The Other Williamsburg
a reminiscence, by Rochelle Sitzer
MY GRANDFATHER ON MY MOTHER’S SIDE came to this country in 1892. He settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he opened a haberdashery shop, with my grandmother by his side. They had several children, of which my mother was one. She later moved with them when they purchased a house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a street named Hooper.
My grandfather passed away before my mother married, so my parents settled in a brownstone on Rodney Street, approximately three blocks from my grandmother’s house. As this was the time when very few people owned cars, I think my mother enjoyed the convenience of being able to walk over to see her mother every day. There was a practical side to living so close to grandma, too. My parents were what you might call “struggling to make a living”. They didn’t even own a refrigerator. The icebox sat in one corner of our kitchen, to be filled each day with ice from the iceman and a bottle of milk that mom stored in grandma’s refrigerator.
Such conveniences we had in our kitchen! I recall the “dumbwaiter” for garbage disposal. We had only to open a door in the other corner of the kitchen and there, hung by strong ropes, was a shelf waiting for us to put the garbage on. Perhaps this was why we had little mice in the kitchen, mostly underneath the table. My mother was always setting out mouse traps for them.
I’m not sure why my mother did not like the quality of living in our apartment on 232 Rodney Street in the year 1945. She would talk about her dreams of moving us to a nicer apartment every day. I, on the other hand, found my sense of identity in these four rooms, in a brownstone with a big stoop, on a block with a large sidewalk. I was an only child living with two parents on a block that held everything I could ever want. With a freedom that many children do not enjoy today, I was privileged to be able to go out to play any time of day, freely and with abandon. I opened my front door to the wonderful sounds of children at play. “Johnny May I Cross Your Golden River” and “Red Rover Cross Over” were the phrases that greeted my every day. One of the first songs I learned, I sang to jumping rope, “On the mountain stands a lady, who she is I do not know”.
I had many friends, always outside waiting for me to play. Williamsburg was a blend of people from many cultures, with a large population of Hassidic Jews. I spend a lot of time with the Rabbi’s daughter who lived across the street. My most cherished friends were two chubby twin girls, Susan and Marilyn Zik. They lived up the block in an apartment house and would come by with a new craft project almost every day. Always delighted to join them on my brownstone stoop, we worked diligently on our “horse reins”. This was a way to weave a rug, which somehow never got finished, but always stayed in a tin can waiting for more stitching.
Some days the twins and I would make tissue paper carnations out of colored tissue. They always knew how to make things. I was an avid learner. My stoop wasn’t just for making crafts. I developed my lifelong love for corn on the cob and watermelon when my mother would place them in my hands to bring outside and enjoy. Long summer afternoons spent eating red Chinese apples, nugget by nugget, with my friends in front of my house, would eventually disappear like the plastic bubbles we created.
Evenings were special times. My dad was home from work. I think he enjoyed the outdoor scene as much as I did. After dinner he would stand on the top step, a crowd of children around him. He worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but must have been an entertainer at heart because he loved to do cord tricks before a crowd. He could take one string, blow on it, and turn it into two. Sometimes, he would just hold his hands by his mouth and imitate the sound of a train whistle.
Eventually, I was allowed to walk over to Grandma’s house myself. Looking back, I realize that I had so much freedom for a little girl! I marvel at it all today, as all these memories, sounds and smells play through my mind.
Several months ago, on a trip back to NY, for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, I said to my husband, “I need to see Williamsburg again”. The truth was, I needed to see if it were real, if it had happened the way I thought it had. Were the same streets still there? My parents and I had moved away when I was ten. A highway was to be put in and we were paid to move out, $100 per room. I was the one who took the inspector around to show him the number of rooms, as my mother had gone out to work by that time. “Be sure to tell him we have five rooms,” she would repeat over and over again. She had painted one room two colors where the molding was. I did as I was told and we got the $500, just as she had wanted.
So now it was time to find out what this place looked like. Did it really exist, this neighborhood brimming with life and children, so different from the bucolic scene that surrounds us in Earlysville, Virginia, where my husband and I now live?
Yes, we went back to Williamsburg, I, along with my husband’s sister and brother. We started our sojourn along its updated section and perused a couple of the trendy shops on a street that leads to a promenade where pedestrians enjoy views of the spectacular, old Brooklyn Bridge. We explored the revival taking place, filled with newer stores, small eateries, and streets lined with vendors selling mostly second hand clothes and books. I couldn’t wait to explore the Williamsburg that I remembered, the neighborhood where I had grown up. I knew that my house could not possibly be there because of the highway built in the 50’s.
We walked, the four of us, about 2 miles, on this quest of mine to find Rodney Street. When we reached the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, my heart quickened. What was on the other side of it? Then we saw it, Rodney Street, still a one-way street, with the BQE occupying the side across the street from where I had lived! My feet hurt, and yet I walked fast as I looked at the numbers on houses to see where number 232 would have been. That’s when I found it, not 232, but 234 Rodney Street. At first I thought that perhaps this had been my house. It looked identical to the one I grew up in. Perhaps I had forgotten the number…it stared at me like a ghost from another life. I went immediately over to the stoop and sat down, reminiscing, and feeling in heaven.
Suddenly, and just for a moment, my dad was there on the top step, with his hands to his mouth, blowing his phony train whistle. How could this be! I knew the city had taken down my house. But I felt like I was home. We walked, the four of us, tired as we were, on to Keep Street, and then to Hooper to see my grandma’s house. I knew the way by heart. Her street, untouched by the highway, looked very much the same, except for the empty lot that stood where grandma’s house had burned down after she had passed away.
But just for that day, I was 10 again and sharing it with the ones I was with. Rodney Street was mine to take in. Except for the highway in plain view across the street, it had not been destroyed! Just to make it more real, a little girl rode by on her tricycle, just as I used to so many years before.
After we left, I realized that the house I had seen was the adjoining one to my brownstone, the exact duplicate. It had been spared by the demolition crews. Even the small hallway with it’s tiny old-fashioned bells on the wall for the tenants had looked the same when I peaked inside, when for one September afternoon, I returned home, and it was there.