My Love Letter to Immigrant Working-Class New York

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bknation_crown heights,jpgBy Mark Naison

I may live in Artisanal Park Slope, but I feel most at home in immigrant working-class New York.

A child of the 1950s, I grew up in  in Lower Crown Heights, sometimes known as “Pigtown,” inhabited by 95% Jews and Italians. The grandparents, mostly foreign born, spoke Yiddish or some Italian dialect. The parents, mostly American born, spoke English and we, the children, spoke the language of popular culture.

The mixing of cultures, and languages created conflict, confusion, and an almost electric level of energy. Nowhere were you safe from being yelled at, threatened, instructed or hugged. There was no privacy and arguments took place in the home, in the streets, in the stores, even in schools. God help anyone who came from another neighborhood to hurt us or challenge us. As much as we fought with one another, we faced outsiders together.

While none of us were rich, we ate the best food, listened to the best music, spoke the most colorful language, and went through life with the confidence that, given half of a chance, we could succeed in this strange and wonderful country that we called home. As much as it changed us, we changed it.

I love the Bronx because when I walk the streets and go into the schools, I see myself and my friends from 60 years ago in the faces of Dominicans, Albanians, West Africans, West Indians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and South Asians—as crazy, confused and full of energy as we were, and making America a better place for their presence. Just as we did.

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