As a child, Arlene Alda loved picking violets that grew along the banks of the river that ran through her neighborhood. Then she would sprint home and decorate her family’s apartment in the Northeast section of the Bronx with tiny jelly jars bursting with posies.
Though she now divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Long Island, Alda’s latest expedition to gather blossoms has yielded a colorful literary bouquet titled Just Kids From the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History (Henry Holt and Co., 336 pages).
From comedian Carl Reiner (born in 1922) to naturalist Erik Zeidler (born nearly 70 years later), the book chronicles the wonder years of 64 people who grew up to be influencers in the arts, science, business, athletics and commerce.
Alda, an award-winning photographer and author of 18 other books, and her husband Alan, best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the television series M*A*S*H, will be in conversation with Mara Davis at Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta on Sunday, November 15.
Urban legend alleges that the Bronx got its name from Jonas Bronck, a Scandinavian settler who arrived at New Amsterdam in 1639. Bronck farmed 600 acres in what is now the Mott Haven section, where guests would say “We’re going to visit the Broncks.”
Though the etymology of its name is debatable, the pride and swagger that comes with claiming the Bronx as one’s hometown is legendary.
“People just don’t get it,” explains suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark, who is featured in Just Kids From the Bronx, “… there are only three places that have a “the” in front of their name: the Vatican, The Hague and the Bronx.”
Home to the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Bronx High School of Science (which boasts eight Nobel Prize recipients among its alumni), 25 percent of the Bronx’s 43 square miles is reserved for parkland. And unlike that other borough that starts with a B — the Bronx never lost its winning ball team.
These bragging points aside, Alda says the Bronx’s greatest asset is its people. Citing an extraordinary sense of camaraderie, she recalls “the tremendous importance of mentors, teachers, neighbors, peers and institutions that cared about us, kept us all together and functioned at a very high level.”
By the time she married and started a family of her own, Alda was committed to raising her three daughters “in the kind of neighborhood I recalled as a kid… where you could play in the street, walk to school and gain the sense of independence and socialization that comes about by having to negotiate the world on your own.”
Back then, a child’s imagination and a Spaldeen ball (Bronx shorthand for the Spalding Hi-Bounce Ball) were all that was needed to kick off a day’s worth of activity — from stoop ball, to box baseball to stickball. Absent adult supervision, children had to make up their own rules, determine the consequences for breaking those rules and figure out the delicate art of conflict resolution on their own.
Depending on where you grew up, childhood pursuits could be as magical as stargazing through a telescope from the rooftop of your apartment building — where astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson first fell in love with galaxies far, far away from the northern climes of his Riverdale neighborhood — or as exotic as discovering and tagging 50-pound snapping turtles in the crystal clear waters of the Bronx River, as did Zeidler.
Play could also be precarious. Members of the TATS CRU — graffiti artists who grew up in the South Bronx made infamous by the 1981 crime drama Fort Apache, The Bronx — remember the urban decay that resulted from sanitation and subway strikes, lack of police presence and absentee landlords who would set fire to their tenement buildings to collect insurance on the properties. Their biggest hazard was having Pro-Keds sneakers (and feet) punctured by rusted nails protruding from planks of wood that littered abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn lots.
Tetanus shots were an unaffordable luxury, but mothers could be counted on to administer a host of “ghetto treatment[s],” remembers TATS CRU member Wilfredo “Bio” Feliciano. Remedies ranged from “some purple stuff” and advice to “stop jumping in the buildings,” to bloodletting and applying a garlic clove and Band-Aid to the wound.
Somehow, the youngsters did not conflate their impoverished surroundings with being poor. “We didn’t think we were poor because we had everything we needed right there on the block,” is how Hector “Nicer” Nazario puts it today. And what they had informed their creative expression.
The same can be said for actor, writer and director Chazz Palminteri, who was 10 years old when he witnessed a murder on his front stoop in the Bronx’s Little Italy. Years later, after claiming not to have been traumatized by the event, a psychiatrist challenged the self-diagnosis and suggested, “It did affect you… You wrote about it and you made it into art.”
Transition is another recurring theme in Just Kids — from round-the-clock street play to kids literally being driven out by the post-war car culture. Stoop-sitting to cool off after dinner was another tradition that died with the advent of television and air conditioning. And demographic shifts occurred when Eastern European, Italian and Jewish residents were replaced by African-American, Caribbean and Latino communities.
Alda understands the nostalgia several of her subjects expressed when reminiscing about their old stomping grounds, but she insists there’s also a bright side. “Of course the Bronx is not the way it was… nothing is. But when I go back, I’m curious as to what it is now!”
All author proceeds from the sale of Just Kids From the Bronx will be donated to organizations that benefit children in the Bronx.