The New Frontiers
My sister calls Belle Harbor and Neponsit the Shire. And I have to agree with that. Just as Frodo Baggins was unprepared to strike out for Mordor, I have always had the sense that kids in this community are ill-equipped to make their way in New York City, let alone the rest of Rockaway.
Growing up, prejudice on the West End was rarely explicit and fed more by a lack of black and brown faces than antipathy toward minorities. (Of course, that situation may have been due to informal housing discrimination.) As a child, I gawked at Hispanics and African-Americans whom I saw riding bikes down my block or eating at Papa’s Pizza. My P.S. 114 education, while excellent, did little to dispel my incredulity; there were two black students on my grade, an experience that underlies my support for busing.
Unexposed and unaccustomed to diversity, unreconstructed opinions about race and class crept into my world-view, and it took a lot of effort and critical thinking to purge them. When it came time to go to middle school, most of my classmates and I headed off to Scholars’ Academy, and the word on the playground was that 104th Street was the ghetto. I think education should be predicated on humanistic, democratic, and progressive principles, so I was never a fan of Scholars’ authoritarian style of operation or the personality cult that surrounded its principal.
However, from a cultural perspective, middle school was a revelation. I got a taste of rap music, which was strictly proscribed in my house. I made my first black friend. Perhaps most importantly, I realized that I came from a background of relative privilege, discovering the Rockaway that lay beyond Beach 116 Street. The Rockaway of projects. The Rockaway Bob Moses built. The Rockaway where the city dumped anyone it wanted out of sight.
Increasingly, I looked on Belle Harbor- Neponsit with an unkindly eye, thinking it small-minded and provincial. I wanted to break out of Plato’s Cave, to be free of what Francis Bacon called the Idols of the Tribe. I got into Stuyvesant, and was bound for the city.
The progression continued. I shed my belief in American exceptionalism, an appealing but historically fraudulent idea. The West End’s incessant flagwaving and the narrow definition of patriotism and American identity such behavior implied began to irk me. So too did its reflexive support for the police and military, two institutions I had been taught to challenge.
Eventually, though, I feared I had traded one cave for another. My Manhattan peers were guilty of their own culture-bound thinking, particularly when it concerned people who didn’t live in Manhattan. One person I knew referred to Queens as “that third world country.” People where I hailed from weren’t snooty like that, they weren’t phony; they had not an ounce of pretension, they were direct. As my brother, who also attended Stuy, observed, there were often brawls at Rockaway parties, while in Manhattan feuds were carried out through malignant whispers. In his estimation, our West End compatriots were “real people.”
When Woody Guthrie came to New York, he played up his Okie roots; when Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris, he pretended to be a backwoods frontiersman instead of the aristocrat he was. Like them, I felt Stuy thrust me back into an identity of which I was a flawed representative. But I was a representative, even after that long journey, even if my politics were out of step with my native sand, even after I had scaled academic heights that most had walked past, even if I recognized that the West End existed against a backdrop of economic and social injustice.
As I get ready to decamp for Cambridge in a matter of days, I have taken a mental inventory of things I will miss. I will miss walking around like a beach bum and the beach itself. I will miss Fort Tilden, where for a few hours on a summer day I could deceive myself into thinking I was Huck Finn and my brother was Tom Sawyer. I will miss my parents and the village of friends, neighbors, and teachers who helped make a kid from Belle Harbor who faced long odds a success. Warts and all, this hobbit loves the Shire.