Herewith, the history of Lincoln Terrace Park in Brooklyn, New York, from c 1948 to c 1957. Why would one care about this history? It is my history, or at least the Eastern-most edge of it. Why would one care about my history? Perhaps you will not, though it also is the history of a slice of time and place.
It is 1948 and I am six years old. It is December and it is cold. I am holding my mother’s hand and walking down the center pathway of Lincoln Terrace Park. It is morning. We are walking East towards PS 189. The sun is in my eyes. My muffler is bunched around my neck. My hat has fold-down ear-flaps which extend down to the edge of my pea-coat. I am being walked to the first grade, as I am every morning, to the dark-haired Mrs. Zimmerman, the beautiful (I think) Mrs. Zimmerman. The teacher who pulled me aside, first day, and told me that she knew all about my being thrown out of Kindergarten for calling the fat ugly Mrs. Saltz too stupid to be my teacher. I told her that Mrs. Saltz was indeed stupid; she did not recognize that the airplane Kenny made out of an empty cookie box was missing its vertical stabilizer. Mrs. Zimmerman nodded sagely and told me that we, she and I, would get along just fine.
My mother walked me to school every morning that year, and every year through fifth grade. When I reached sixth grade and was Captain of the Safety Guards, wearing a white belt with silver and dark blue badge attached, helping cross the younger children over dangerous East New York Avenue, I felt demeaned to be walked by my mother, but that year of liberation was four years in the future that chilly day in December.
“The Park” was the core of my world view. It started less than a block away from my brownstone, and seemed enormous at the time. It had baseball fields and chess tables of cement and basket-ball courts and two tennis courts and green lawns and big trees. It sloped sharply downward to the South from Eastern Parkway, stopping six or seven block at East New York Avenue at the foot of the hill. It was where we played when not on the street, it was the path to school, it was where my father had started taking my friends and me to pretend to play baseball, most Saturday mornings weather permitting, as we stumbled around the dirt kiddie diamond in our Dodger-blue caps and wooden bats too heavy for us, sipping our chocolate Yoo-Hoo drinks to protect us from dehydration and dust.
The geography was known to me through practice; no one had or needed a map. Lincoln Terrace Park occupied a steep hill, with flat terraced areas, starting at the peak along the Southern border of Eastern Parkway and running an overlong block and half mostly between Rochester Avenue of the West and Buffalo Avenue on the East. The Park descended its hill, sometime precipitously for a City park, seven short blocks. My house was on the East end of Union Street, the highest street of the seven; you could see the trees from the steps of my brownstone. We were, all of us, loyal to the kids on our block, of which there were many; I never thought to count them but today, decades later, I can remember perhaps twenty boys, although that is not so remarkable. As of those, seven of us were named Stephen or Steven for reasons of simple popularity; we were none of us aware of any famous Stephen on the world or local stage in the early 1940s.
A word about Eastern Parkway on the North. It was a major thoroughfare across the Borough, before there were major highways or restricted-access roads not subject to cross-streets and stop-lights. Conceived in grand style with a central roadway and a side-lane on each side separated by a narrow strip of grass and trees and occasional benches, it was a palpable boundary to what was our neighborhood. After the end of the Second World War, it became a regular parade route. Every Veteran’s Day, and I think on VE and VJ days, a major military parade would run for several hours past the Northern rim of the park. There were vets from the Second World War, still young and smartly turned out, fitting for the most part in their uniforms. There were marching units from the First World War also, in stranger uniforms and different hats and helmets, soldiers we observed with quiet respect although they did not march with all the great armament of the WW II guys: large guns, open trucks with seated ranks of soldiers and, above all, great grinding noisy tanks, one after another, enough tanks to retake Germany we were sure, and if we yelled and waved sometimes the men would swing the gun turrets for us and we would cheer.
Add in floats and trucks advertising on their flanks local stores now long gone—Abraham and Strauss was my mother’s favorite because they carried pants that were stiff and durable and not made of denim – and politicians in open Cadillac convertibles and, incomprehensible to us, an occasional car with a few men in squared dark blue hats, upright and saluting – soldiers of the North’s Grand Army of the Republic, carried in style up Eastern Parkway along the parade route that began far to the West at the Grand Army Plaza, that broad open space dedicated seventy or so years before to the men of Sherman and Grant, a link to an inconceivable past that over time has come to seem even more surreal.
We would stand with our backs to the metal spiked fence that bounded the Park, facing the parade and paying close attention to the men, the arms, and the occasional troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and High School bands to see if we could identify kids from the neighborhood who were lucky enough to march. Small American flags seemed to appear on secret command, distributed free and waved energetically, their golden pointy peaks at the pinnacle of each flag glittering in the mid-morning sun.
At the Western border, there were no car roads heading into the park; the seven streets that ran into the Park on the hill, starting with Union, all terminated at the Park; Union and President and Carrol and Crown and Montgomery (where my best friend lived in an ample deco apartment house of yellow brick on the corner) and ending at East New York Avenue. On the East, Buffalo Avenue was tree lined on both sides, as a triangular rump of the Park jumped the street and continued, tree-filled and without walking paths, on the other side
All the magic of the Park was either inside, of which more later, or the geography to the South and West. South just across East New York Avenue was our Public School, Kindergarten through grade six, a sea of first and second generation Jewish kids punctuated with what seemed to be a dozen or so Italians in each grade. One of the paths through the Park terminated across the street from the School and it was to that corner that my mother walked me each morning until I became a crossing guard myself, and officiously held out my arms or waved them like windmills to direct the little kids each morning and afternoon.
To the West, the Avenues were named for many blocks for the Cities of Upstate New York, for reasons never quite clear. My father had remembered moving from the Lower East Side to a nearby street, just North of Eastern Parkway, before 1910 when almost all these streets were laid out and paved but with no buildings on them; his father, my grandfather, told me that when he in turn had first seen the neighborhood it was mostly farm land. As you trekked West, leaving Buffalo and Rochester Avenues behind, you reached the commercial center of the neighborhood, Utica Avenue, itself running up the hill parallel to the Park, with its food and clothing stores and delicatessens and the only air conditioned building I had ever seen until I was about twelve years old and taken into Manhattan to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan on Broadway, the Carroll Movie Theater (where upstairs I went to learn piano until the kids on the block followed me one day and saw where I had gone and shamed me into refusing to play).
IF you trekked West then, past Schenectady and Troy and Albany and Kingston Avenues, you finally reached the most important building in our lives, more alive than our homes and certainly more imposing than our school: Ebbetts Field. The Brooklyn Dodgers played here, seventy-seven glorious home games, almost all during the day, often one admission buying a seat for two entire games, the now-long-abandoned all day festival called a double-header. During the school year my father would refrain from work and take me out of school and we would walk to the park and on the spot buy a couple of box seats, five dollars covering the most expensive location for two. There I could see my idols, whose statistics I knew by heart, updated indeed from the very most recent game by reference to one of newspapers; the Herald Tribune, the Post, the Brooklyn Eagle, the World Telegram and Sun, the News, the Mirror – I never saw anyone read a New York Times until I went to College. Baseball games those days were a challenge for a young boy; all the men wore business hats and smoked cigars, and if you sat on your haunches the men behind you told you to sit down and if you breathed you choked. But the ballfield was tiny, you were on top of the players, it was all old-school.
In the summers, we ate from the ice cream trucks. The favorite ice cream pop or cup was the Elsie Bar or the Elsie Cup, named for Elsie the branded cow. Ten wrappers or cup tops and a quarter bought a general admission seat behind a pole. From there you could sneak anywhere. Our streets were scoured clean. And if by chance you did not have either the wrappers or the quarter, you would stand on Bedford Avenue in front of the plate glass window of the car dealer – was it Buicks, I don’t recall and I refuse to look it up because it does not matter, and we would pound our gloves and wait for Duke Snider to hit the ball over the right field wall so we could catch it as it banged on car hoods and nearly but never quite crowned a pedestrian. And the beauty part—you never missed a play, all window opened wide to gain circulation against the summer heat, radios and an occasional new-fangled television blaring the play by play out into the daylight, commentary by the ole Redhead and sometimes that new kid, Vin Scully, who you had to admit was pretty good at it though nothing like the ole Redhead describing to us Brooklyn kids how so-and-so was now in the catbird seat.
Flying back East to the Park, let us dwell on the West border, the street I crossed to reach the Park itself being Rochester Avenue, the steepest of all the streets. Here there was the mythology of place for at the top of the hill on the park side of the street, at the apex where the Park fencing met Eastern Parkway, here was the start of that stretch of history we all called Dead Man’s Hill.
We all knew, as we were informed by the older kids who had been informed by the older older kids, that in the old days the mob would rub you out but that was not humiliating enough to express the contempt that your particular mob boss felt for the lately deceased. No, the body would be dumped in the trunk of some car, no mean feat at the time where large car boots were unheard of since no one really took long trips by motor car—bad roads before Ike built the Interstates, gas rationing in the war, and who had the money or the vacation time anyway? The car was driven to Dead Man’s Hill and unloaded onto the sidewalk alongside the Park. The bets were placed and the bound body would be placed athwart the sidewalk and then given an even kick to start to it rolling. Down it would slowly twirl, we believed. At some point the body would stop, or veer and run into the side fence or a parked car; the game ended and the person guessing most closely how far the corpse rolled picked up the bets.
The time came when we all know these stories could not be accurate, but we told them to the younger kids anyway because that is what you did growing up in the neighborhood – you told the stories and traded the dime comic books and played stickball in the street and played Chinese and Hitting Away and Box Baseball.
And what was the Park, then, aside from the walkway from home to PS 189? It was where we went when we were tired of being hassled by the police for playing ball in the street. From Spring to Fall, during weekends when school was in session, and almost every day when school was on vacation, it was baseball games and sodas and which pick-up team could call themselves the Dodgers. There were handball courts where you hit hard black balls against the concrete walls until you got hardened stone bruises underneath your leather gloves, and where sometimes you cheated by taping a silver dollar to your palm underneath the leather so that the pain would not be so intense. They were picnics with family, cousins who lived nearby because, then, families lived nearby, even in big Cities.
On occasion, the Park came alive with an event larger than itself. Sometimes there were championship softball games or handball tournaments. Sometimes there were semi-pro basketball games. One time, famous people came to play on the tennis courts, not that we kids were attuned to the niceties of tennis, which we viewed our of ignorance as a sport better suited to Westchester where, everyone knew, all the kids were rich and were driven to school in Cadillacs.
• * * *
One day, when I was in ninth grade and hanging out in my advisor’s office, Mr. Green asked me if I played any chess. I told him that everyone I knew played chess; we would go down to the Park and watch the old men sit at concrete tables, shifting on their towels draped over the cold rough concrete seats, hunched over their boards, playing with agonizing slowness, or sometimes with amazing speed when driven by their ticking timers in games of “lightening,” and we knew these were quality games because we could barely follow them and even our block’s best player had sat down a couple of times and lost his dollar with great alacrity to these old men with stony expressions who gave no encouragement but stuffed the bills into their coat pockets and signaled the next “mark.”
“Why you asking?”
“Because there is a player who lives in New York who is about your age and he’s going to be the greatest chess player in history. And he is coming to give an exhibition in Lincoln Terrace.”
“Yeah? I bet old Schmuhl can beat him. He beats everyone.”
“Maybe,” Mr. Green said, “but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Green, he was a crafty one. He never did say I should go watch, because then it was unlikely I would. He never even told me where or when. But that night I looked at the “Chess” column in the Brooklyn Eagle and, sure enough, Master Bobby Fischer would be at the main promenade at Lincoln Terrace Park to play all comers next Saturday. The Parks Department was taking reservations for seats to play against Fischer. It would be for a dollar a game, Fischer would be there for two hours, and they were taking 120 reservations. I told my friends. Sounded like fun.
That Saturday dawned chilly, dank and still but at least there was no rain. It was a typical Brooklyn late November day. The wind gusted spasmodically, and you could feel next month’s snow on your ears as a promise. It would be cold on the cement seats, and cold standing with the observers, but the thought that a twelve-year-old was going to challenge all our great old men was too good to miss. We were also interested in how this would all work. There were exactly ten tables at the promenade; we made it a point to go and count them. There were 120 reservations. My friend Mendez had gotten one of them; seems twenty slots were reserved for people Fischer’s age. That meant they would hold, what, sixty games an hour. Six games per table. Ten minutes a game. Are you kidding me? This kid is going to play everyone for an average of ten minutes a game, walking up and down the promenade to do it? He was going to get slaughtered. We couldn’t wait to see the kid humiliated. Imagine coming to OUR Park and disrespecting us that much!
There were a lot of people standing around when we showed up. Some were running the event, wearing top coats and business hats. There were many adults, and we did not recognize most of them. A few tables had metal police barriers around them to hold back the observers. Those had the largest crowds; we guessed the better players were going to be seated there. A few minutes after eleven a clump of people approached from the Buffalo Avenue end and then they parted to disclose a young kid, dark hair, no hat, really tall and thin. He walked with a slight stoop and didn’t look up. People were talking to him continually. Then a bell rang and someone with a megaphone called out “first ten players” and then, almost instantaneously, another bell followed by the call “commence play.”
A few of us worked our way to the front of the third table, the last one with the barriers, and there was Schmuhl. What luck! He would kill this kid and we would have a front row seat. We called out encouragement to Schmuhl as he took his opening, pawn to King Four, but then someone in a coat told us we had to be quiet so the players could concentrate. Almost immediately the tall kid approached the table through a small break in the crowd that one of the organizers kept open. The kid barely glanced down. His thin hand reached out from inside his car coat, the end of a red sweater sleeve showing a fleck of some old food, a piece was moved, Queen’s pawn, and he was gone. We heard talk moving down the line of tables and then, all of a sudden, just as Schmuhl had moved his second piece, there was the string-bean again. He did not break stride as he slid a bishop out of its rank and he was gone. Schmuhl seemed not to be surprised as he promptly moved another piece, and then there was Fischer again and then again and again and all of a sudden there was a shrug from Schmuhl as he flicked his King over on its side with his wizened index finger and conceded the game, then stood up stiffly to make room for the next player. I had a new watch, a gift from my parents for my Bar Mitzvah, a real adult watch, a Benrus! I looked down. Seven minutes. Seven minutes!? What the hell….
We stayed until 1:35. The event was promised to continue until 2pm but by 1:30 all 120 players had conceded or had been mated by sneak attack to their particular chagrin, not to have seen it coming. The man with the bull-horn congratulated the kid, who was asked to say a few words.
Looking down, he thanked the players for an interesting afternoon but did mention that not one of them had really given him a hard time. A sullen mumbling from the crowd accompanied the kid’s departure, again surrounded by the adults in dark top-coats as they rapidly retired in the direction of Buffalo Avenue.
As the crowd dissipated, I move to a cluster around Schmuhl, who was known as the best in the Park. I only heard fragments, but I did hear “never saw it coming” and “fucking arrogant goniff,” the Yiddish word for thief which seemed to me particularly ungracious since the kid had beaten Schmuhl in seven minutes in a fair game in front of half the neighborhood.
We walked across Rochester to our block, and I realized none of us had seen Mendez play his game.
“Hey, Mendez, how’d ya do?”
Mendez pretended not to hear as he turned towards the entrance to his apartment house.
“MENDEZ YOU PUSSY,” screamed Joel, “HOW DID YOU DO IN THE CHESS GAME?”
Mendez quickened his pace but as he grabbed the metal handle to the apartment house door he half turned his head and called over his shoulder in a matter-of-fact tone, “Fool’s Mate!”
We couldn’t stop laughing.
Joel yelled after him, “What was yer plan, Mendez? Trick him into thinking you wuz stupid or something?”
But Mendez by then was well into his lobby, safe from our sarcasm and scorn.
• * * *
Mainly, though, the Park was a comfort. It was cool and green and it was not like the street. The alleys smelled like cat urine in the summer but the Park smelled like grass. You could play Pinochle on your stoop with your body twisted around as you sat on the steps, or you could walk into the Park and sit down on a blanket or even sit at a table and play like your parents played. You could listen to old men caressing violins and speaking with deep European accents as the sun set. You could see the older kids do things with a baseball that you could not do. You could play basketball, and hope to be a shirt and not a skin because you were a bit fat around the middle, but sometimes you got picked to be a skin so you just took off your shirt and played extra hard.
You could go to one of the larger fields and lie down on your back on clear nights and see the Milky Way, which you thought was a hoax when it was first explained to you until your parents first took you to that field so you could be shielded from the lights on the ground and see for yourself. The Park was the place where the stars came to visit Brooklyn.
And of course, there were the used car tires. After the War, used tires, bald and with their inner tubes, again began to appear on the streets. During wartime one never left rubber to rot; it went to the war effort. But after 1945, tires were a problem, too big to jam into garbage cans and the trash trucks would not pick them up. No one had even heard of a municipal dump. You left them around and they got used somehow or, more likely, ended up in small sparse back yard filled with dirt and a few sprouting flowers.
So on occasion we would find an old tire and we would stand it on its end and send it on it edge reeling down Dead Man’s Hill, on the sidewalk that abutted the Park. Now Brooklyn sidewalks were not designed to be pristine, were seldom repaired, and being poorly installed the individual cement squares tended to rise and sink in their own ways, breaking the initial level surface into a series of discrete and slightly skewed surfaces. The simple result was that if tire made it a quarter of block without fall on it side it was a noted miracle. Random events being – well, random, every so often one of those bad boys would get rolling, pick up steam and next thing you knew you had a new world rolling record, three quarters of a block or, more often, a record expressed in car lengths.
One such day we were rolling a tire, a big one, it must have been from a medium sized truck, and it just slowly gained speed and seemed to right itself whenever it hit a concrete seam or displaced paving plate. After a few seconds we began to follow it, walking quickly and finally running at full tilt down the hill, our Keds pounding flat-footed on the pavement as we began losing ground and as the frightening tire took on a life of its own. We hoped no poor person would exit the Park at President Street or Crown Street and step in from of the wheel and we began yelling out warnings, drowning each other out and becoming less and less helpful at the tire now was about two entire blacks, rocking and bounding down the dead center of the sidewalk.
At the base of the hill, the road took a soft turn to the left as it melded into East New York Avenue. It was a blind corner, as cars took a soft turn to head up the hill. No one told our rolling tired that it was supposed to turn peacefully to the left. It bounded headlong into oncoming traffic. There was a loud horn that did not stop horning. There was the clatter of the police Ford being T-boned by our tire, then veering hard left and running head-on into a bullet-nosed Studebaker that had the misfortune of descending the hill and encountering the police car as it was pushed across the center line.
Our view was superior. I don’t think anyone had a better view than we had.
Well, actually, likely the cops had a better view. And whoever was driving the Studebaker. We look at each other in silence as the crackling of folded metal faded away.
“Shit,” said Mendez.
“Poor fucking Studebaker,” Joel exhaled.
Then someone yelled “RUN!” and suddenly we were running up the hill, which was pretty hard going so we all wove as a flock of birds across Rochester and down Carroll and we didn’t stop until we hit Utica and the four of us pushed into Harry’s Kosher Deli with cold sweat pasting our T-shirts to our bodies. It was mid-day Saturday and people were holding numbered tickets, waiting to be served white fish and derma and knishes and chopped liver sandwiches. Our entry caused everyone to stop and stare; but only for a moment.
“Hey, you schmucks,” said the man behind the counter. “I don’t care you in a hurry, take a ticket and you wait like everyone else.”
“Fuckin’ kids,” said a gray-haired lady I had almost run over.
We all began laughing without being able to stop, and that infuriated a fat lady in a purple flowered dress; she was clutching a numbered ticket and I guess it was a really low number and I think she feared we would disrupt her place in the line. That’s when Harry came around the counter and none-too-gently shoved all of us out the front door.
That sidewalk on Dead Man’s Hill also was the reason we finally left the neighborhood. One day, a few years later, I was in my third year in High School and I had been playing handball against one of the handball walls in the Park and it was getting dark. I got on my bike and started pedaling down one of the paths. When I got to Rochester Avenue, I turned up the hill. Never much of an athlete and always a little overweight, except for those times when I was a lot overweight, my motion slowed quickly and I was just getting off my bike to walk the rest of the way uphill when a younger boy approached me from behind a bush and put a gentle hand on my handlebars, stopping my progress entirely.
“Nice bike,” he said.
Well, he was right. It was new, a gift from my parents, a Schwinn Black Panther. This was before racing bicycles. The Black Panther had a thick central panel between the seat and the handlebar post which contained four batteries powering a rather neat horn you could invoke by the push of a button.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Get off,” he said. Underneath his white T-shirt you could not see any muscles. His jean hung on him; he had no discernable butt.
This being Brooklyn, my lightening analysis was that I was being robbed. Or at least that some ridiculously small black kid, whom I could have kicked half-way across the street, was actually trying to scare me into giving him my bicycle. I responded in standard Brooklynese to this insult.
“Fuck ya mamma,” I replied.
The kid seemed to turn towards the now-dark phalanx of bushes rimming the Park and said in a small controlled voice something like “looks like we gonna have to take it.”
I woke up in Kings County Hospital two days later with a broken nose and two cracked ribs and a caved-in bone at the base of my spine that caused me to sit on an inflated rubber tube for nine months. My mother had already picked out our new apartment in an area of Brooklyn where the blocks had not been “broken.” We moved later that month. My father bought me another bike.
And it was a shame, too, because I had great affection for the Park and we moved to a fancy area with no character and no parkland.
But then again, the Park was no longer the Park of my youth. By the time I was sixteen the neighborhood had changed and, I guess, so had I. My friends and I never went to play baseball any more; we had other things to do. The Park had become dangerous at dusk, lethal at night. The neighborhood fathers had tried to stem the tide that transformed the Park and its environs, but to no avail. One foray into the park one evening with baseball bats thrown over their shoulders, just a peaceful walk in the moonlight to stake out ownership, made no difference in the long run. The fathers had to escort us to Hebrew School at the Temple north of Eastern Parkway to prevent us from getting shaken down by small clusters of kids who would demand quarters and open and close their push-button knives for emphasis.
The tall gawky kid who used to come to the Park some weekends to play lightening chess on the concrete chess tables that lined the central walkway, strolling quickly past each of the ten tables, moving his pieces immediately on reaching each chess board, never losing, collecting a dollar from each child, teen, adult or old man who lined up for his chance to play, stopped coming to Lincoln Terrace. Rumor had it he now was playing at tables in Central Park in Manhattan, but no one would take the train to the City to play against that Fisher kid; you could never win, anyway.
After we moved away I would sometimes get on my replacement bike and come to the Park after school to play handball with my friends, but then you are a senior, you have other friends and interests, you are writing essays for college and then, poof you are gone. You go back once, a few years after college when you are in New York for a visit from another City, and you slow your car as you cruise past your old house and you drive around the Park but it just looks and feels too dangerous, too alien, to even stop. The Park now is a history, warm in the telling but you are no longer of the place.
Today I Googled the Park. I found a map, nothing else. A few businesses using the name Lincoln Terrace pop up; most are not even in New York. I promise myself I will now go visit, take a look while I still can. After all, Brooklyn I am told is now “hot,” no one can even afford to live there any more. I suspect I will not keep my promise. Places are not a geographical location. Places are a memory of you at a given time. You can find the street corner, but you cannot find the hours of your memory. They have rolled and bounced down the hill of your life, gaining speed, causing glee and excitement and damage, and have disappeared around the corner.
All you get is the memory of a distant thud and the tinkle of broken glass.