A few years ago, I spend about two hours with my girlfriend, Nancy, at the annual Italian American San Gennaro Feast in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The Feast or Festival used to anchor the Little Italy neighborhood that now virtually is gone, a victim of gentrification. I tell Nancy I always went to the Festival as a child living nearby at 110 Bleecker St. in New York University (NYU) housing during the early 1970s. The Festival has been a yearly event since immigrants from Naples launched it in 1926.
I remember vividly a few things about that evening.
Halfway through we stop at the Spring St.Tavern for a beer. I begin to tell stories of growing up near Little Italy and my encounter with neighborhood kids from the hood. "They wanted to fight us. We would run away." The rival Jewish and other kids from NYU housing faced off against the young toughs from Thompson St. We were friends with them in some ways. They wanted to play football and hockey against us. They always challenged us. We never challenged them to a game. Once, we played a street hockey game against the Little Italy crew and I played goalie. I must have been about 12 years old. It was a close game but they won: They had some excellent sharp shooters. As goalie, I testify that their players shot the rubber puck harder than our guys. I was a little scarred. But our guys were as fast or faster on their roller skates. I remember a few people looked on to watch the game. I believe the final score was 5 to 4. The game took place on an open paved lot that today houses a large gym facility for NYU.
We also used to play touch football, and sometimes tackle football without any pads, on a nearby green lawn at the Silver Towers. Several times a week after school, about eight of us would gather for some tossing of the ball. A few times, some of the Italian kids in the hood would come by and challenge us to a football game. We always tried to wiggle our way out of that game. Once or twice we ran away. Hockey was one thing; football was another. In hockey bodies collide in an impersonal manner. In football, touching or tackling is more intimate. The bodies come too close together. It seemed dangerous.
During the conversation with Nancy, I hear a white woman sitting near me with a friend commenting on my discourse. She says, "They all wondered what happened to those kids. They really tortured you guys. Do you know what they became?" Nancy and I look at her but remain silent. Nancy says to me, "Do you know what just happened?" Yes, I am aware of it. This woman appeared to have grown up in Little Italy and is familiar with my story. She knows of the conflict between the youth of Little Italy and the youth of NYU housing nearby. What did these Italian-American kids become? For that matter, what did the children of NYU faculty and staff become?
After we left the bar, we walked down Mott St. and encountered the Festival’s Clown, who eggs on the crowd to throw at him and drop him into a container of water. The Clown's face is made up; it is impossible to make out his skin color or other defining features. "This is about male aggression," I say to Nancy, "Let's watch." A young Latino man says next to me, "Oh, shit." Nancy notices the Clown is race-baiting a Latino thrower to fuel his anger so he throws really hard. The young Latino man hears Nancy refer to race and says, "Yes. Just wait till later. We are going to fuck them up. You can't talk to us like that." Nancy is horrified and begins to walk away. I mutter to her lowly, "There's going to be a mini-race riot."
I also tell Nancy, who is an expert in Italian-American history, of the occasion when a group of about 50 youth from Little Italy are focused on my older brother Michael in front of my building. They were mocking him. It looked like violence might break out. I ran inside my building, nervously took the elevator to our apartment (#11B) and told my father: "Hurry. You got to come down downstairs. Michael is about to get beat up real bad." On the street, my father talks the crowd out of violence and retrieves Michael and me from the situation. When the three of us reenter our building, we breath a big sigh of relief. My father was in shock. I believed I saved my brother from a group beating.
There are many other stories to tell. In those years, ethnic tension was real in the neighborhood. There is an affinity to what Jonathan Rieder found among Italian and Jewish youth in the mid-1970s Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie: They generally did not mix. Some of the NYU kids were told by their parents not to stray too far into the Italian hood. My parents made no such prohibitions. I had an Italian-American friend despite the ethnic conflict. He once invited me to his apartment. I remember the disapproval of the boy’s mother when she asked about me, realizing that an outsider was inside her home. It was my only visit.
I heard rumors on more than a few occasions that the Italian hood youth roughed up African Americans who strayed into their turf. A friend tells me, “Did you hear, two black guys were riding their bikes down Houston St. and got beat up near Thompson St.? Their bikes were stolen.”
These youth lived in an area where the Gambino crime family had its roots. Of course, most residents were not in the Mafia, but the crime family’s reach undoubtedly affected the culture and politics of the neighborhood. It was the era of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent movie Mean Streets (1973), where small-time Italian American hoods, played expertly by Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, struggle to survive in the same Little Italy. Scorsese grew up in the neighborhood and the film is drawn extensively from personal memories. Of course, I did not know this inner world, but the depiction of gritty danger in the film fits with how I remember interactions with my Italian American neighbors. There is a very good description of the film by Lucia Bozzola: “Scorsese's exceptional grasp of the texture of day-to-day life, the rhythm and cadences of street talk, and cinema's visual and aural possibilities makes Mean Streets one of the pivotal films of the 1970s…” The reviewer Mark Deming also evokes the cultural feeling of the neighborhood. “Charlie [Harvey Keitel] seems to have one foot in the present and the other in turn-of-the-century Sicily, and the soundtrack, which combines the rickety Italian folk melodies of the Feast of Gennaro with classic jukebox rock-and-roll (drawn from records in Scorsese's own collection, complete with scratches), plays this duality for all it's worth.”
I also experience race difference while I attend a “rough” junior high school, I.S. 70, located on 17th St. between 7th and 8th Avenues. It was called “rough” because more than half of the student body was working-class African American and Puerto Rican. (They did not use the term Latino back then.) Some other white friends I knew went to private school to avoid the minorities. My parents were firm advocates of public education. Private schooling was anathema to them. It promoted the wrong values hanging around only privileged, rich, white kids. In the schoolyard at I.S. 70, I ventured to play basketball with the black and Puerto Rican kids. I was a decent player. It helped that I was tall. Entering those basketball games was an assertion of toughness and coolness. I could hold my own with the “rough” crowd. It was not only race difference but class difference. The white kids at I.S. 70 had mostly middle-class backgrounds.
It is hard to imagine today that I.S. 70, in the neighborhood known as Chelsea, was then a poor area. The extraordinarily expansive New York housing stock of the 21 St. century had not touched such areas back in the pre-gentrified 1970s.
In later years, I strongly value my public school education, as it opens my eyes as a child to black and Hispanic cultures and nurtures a lasting multiculturalism. One effect is that I start to do street graffiti with some friends in Manhattan. We put our “tags” on buildings and subway cars with magic markers. I never graduated to spray paint. My tag names were BJ 45 and Sweeney. BJ were the initials for the middle names of Benjamin and Joseph that my younger brother and I had been assigned at birth. The practicing of transgressing – keeping an eye out to write your tag without a police cop seeing you – proved fun and exciting. Traveling the subways in New York City, I constantly was amazed at the colorful and elaborate spray-painted words and images on passing trains.
My older brother used to call me “Chico” because he said my skin was darker than most whites. He had a strong racial sense of humor. He would hold out his hand palm side up and say, “Slap me five.” Then he would turn his hand over so the palm faced down and add in a rhyme, “On the Nigger side.” He would let out a big laugh. I did not approve of his use of the word Nigger. It offended me. Still, the idea that white people are colored in some ways is a current topic of interest thanks to DNA tests demonstrating complex family backgrounds. The popular television show hosted on PBS by Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, African American Lives, traced the genealogical backgrounds of well-known people using DNS testing documenting diverse cross-race ancestries.
At the about the age of 12, I began to be conflicted about my own Jewish identity. My mother was an atheist, although she hides this view from us. Rather, she just expressed no religious enthusiasm whatsoever. My father, too, was secular in his viewpoint. I don’t really know if he believed in God as an adult. He did attend synagogue as a child. The conflict for me arose when my parents decided not to enroll me in Hebrew language training in preparation for a Bar Mitzvah. They did not want to deal with a Rabbi and institutional Judaism. I do not recall significant protest on my part for not having a Bar Mitzvah. I still remained in Jewish subcultures, but not to the exclusion of others. My parents had many close Jewish friends, and so did I. But, still, at the age of 13 I had rejected a critical component of religious faith.
Some of my Jewish peers joked I really was not Jewish. This sentiment not only hurt my feelings. It created some confusion. When I attended other children’s Bar Mitzvahs as a guest, I felt out of place. I tried to hide the fact that I did not have a Bar Mitzvah of my own. With a name like Greenberg, most people assumed my Jewish identity was strong. In fact, as one of my father’s professor friends explained to me, I had roots as a Kohen – a priest in the religion dating to ancient times, when this status was conferred on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his sons as an everlasting covenant. The authority of a Kohen included responsibility for teaching on the law. The Kohen line has been passed from father to son for more than 100 generations.
I experienced very little anti-Semitism in New York City during the 1970s. It was a very tolerant setting for Jews. In fact, in 1974 the city elected its first full Jewish mayor, Abe Beame. Beame was succeeded as Mayor by Ed Koch in 1977, who also was Jewish and had been my Congressman from Greenwich Village. The very high level of race and ethnic diversity in New York City certainly produced an urban setting that might be marked by a high degree of intergroup conflict. Such conflict was probably worse during the 1980s than during the 1970s. At least, several big cases exposing intergroup conflict erupted then. Koch was mayor at the time. Progressives thought he had not worked hard enough toward uniting the city’s many population groups. Indeed, to some extent he proved to be a divisive figure in his response to these cases raising, rather than lowering, ethnic and racial tension. But in my world of the 1970s, my Jewish peers were pleased “one of the tribe” (Beame, Koch) led the city. It made one feel more included in the life of the city, and the country as a whole.