount stores with plastic brooms and mops in plastic buckets near the door with all sorts of plastic tubs and kitchenware in small front windows.  The tiny grocery store windows are completely covered with ads.There are little stores selling clothing, hair products and wigs, as well as a few botanicas.  It was easy to find the poverty and ugliness that Betty Smith described, as well as the cultural melting pot.  Many of the buildings were original, including the apartment building where Francie's mother scrubbed the stairs.  Looking at them -- rusty and grand -- gave me the sense of history, endurance, that permeates New York.  And like the hundred coats of paint on walls, railings, doors, the first layer is still the there.  All the layers are there – it just takes imagination to find them.
There are a few interesting things I learned in researching Betty Smith.  She didn’t finish high school and waited until her first husband finished law school before she started her secondary education and writing career.  She got divorced the year the book was published.  Although the book is about an Irish family, Betty Smith’s parents were poor German immigrants, and that change was made because the book was published during WWII.  I also found it interesting that after divorcing her first husband, Betty Smith moved to Chapel Hill, NC, home of the University of North Carolina where Thomas Wolfe went to study, much earlier in the century, at age fifteen.

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