Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Down These Mean Streets

Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Richard Price’s The Wanderers and Ray Ashley’s classic Little Fugitive, the 1953 film about a kid running away from a crime he didn’t commit to the haunted amusement park that Ferlinghetti might have been thinking about when he wrote A Coney Island of the Mindthese memoirs and fictions all capture a moment of urban experience before ghettos were the victims of gentrification. The period is roughly bracketed between Rosa Parks’s refusal to go to the back of the bus in ’55 and Richard Nixon’s resignation in ’74. Now, with the exception of the outer boroughs, the El trains, and the teeming open markets underneath them, are almost entirely gone, as is the attendant despair, which could suck the air out of a room. Beer was a nickel a glass and everyone smoked and you didn’t have to go to the Brooklyn Fox to find lipstick on your collar. The Drifters’s Under the Boardwalk and Up on the Roof were documentaries in song. Trash cans were turned over to mark stick ball fields, and naked children ran through uncorked fire hydrants as the sound of hydraulic drills opening up some distant street competed with the Doppler screams of sirens and the fog horns of tankers, while the smell of Tasty Bread drifted across the East River. Cool Jerk was the hot 45 in the summer of  ’66, and the Four Seasons sang about late December, ‘63—Oh What a Night. 

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