Before Brooklyn became a hipster haven with pricey real estate and the Bronx became the poster child for urban blight, neighborhood life in those outer boroughs was pretty much the same.
That’s the recollection of Avery Corman, who grew up in the Bronx during the 1940s and ’50s and went on to write novels that became the basis for the hit movies Kramer vs. Kramer and Oh God! In a later novel, The Old Neighborhood, the hard-driving protagonist reconnects with his childhood neighborhood in the Bronx, rediscovers his roots and finds inner peace and contentment.
Now Corman has returned to that same nostalgia-laden turf, this time with the charming and lyrical The Old Neighborhood Remembered, a memoir about his Bronx boyhood in a working-class household with a divorced mother, an older sister and an aunt and uncle, both of them deaf mutes.
With few organized activities and no hovering parents to schedule them, kids took to the streets to create their own fun. An iconic element of street life was the local candy store, where youngsters might sip an egg cream while reading a comic book off the rack. They could buy a notebook and a protractor for school or a Spaldeen, the pink rubber ball used for stickball. Some candy stores had a resident bookmaker and sported signs reading “Cars to the Track” to lure horseplayers.
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With television in its infancy, movie theaters were everywhere. None was more ornate than the baroque Loew’s Paradise, a 3,855-seat landmark on the Grand Concourse. Stern-faced matrons armed with flashlights patrolled the children’s section, ready to pounce on kids who might commit such infractions as noisily humming through candy boxes.
Corman’s mother worked her way up from a $14-a-week stock clerk at Alexander’s, the big department store that was essentially a discount operation but “offered the illusion of upscale shopping.” She eventually became a buyer at J.W. Mays in Brooklyn, swapping a long subway ride each day for a job that secured her status as solidly middle class.
The author goes on to describe the mystery of his father’s disappearance, the impact of college basketball scandals that implicated Bronx sports heroes and the travails of Hebrew school in preparation for his bar mitzvah. He managed to stumble through the ceremony but then didn’t set foot in a synagogue for 23 years.
People tend to romanticize their childhood, but the post-World War II Bronx was a time and place that conveyed a sense of community and vitality to those who grew up there. Many have moved on but still carry fond memories that Corman’s quick read is sure to evoke. His anecdotes and reminiscences are likely to resonate most strongly with fellow Bronxites, but readers unfamiliar with the world of his childhood are sure to be charmed and entertained by this delightful account of city life more than a half-century ago.
Jerry Harkavy reviewed this book for The Associated Press.