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When I was child, Brownsville existed in a large enclave, the outer borders of which I was only dimly aware. Surrounded by the Negro violence of the Bedford-Stuyvesant district, the Nazi “gemutchlichkeit” of Ridgewood, the Slavic solemnity of East New York, the middle-class gentility of East Flatbush and the garbage dumps of Canarsie, Brownsville was a self-contained world in its own right. For miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, five hundred thousand Jews were packed away in block after block of monstrously constructed tenements. It seemed as if someone had deliberately said, “What, they’re Jews! let’s put them in this lost area of the world where they can go mad and we can forget about them.”

So large was this Brownsville enclave, it appeared as if all the world was Jewish; and if one were not, there was something definitely wrong. I was a Jewish prisoner in a ghetto cage who did not realize he was imprisoned. After all, as one gets accustomed to a prison, doesn’t he see bars in front of the spectators’ faces?

Until the Thirties, Brownsville had every right to exist. Situated so that one could see the spires of Manhattan on a clear day, and close enough so that one could get there by subway, the district served as the supply center for the garment industry of New York. Vast hordes of immigrant Jewish workers had spilled over, attempting to escape the overpopulated East Side in Manhattan; and soon it appeared as if they had never left Manhattan as Brownsville began to swell, fester and decay; the old women appearing on the stoops to chew sunflower seeds, the rats gnawing and plaguing us with their tricks, and the gangsters (Jewish gangsters, of whom I was proud) doing their business in our area and conveniently burying it somewhere in Canarsie.

— from Arthur Granit The Time of the Peaches (1959, Abelard-Schuman: New York)

Caz Dolowicz adds: Granit’s micro-history of Brownsville isn’t precisely correct but impressions can be important too. Before you ask, there is also stage version: The Time of the Peaches, “5 scenes, a Jewish play for black actors.” I’ve not seen it but with World Liquors enough, I’m the black Alec Guinness.

Photograph, “World of Caz” by Amber Tides, St. Petersburg, Florida., January 2011

One Response to “A Brooklyn Chrestomathy 2011: Arthur Granit”

  1. Lawrence says:

    Read the Time of the Peaches, great book with fascinating plot twists and odd personalities from the period and location. Area descriptions are a little exaggerated for sake of story or maybe they are impressions carried by author as a youngster.

    Bed-Stuy in the 30′ s and 40′s was mostly white, with a less than large African-American area (Weeksville) that dated back to the 1800′s (or earlier). Richie Havens was from Bed-Stuy, and he described his neighborhood as a mixture of different white groups with some others that was relatively well mannered.

    East New York had large Jewish and Italian areas close to Brownsville in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s. Brownsville population has been estimated at 200,000 to 500,000, with about 95% Jewish. Real population probably closer to 250,000 or so.

    Ocean-Hill, which was mostly Italian until the 60′s, was directly north of Brownsville.

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