15 June 2015

Who Came To The Baby Shower

Last night, I attended a baby shower for a friend who happens to be an employee of a bike shop I frequent.  Not surprisingly, other employees of that shop—yes, including males—also attended. 

The party was held in an American Legion auxiliary hall.  That, of course, is not remarkable:  Halls like that are used for all sorts of purposes.  One of my uncles was the Commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in my old Brooklyn neighborhood; two of the earliest celebrations for my birthday that I can recall were held in that VFW space.  He and another uncle of mine were also members of the now-all-but-defunct Maritime Workers Union, which had its headquarters just a couple of blocks from the South Brooklyn docks where those uncles worked.  The MWU’s headquarters—now the Al-Noor School, the largest Muslim elementary school  in the United States—hosted any number of birthday and holiday parties as well as other events.

The baby shower I attended last night was the first time in years, possibly decades, that I have gone to an event in a hall like the ones I’ve just mentioned.  There was a time in my life when I could go to a neighborhood I’d never before seen, inside or outside of NYC, and find the American Legion and UFW halls, no matter how inconspicuous they were, without even trying. I’d also find a Maritime Union headquarters, if one existed, and the halls and offices of any number of other unions.

The hall in which the baby shower was held is one of the more inconspicuous ones I’ve seen:  It’s located in a house on a residential street.  Like other houses on that block, it’s pretty shabby-looking on the outside.  On the inside, too, as I suspect most, if not all, of the other houses on that block are.  The signs on it are barely legible, even in the late-afternoon daylight.  Those signs have faded, in part from decades of weather, but also, I’m sure, from the smoke and soot that belch out of factories and workshops, and cars entering and exiting the expressways that form two of the boundaries of that neighborhood.

The other boundaries of that community include industrial zones, cemeteries and streets that dead-end in a vast railyard or truck yards.  It’s the sort of place that, if I could ride to it “as the crow flies” from my apartment, I would need only a couple of minutes.  But, because the city’s grid pattern breaks down and I have to go around the yards I’ve mentioned, it took me about fifteen minutes.  Other guests at the baby shower, some of whom had lived in Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan all of their lives, said they had difficulty in finding it.

The American Legion hall.

So, that neighborhood is, in effect, an urban island.  Almost nobody ever goes there unless he or she lives or works, or has friends or family members, there.  Probably no tourist—not even one who’s gone to PS 1 or any of the other Long Island City or Brooklyn venues located within two kilometers of that block—has ever seen that block.  And, I’m sure that few if any people who live on that block, or the ones adjacent to it, cross the boundaries I’ve mentioned frequently, if at all. 

A visitor to the block might be surprised to see that most of the people—at least the ones I saw congregating in front of, and around, those houses—are Caucasian.  Such a visitor would probably be less surprised to see that the people there aren’t, for the most part, young.  Or, at least, they do not have the youthful obliviousness one finds spilling in and out of the bars and cafes along Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. 

In brief, that neighborhood—like its American Legion hall—is something that is surviving, if just barely, because of its isolation:  a community of (mostly low-skill) blue-collar workers and their families, many of whom have never lived anywhere else.  It’s similar, in many ways, to the neighborhood in which I grew up.  I imagine that had my old community remained as it was, it might have become more and more run-down as remaining residents tried to hold on to it.  

What the neighborhood doesn't look like.

Years ago, I used to see many other such areas while riding through Brooklyn and western Queens.  Some of those areas have turned into the hipster havens and the playgrounds of the fresh-faced I see today.  Many current residents ride bicycles, if only as an expression as their self-conscious hipness.  But in those same neighborhoods thirty, twenty or even fifteen years ago, one almost never saw an adult cyclist.  In fact, those aging blue-collar workers and their families very often didn’t use the subways or buses, even if they stopped just steps away from their front doors. 

It seems that no one in the neighborhood where I attended the baby shower rides bicycles, either.  I’d bet none of them would ride even if Citibike installed a port right in front of the American Legion hall. I include, among those people, a man who seemed to be a manager or caretaker of the hall.  He was helpful and polite, if a bit reserved:  He addressed me and the other women as “ma’am” or “miss” and held the door for us.  He didn’t seem to be surprised that so many men attended the baby shower.  Rather, he expressed mild consternation that so many of us—men and  women—showed up on bikes.

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