The Shantytown in the Shadow of the El

Negros Were Leaving by the Hundreds to go North and Enter Northern Industry by Jacob Lawrence

“Negros Were Leaving by the Hundreds to go North and Enter Northern Industry” by Jacob Lawrence

Here’s an abbreviated excerpt from my novel. My young narrator, Brooklyn wants to be a blues singer and pesters an illusive bluesman, Mississippi, who plays on the boardwalk, to teach her how.

 

By this time we’d turned the corner under the El and were walking along the front of the shantytown. The shacks were close together, striped with shadows from the overhead tracks. They were the opposite of our house: totally simple. You looked in the front window and saw out the back.

 

Mississippi stopped at a dilapidated door.

 

“I’ll just get my guitar,” he said.

 

I waited there with Mr. Washington until Mississippi came out carrying his guitar.

 

“Let’s go round back,” Mr. Washington said, and we followed him down a narrow path between the two shacks. When we got there I found out theirs was the one with the goat in the yard. It was tied to a dead tree that had bottles stuck on the ends of its branches.

 

We climbed onto the back porch, which was covered with a corrugated tin roof. Mississippi and Mr. Washington sat down on the two rocking chairs and I pulled up a milk crate.

 

"Underneath the elevated subway tracks along Brighton Beach Avenue" by gmpicket on Flickr

“Underneath the elevated subway tracks along Brighton Beach Avenue” by gmpicket on Flickr.

The same place sixty years later.

The place the shanty town was, but sixty years later.

I have a memory, like a snapshot, of a shantytown on the edge of Coney Island, a few blocks from where I lived on Brighton 1st Street. I think this was in the early 1950s and I was very young. What impressed me was the farm animals in the yards. This was New York City for goodness sake. I realize now that the inhabitants were probably part of the great black migration north. I queried my Friends on the “We Grew up in Brighton Beach…” Facebook pages and found out fascinating facts that I don’t think I could have learned any other way.

 

Jacqueline Aranoff wrote (slightly edited for brevity): “The shantytown was actually formed by migrant black workers who finished working on the last stop of the train (Culver Line) and settled there. It started under the El near Ocean Parkway and went all the way to West 5th…” (This is exactly what I remember.) “There was a horse stable… chickens and many out-houses. I went to school with many of the children…”

 

What amazes me most was how rural Coney Island was in the 1950s and how integrated. There was a horse farm across the street from the tenement my grandmother lived in, owned by a black family. It’s probably the same one as Jacqueline Aranoff mentions. I used to walk down a dirt road in front of the barn and see little boys playing in the hayloft.

 

Posted in: Blog & Stories

7 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Are there any pictures of the shantytown?

  2. Marilyn S. says:

    Love the narrative and the art.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating. A piece of Brighton history I knew nothing about.

  4. Jane Ryder says:

    Very interesting! I bet there are photos somewhere…

  5. Ella H. Harris Oblas says:

    I believe that my awareness was at its height when I was five or six. I lived across the street from P.S. 253 and was seldom on time.
    Thank you!

  6. linda says:

    love your work. you have such a fierce imagination. did you see this photo in the guardian today?

    http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/20/harold-feinsteins-best-photograph-hanging-out-coney-island-new-york-1949

    I think you can do a lot with this image.

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