Right around the time my Grandma Nettie began to lose her memories, I became a scavenger, unearthing the mysteries of my neighborhood’s lost past. While Alzheimer’s ate away at my Grandma’s brain, I searched the streets for urban treasure. I had to do something to keep me occupied and distracted from my sadness. Grandma and I had always been very close, but pancakes at her apartment just weren’t the same anymore. Lately she was forgetting to put milk in the batter. I stopped going up to see her as much.
I quickly appointed myself the title of unofficial urban archaeologist of Trump Village. As a novice scavenger, I made my way into the local streets armed with a notepad. There was a church next to a McDonald’s and lots of names and catch phrases from the 1970s (somebody carved “Disco Sucks” into the ground) etched into the cement. I called this form of graffiti “ground art.” I thought the ground art was important and made a note of it in my notepad. However, my goal was to find a relic or marker that was much older than 1970s cement graffiti written by some rock jock that hated disco. I wanted to uncover something that existed in my neighborhood before Trump Village and the other middle class buildings were erected.
One day across from Coney Island Creek underneath the F train El, behind weeds and dirt, I stumbled upon roughly ten feet of exposed and defunct trolley track. I knew that the trolley system in Brooklyn ended in the 1950s long before I was born. Like a star’s light, there was no beginning or end to the tracks, just a beam of weathered steel pointing to a long ago New York City past. I bent down to touch the vintage steel and mistook the sensation of my elated feelings for electric zaps. I was no conduit for electricity but felt charged nonetheless by the energy of something that once was. I knew I had rediscovered tracks that were forgotten by my neighborhood’s residents. But how could someone forget riding a trolley car in Brooklyn, especially one that took passengers straight down to Coney Island? Had I made a truly novel urban discovery?
I couldn’t ask Grandma, a native of Coney Island, for historical information about the tracks. I wanted to know if she ever rode this trolley line, and if so, what the ride was like. But I couldn’t. Alzheimer’s had almost successfully destroyed her ability to remember facts about her life. It was a tornado that, instead of swooping up homes in the Midwest, touched down in Brooklyn, landed in my Grandma’s hippocampus and sucked her memories away. I only wished that this tornado would show some mercy and that its vortex of spinning air would scatter her memories across Brooklyn.
Grandma was a great storyteller. Back when I was 11 years old she shared inappropriate memories with my friends and me. “I used to do the hanky panky in the back of the candy store,” she would say with her strong Brooklyn Jewish accent. My friends thought she was this hilarious, super-cool Grandma. They were right. As I got a little older, I asked more engaging questions about her past. Grandma mentioned a romantic date she had with Ruby Jacobs, owner and founder of Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Coney Island boardwalk. Ruby, now deceased, is a legend in Coney Island and I couldn’t believe that my Grandma dated him back in the 1940s. When Grandma shared this memory with me, I suddenly felt a part of the coveted Coney Island royalty. Grandma’s Coney Island past fueled my infatuation with the amusement park and surrounding area. By the time I was a college sophomore, I had a full-blown addiction to Coney Island’s history while, coincidentally, Grandma was slowly detaching from that world.
I remember the last attempt I made to access Grandma’s memories. It was a summery night in Brooklyn of August 2002. Though she didn’t have much mobility or memory left Grandma sure had a zest for local Jewish nightlife and culture. I was her Tuesday night date for an evening of Catskill comedy and big band fun in Seaside Park, Brighton Beach. Seaside Park offered free outdoor concert performances in the summertime. On this particular night, the average age of the audience members was 75 and from Trump Village, the seven building middle-class housing development that surrounded the park. Trump Village, geriatric capital of the world, mostly thronged with elderly World War II vets, Holocaust survivors, and Jewish grandparents including mine. I didn’t mind being 50 years younger than everybody else in the crowd. It made me feel like I had lots and lots of grandparents.
Grandma and I found a spot on the grass. The neighborhood seniors filled up the concert area quickly and we were happy to get a good seat near the stage. Seaside Park was reminiscent of a giant outdoor Chinese restaurant in Miami Beach. Old Jews piled into the park like it was an early bird special, except tonight’s menu was Catskill humor not chicken chow mein. Soon after we plunged our metal fold-out chairs into the ground, marking our territory, some alter kocker spotted Grandma Nettie in the audience.
“Nettie, Nettie, over here!” the woman waved and yelled. Grandma didn’t respond. Alzheimer’s had a way of numbing her once gregarious personality.
“Nettie, Nettie come sit with us,” the woman shouted from twenty feet away.
Grandma’s silent non-response was a clear indicator we weren’t moving. She really didn’t want people to know how badly she was struggling with the disease. Alzheimer’s affected Grandma’s speech, often leaving her incoherent and scrambling for words. For the former social queen of Trump Village, this new behavior was uncharacteristic and alarming to those that knew her best.
“Grandma, do you remember what was here before Trump Village was built?” I asked.
“Do I remember? Remember, sure, sure. A dirt path.” Grandma garbled out.
“Oh cool. Where? What else was around?” I asked.
Grandma returned my ebullient questions with weak gray eyes then turned her head to face the stage. Answering questions was too hard for her. Her involuntary reticence made me sad. My bubbe was a woman who spoke loudly and filled up every corner of a room with her roaring, fun-loving laugh. But not anymore.
Grandma and I nestled into the metal rods of our fold out chair and watched the evening’s entertainers. The Catskill has-been, Dick Capri was the opening act.
“Just like a Florida condo clubhouse show, huh Grandma? Makes you wish you were in Boca?” I joked affectionately.
“You’re so silly.” She chuckled with an ephemeral grin.
Grandma didn’t want to talk so I surveyed the scene around me. The crowd was a sea of coiffed hair and snowbirds up for the summer season. Dick Capri started his set spewing off vintage jokes the crowd heard a million times before but still found funny. “A car hit a Jewish man. The paramedic says: ‘Are you comfortable?’ The man says, ‘I make a good living.’”
Actually, the Catskill club scene isn’t so far removed from my own life. My parents took me there as a kid in the mid-eighties after the party crumpled and the Borscht Belt ran out of borscht. I remember the hotels and Simon Says by the pool and girls from Manalapan, New Jersey who just wanted to be my friend, although my tendency was to run away from them. People from the suburbs scared me back then. I was 8 years old and only used to my lower-middle class crew from my neighborhood. I grew up in Brightwater Towers, a high rise of two Mitchell-Lama-turned condo buildings next door to Trump Village. All together there were four Mitchell Lama housing developments in my neighborhood with a total of 19 buildings at 23 stories high: Brightwater Towers, Trump Village, Warbasse, and Luna Park Houses. While senior citizens were bursting at the seams of monotonous middle class brick, so were children. Children could be found everywhere: playing in parks, hiding behind cars and in staircases, eating at the pizza place and making prank phone calls on payphones in the street. Three generations of families lived in Trump. I don’t think my grandparents could have ever predicted that from 1964 to the present a new neighborhood had been born and an old one faded into nonexistence.
Dick Capri was still recycling one-liners by the time I snapped back into the present. I found it hard to stay focused. I daydreamed and rehearsed the facts that I already knew. Grandma Nettie was raised on West 30th street in Coney Island by her Russian-Polish immigrant parents and extended Eastern European family. She was first generation American and a child of the city sun. Her olive skin soaked up Coney Island’s finest rays for 80 years. Born in 1925, Grandma met her husband, raised children and lived in Coney Island until the mid-sixties when the neighborhood began to change. “Began to change” is code for Blacks and Puerto Ricans moving in. The neighborhood’s Jews and Italians exited Coney’s streets and blocks en masse. Generally, Italians relocated to other parts of Brooklyn. Whereas in 1964, many of Coney Island’s Jewish residents moved to Trump Village, a brand new Mitchell Lama housing development in west Brighton Beach. Built by Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump’s father, Trump Village exclusively housed the middle class. In 1964, when the buildings were complete, Grandma Nettie and Grandpa Seymour became one of Trump’s very first tenants.
As I sat in the fold out chair and thought about Grandma my mind switched mental gears to reflect on my recent scavenging work. I felt like one of those hopeless guys on the beach with a metal detector combing through the sand in search of gold that will never be found. I walked up and down every street in my neighborhood just to put the pieces of this place together. There were three main markers left pointing to signs of life before middle-class development. First, I discovered the trolley tracks. Second, there was a church from around 1920 located in this predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Third, a very old house was left standing alone along the Coney Island creek. Churches, houses and trolley tracks were not part of Trump Village’s original landscape. It’s clear that my neighborhood’s past stood subtle and resilient through changing times. I just wish I had someone to share my findings with. Someone who could give me answers about the past. Though, I’m not sure I even knew what I was searching for and why.
Dick Capri had already left the stage by the time I decided to rejoin my grandmother and the show. The big band music group was playing bouncy Benny Goodman tunes. The crowd hummed and moved their heads from side to side.
“Grandpa and I used to dance to this song at the music hall.” Grandma blurted out.
“Really? Wow! What music hall?” I asked. No answer. Grandma shut the memory and speech door in her brain, smiled and continued to listen to the music. I questioned whether or not she actually just spoke to me. Sometimes it felt like I was communicating with a fleeting ghost.
The night was ending and the music was slowing down, reflecting the romantic Coney Island sunset. It was nearly 9 p.m. The old folks had a long one block walk up West 5th street, which would deposit them to one of the various housing developments in the neighborhood. Overall the crowd looked happy and satisfied. It was a night well spent.
Grandma and I left the park arm in arm and I walked her back to her Trump apartment. I’d begun to worry that she could no longer take care of herself. Although I urged my parents to hire a round the clock caretaker they were in denial of her disease. But instinctually I knew that this was it for Grandma Nettie. It wouldn’t be long before Alzheimer’s swallowed her entirely.
“I had a really nice evening with you, Grandma. You were a wonderful date.”
“So were you.”
“And you should call me if you need anything. I am here for you.”
“I will see you Sunday for pancakes?”
She smiled and shut her apartment door. I walked back to my parent’s apartment up the block. Grandma passed away three years after our Tuesday night date.
At the time of her death, I still didn’t have any answers regarding the mysteries of my neighborhood. In fact, my neighborhood infatuation diminished once I started my adult life and no longer had time to wander the streets. As I was cleaning out Grandma Nettie’s apartment with my mother shortly after her passing, I found a gold mine in her bedroom: a box filled with old pictures, postcards, a super 8 home movie of my family in Coney Island and lots of love letters from Grandma to Grandpa.
I should have been thrilled with this discovery, but wasn’t. I suddenly felt remorseful about my own scavenging journey. I spent years chasing a neighborhood history that didn’t care if it was ever discovered again. I sacrificed pancake days with Grandma to uncover empty clues with no answers. Meanwhile the real answers were sitting in a box in the corner of my Grandma’s bedroom. Answers about her family, life, and romantic feelings, Answers I would never find out in the street.
I opened up the first letter I found. “Dear Seymour, I miss you so much. The weather in Brooklyn is quite cold!” I opened another letter, “Dear Nettie, The war is coming to a close. How are the children?”
I was feeling voyeuristic. These were deeply intimate feelings that Grandma would never share with me in her dying days. Was I even supposed to find the box and sift through it? I am after all a nosy scavenger. My mother noticed my emotional confusion as I sat and stared at the box.
“Samantha, your Grandma knew how curious you were. Just take the box. Look at it as a present,” said my mom.
“Ok. If you say so Mom. But all presents deserve a thank you note, right?’
“Sure.” My mother replied.
I excused myself from the room and began to draft a posthumous thank you note to my Grandmother:
Could it be that the tornado of your life and eventual illness mercifully deposited your memories right into my hands? This is the best treasure one could find. And there’s no better person than I, a self-proclaimed urban archaeologist and admirer of you, to guard your memories for the rest of my life. Thank you for the gift Grandma.
Love your granddaughter,
Samantha Berkley is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Brighton Beach. She has also worked as an oral history interviewer for the Coney Island History Project.