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A broad, well-traveled street, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn has gained some notoriety over the years as a symbol of America's ethnic and cultural diversity. In the mid-twentieth century, though, American Jewish culture was highly evident in my neighborhood. This was so much true that as I approached my 13th birthday, I was commonly asked by friends and their parents when I would have my "Bah mitzvah". This religious observance, I came to learn, turned out to be a big party celebrating a boy's passage into manhood. In some circles, the bigger the party, the more prestige earned. Young boys that we were, we had strange ideas about this kind of thing.

"I wish I didn't have to do it," one friend exclaimed when he found out I wasn't Jewish. "What do you do when you're 13?" I didn't know, I told him.

"Do you mean you're Christian?" asked another in disbelief (He seemed to think Christians were intolerable klutzes). I wasn't sure, I told him. I thought I probably was, since my Grandfather was a deacon of the Christian Reformed Church on the corner of Church and Flatbush Avenues (Where the cemetery was). The boy didn't know what to make of the news, but things were never the same between us after that day - I was a Goy.

So, prejudice was abstract to me, but it was certainly intriguing to get in with the second-generation Italian boys who talked of the "Hymie". At this stage of our lives, it was all in fun, a cause to joke, but we were aware of the older boys who formed gangs based on ancestry. We would stop and listen hard when we heard of a "rumble" nearby, or some petty thievery or vandalism committed by these groups. We were just kids, but these gang members were men, as far as we were concerned. Books were being published at the time designed, I presume, to expose the nature of the sociopathic gang member. But for me, these books smacked of adventure and freedom - and in fact West Side Story came to be a huge success on stage and as a film. I believe this was a result of the attraction many feel for the rebels that live more passionately than the common person. This is what we thought as a society, at least, as the decades rolled on, that the common life was so dull, death might be preferred.

So when the little girl shouts up to the third story window of a brownstone building that her mother should throw down a "quawter" for her to buy ice-cream from the Good Humor man, it's mundane to us. The mom in her flowered blue dress leaning out the window, brushing hair from in front of her face, is unremarkable, perhaps a tad embarrassing in her dullness. That's how I used to think of it, but I've changed my mind.

circa 1959

A neighborhood in central Brooklyn, vast in both area and population. As one of the largest neighborhoods in America, the boundaries are ill-defined. Generally, it extends from Crown Heights on the north down (in elevation) to Midwood on the south, and from Kensington and Prospect Park in the west to Brownsville in the east.

Flatbush was one of the six original towns of Kings County, settled by Dutch and then later English farmers. The area of the town included the current neighborhood of Flatbush, as well as what would later become Midwood, Kensington and Ditmas Park. Until the 1830s, the town of Flatbush was more prominent than the town of Brooklyn. The Old Dutch Reformed Church mentioned above is the oldest church in Brooklyn, and was constructed in 1654 on orders from Peter Stuyvesant, although the current building dates from 1793. Flatbush Avenue, which runs from Downtown Brooklyn to Flatbush, is said to have been "The original New York State Thruway," transporting the commerce of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In 1894 the expanding city of Brooklyn annexed Flatbush, and in 1898 Brooklyn joined with Manhattan to form New York City as we know it. This land of farms was now within in the largest city in the world. Already railroads had traversed the town on their way from Brooklyn to the resort at Coney Island, and now as these railroads were incorporated into the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit system, the former town of Flatbush was accessible for commuters and prime real estate for development. In the opening years of the 20th century, a section called Prospect Lefferts Gardens became one of the last and farthest outlying brownstone neighborhoods, while in the teens and 20s Kensington and Ditmas Park were developed as upper middle class 'suburban' neighborhoods of detached homes.

The neighborhood that came to be known as Flatbush itself developed to house the working class and drew the immigrants that were flooding America. By the 30s it was one of the most heavily Jewish areas in America. The roster of alumni of Erasmus Hall High School reads like a who's who of prominent Jewish Americans of mid-century.

The architecture of the neighborhood is mostly large brick apartment buildings, with crowded storefronts facing the major avenues. The quaint campus of Brooklyn College, in southern Flatbush, is an interesting contrast to the surrounding streets. The classic Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was located between Bedford and Flatbush. The former site of Ebbets Field is now a large housing project, the only public housing in this neighborhood of older brick apartments.

Changing demographics in the 60s and 70s remade the northern two-thirds of Flatbush as a largely African-American neighborhood. Closely on the heels of that demographic change was another one, as Flatbush, like Crown Heights to the north, became one of the most heavily Caribbean neighborhoods in America. Today's Flatbush is a bustling scene full of roti shacks, reggae music, and Jamaican and Trini accents. Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue are always chocked full of honking and double-parked cars. There is also a sizeable Haitian population, with Haitian restaurants and stores along Nostrand and Driggs avenues.

The southern end of Flatbush is quite different, as the outwardly mobile Jewish population of previous generations has given way to a Hasidic and Orthodox community. The Hasidic and Orthodox community of southern Flatbush is contiguous with that of Midwood and Kensington. In general, in contrast to Hasidic and Orthodox elsewhere, they are wealthy and live in well manicured houses and apartment buildings.

Interestingly, although they seem to not have much in common, the Caribbean and Hasidic/Orthodox communities of Flatbush have both begun to assert their political independence. The Caribbean community has begun to run and elect candidates in opposition to the native black political establishment, and the Hasidic/Orthodox community has begun to run candidates in opposition to the secular Jewish political establishment.

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