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willis ave“America became aware of the Bronx in 1927 when one of the first talking movies became a nationwide sensation. In that film,The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson got down on his knees and promised his Jewish mother that he would move her out of her cold-water flat in congested Lower Manhattan and up to a spacious new apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She could proudly strut around her sunken living-room floor and wave out her window at the friends she had known from the Lower East Side that were now living the good life with her in the Valhalla of New York: the Bronx. It was like he was promising her green grass and high tides forever. After the 1920s, more than six hundred thousand Jews heard Al Jolson’s clarion call and made their homes in the Bronx. Back then, the borough symbolized the immigrant’s progress toward the American Dream. The Bronx was a place where things were better for the little man, the immigrant,the unwanted. It was the suburb of early twentieth-century America.

Jolson knew what he was talking about. Having been born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania and come to America as a young boy, he knew first hand the struggles that immigrants faced. How hard it was to move up and live with the myth of streets paved with gold in front of white picket fences. Supposedly the American way of life was attainable by anyone willing to work hard and play by the rules. So to the Bronx they came, because that part of New York City had always taken in refugees, even from other parts of America.

Fifty years later, Al Jolson’s song of milk and honey had started to sound like a siren’s song. By the 1970 what had once held promise soured. The Bronx had become a symbol of the dark side of the American Dream. In those dark and dangerous years, those who could get out did so. City officials had no answers for them. Maybe Abe Beame— a short, befuddled man— seemed to write off the whole borough. He was happy to stay in the safe confines of Manhattan. [even if old Abraham was from Brooklyn!- ed].

Beame wasn’t alone in his not so benign neglect of the Bronx. In the 1970s the perception of many residents was that the NYPD did little to fight crime in their districts. The cops complained of low pay, severe budgetcuts and low morale. A lot of them were doing time until they could get their twenty years in and retire with a dogboni manecent pension. Some seemed happy to sit on their asses and let muggers freely work their vicious trade on the subways and streets. Back then, few Bronxites even bothered to dial 911 when trouble jumped off. You took care of it on your own. A lot of times that backfired, and working stiffs getting gunned down in the Bronx for their paychecks was a common tale. If you weren’t young, strong or crazy, you just didn’t go out after dark.”

C.J. Sullivan, from New York Calling: From High Bridge to Hoe Avenue

BZA adds: Just a quick reminder to peep Brian Berger’s “Bowery Street” (sic) bus shelter photograph over at Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. Loyal & seditious WWIB readers alike have noted that this  flick has made its way to a couple other websites without attribution to Berger. Not a huge deal, as long as it’s linky-dinked back to Jeremiah, but still… still.

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