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Flatbush Flashback

40 Sacred, Scruffy Acres

 

"Once I was allowed to cross Caton Avenue on my own, I could play baseball anytime I wanted, though not terribly well, on the sacred, scruffy sandlots of the Parade Grounds." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The official name has always been Parade Ground, but nobody called it that. Today, these 40 acres of ball fields, unrecognizable to my eye, are partitioned with fences and covered with artificial turf. A sign over one of the entrances confirms the official name, so maybe modern-day Flatbushians call it Parade Ground.

 

Fifty-five years ago, when I lived a half block away, on East 17th Street, everybody called it the Parade Grounds, plural, and there were no signs indicating otherwise. To say "Parade Ground" doesn't sound right to me and never will.

 

It was a wide-open space and there was no artificial turf, either. Astroturf, as it was first called, didn't exist. The Parade Grounds were, as the above excerpt says, a collection of dusty, scruffy, unmanicured baseball fields. Blades of grass were few and far between. When you played ball there, especially in the summer, you'd return home covered in gritty red clay.

 

Come autumn, combination football goalposts and soccer goals appeared, and gridirons were marked off. Though somebody must have played soccer there, I never saw anyone do it and I didn't know anyone who did. The Parade Grounds were for baseball and football because that was the American Way.

 

And the grounds were sacred, especially if you were Jewish and loved baseball, as most of us were and did. The Parade Grounds were where Jewish, Brooklyn-born Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, of Lafayette High School, learned to throw his unhittable curve ball before joining the Brooklyn (soon-to-be LA) Dodgers.

 

In the above photo, taken in 1928 from a rooftop near Coney Island Avenue, the Parade Grounds look similar to the way they were in the 1950s and 1960s. The corner of Caton Avenue and Stratford Road is behind the trees on the upper right, and Parade Place, which turned into East 17th Street when you crossed Caton Avenue, is at the upper left.

 

The number of times I crossed Caton Avenue with either a baseball mitt or football tucked under my arm is incalculable.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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Where Are the Dogs of Yesteryear?

 

We all know where the dogs of yesteryear have gone, and if this particular beagle—yes, I remember him, though not his name, his human, or the bystanding girl—is still walking the earth, he'd be about 330 dog-years old now.

 

The year is 1954 or early 1955, and I appear to be about 2½ years old. This photo was taken, probably by my mother, on East 17th Street near Caton Avenue, down the block from where we used to live, in Flatbush. Though I didn't have a dog, I was crazy about the neighborhood dogs and loved to pet them, as I'm happily doing here.

 

To see photos of this corner, taken from different angles, around 1940, click here and here.

 

Like the other photos I've been posting the past few weeks, here and here, all of them recently unearthed in my brother's basement, this one shows what Brooklyn (and I) looked like during the period that Bobby in Naziland takes place.

 

I will post more.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Pink Palace

 

In Bobby in Naziland, I describe the experience of reading William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, in 1979, and my astonishment at discovering that its main setting was a ramshackle rooming house on the corner of Caton Avenue and Marlborough Road, two blocks from where I once lived. I used to pass that house every day, walking to and from my grade school, which was across the street.

 

Styron called the house the "Pink Palace." His alter ego, Stingo, and Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor, both lived there. As I was reading the book, I thought that Sophie could have been the fictional incarnation of any number of my neighbors—like the woman who worked in a nearby bakery on whose arm I first saw, in 1956, the blue Auschwitz number tattooed. I later found out that Styron and the woman upon whom he had based Sophie really did live in that house.

 

In Bobby in Naziland I wrote: "That a novel dealing with the Holocaust would one day be set in Flatbush was probably inevitable. But who could have predicted that it would be written not by a Jew or even a native Flatbushian, but by a goy from Newport News, Virginia, who had lived in the neighborhood for only a few months"?

 

Sophie's Choice allowed me to see Flatbush, a place I knew better than any patch of real estate on the planet, with fresh eyes. Styron, I wrote, expressed in his book "a simple truth that I'd never before heard anyone say: Flatbush was more Jewish than Tel Aviv."

 

The Pink Palace was torn down many years ago, replaced by a tan brick building housing a doctor's office. New York's tax photo archive, shot in 1940, supposedly includes every building in the city. But the Pink Palace, either overlooked or misfiled, is not there, and I can't find any pictures of it.

 

The house in the above photo is the house that played the Pink Palace in the 1982 film Sophie's Choice, starring Meryl Streep as Sophie, and Peter MacNicol (shown approaching the house) as Stingo. That house is located in Prospect Park South, on Rugby Road, a few blocks from where the real house once stood.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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