Things Don’t Really Change

lip-coverIn late July, I started reading “Long Island Purgatory” a book about, race, religion and a young boy coming of age, written by my good friend Bradley Lewis. The end of the introduction on Brad’s Amazon page says:

Long Island Purgatory tells a powerful and deeply personal story that allows us an unprecedented look back at a sad piece of our history.”

I finished that book on Labor Day, yeah, I’m a slow reader. I shared Brad’s intro to the book on Facebook with the following statement:

I just finished reading this book. Compelling story about a difficult time in America…then again, sometimes, I wonder if we’ve moved beyond these issues.”

You see, Brad’s book is set in Laurelton, NY, an area of Queens, in the early 60s. The book investigates the impact of blockbusting. About 15 years later, I was on my way to Queens, to start my “real life” having secured a job after graduate school. If I were a superstitious person, I would say: “there were signs” indicating that moving wasn’t a great idea. The first sign was Son of Sam, the serial killer. He was still killing young women and couples in Queens as I was preparing to move there with my soon to be (long since ex) wife. The second sign was the fact that a couple of hours before I was to leave for NY, the blackout of 1977 began. The third sign was yet to be revealed.

I had been in class all day. After I got home, my father told me about the blackout:

You still think you should go?

I have to go, dad. I have to find a place to live, and this is the only week that works. Besides, it’s going to take 7 hours to get there, how long can the blackout last?

OK, but here, take this ($40) in case things are a mess over there.”

If I had had a camera, I would be sharing my own stunning picture of the completely dark Manhattan skyline as the sun was beginning to rise behind it.

NY, NY
I didn’t have a camera. I’m borrowing this from the Daily News / Getty Images

I had made an “early-arrival-OK” reservation at the Pan American Motor Inn on Queens Boulevard. By the time I arrived, I had been up for almost 24 hours. What followed was bad news, questionable judgement and that third sign:

I can’t give you a room. We don’t have power and none of the available rooms have been cleaned.”

Can I have a room that hasn’t been cleaned?

Sure. I’ll give you a clean sheet and a couple of towels.”

Fine. Is there a place nearby where I can get a paper?

Probably won’t be any papers today, kid.”

No paper, no classified ads. I signed-up with a rip-off apartment finder service. They connected me with about a dozen sketchy landlords. Day-1 was a bust, I looked at a half-dozen apartments in Brooklyn and Queens that were significantly worse than my college apartment in Morgantown, WV had been.

Day-2 wasn’t much better. We had power, my room had been cleaned, I had been able to shower, and there were papers, but the prospects were looking grimmer and grimmer. At one apartment, cockroaches ran across the counter as we entered the kitchen. The agent nonchalantly quipped: “Don’t worry, they spray every two weeks.” Later, I put $50 down to hold a rat-hole apartment in Brooklyn that had been painted so many times, none of the doors could be closed, except for the entry door that boasted three locks. Still it was the best thing I had seen.

I checked out of the Pan American on my last day in NY with one remaining prospect, an apartment in a two-family house in South Jamaica, Queens. I was running out of time, money and options.

As the landlord was showing me the apartment, he asked me a series of questions. Was I looking for myself or someone else? Myself. Married? Yes. Wife also white? Yeah…esss… Employed? Yes. Any other family members? No.

The living room and dining room were nice, but the kitchen, bedroom and bath were in the basement. They were dark and they smelled musty. When I told him I wasn’t interested, he asked:

Would you like to see the apartment that’s for rent?

Huh?

I own several buildings. This is my office. Nobody ever rents this place. I show it so I can see who wants to rent from me. I don’t want any… (Blacks or Hispanics)”

The real apartment was directly across the Grand Central Parkway from St. John’s University, in an area known as Jamaica Hills. It was close to a subway stop, and one block from the parkway on-ramp – perfect for my wife’s and my respective commutes.

I’ve had many experiences, when I wished that I could stand on principle and walk away from an opportunity that was being given to me because I was white. Brad touched on these feelings in his book, giving me a personal connection to his characters. I forfeited my $50 in Brooklyn and signed a lease for the hidden apartment.

The following August, as we were preparing to move to Seattle, WA, the newspapers were on strike. Our landlord posted signs at St. John’s, hoping to find students to rent to. The neighbors scoped out each potential tenant. They were concerned that Hispanic students or university employees would rent the apartment. “They’ll move their entire family in with them. Once that starts…

Laurelton was two miles away as the crow flies, and times hadn’t changed since 1963. 40 years later, I’m still not sure they’ve changed.

58 thoughts on “Things Don’t Really Change

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  1. I grew up in Nassau County and later moved to Suffolk and must admit that we never felt Queens or Brooklyn were actually ‘The Island’. Being part of the city and having these problems so associated with the other Burroughs, we considered them city-folk. My parents had friends throughout NY, so I’m familiar with the various areas. Upstate is another world entirely!
    On another note, the book sounds very interesting and I will look into acquiring it. Great post, Dan, I’m sure your friend will appreciate this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s funny, my wife always says that Queens doesn’t seem like part of Long Island. To be sure, the in-law relations I had in Valley Stream made a point to tell me that Queens wasn’t Long Island, although it was walking distance from Laurelton. Living in Queens was a little like being in no-man’s land. The people in Manhattan certainly didn’t consider us part of the “city.” Even now, I get the sense that Brooklyn is more comfortable with it’s identity than Queens. Of course, these same issues were playing out in Pittsburgh and Hartford. Hartford still shows the signs of “Redlining” and the problems caused by the practice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Every time I walk through or sit down where I work, I hear complaints about the temporary employees. They indicate the ones speaking are “above” them in some way or another, (not in seniority but in racial background.) I cannot think of a day when I have heard something as simple as, “Thank God we got some new employees, so we won’t have to work so many ten and eleven hour days!” So sad, it makes me extra nice to them just because they sense the way others may feel. Ine case or person at a time, folks. This is how we should proceed.
    The man who took my 1978 photos of my wedding, Louis, taught my brother some great tennis moves. He was an engineer at NASA. He is now a member of my Mom’s community. I made sure I went around, as my brother’s did, telling how much a genius and hard working co-worker of my Dad’s he was. . . He grins from ear to ear. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Robin. I always wonder how posts like this are going to be received, but I was pretty sure my readers would understand and I’m not at all surprised that you are reaching out to make others feel better. If only everybody looked at life this way. We can learn from anyone and we can be friends with anyone.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Like you said, yesterday. . . Star Trek was very open minded for its time. Interracial kissing, accepting even the dangerous and strange Aliens
        Happy week and i liked this apt hunting back story. Shows your true character, too. :)

        Like

    1. Thanks Judy. You’re right about humans. We fear many things that we don’t understand. Unfortunately, that fear can be used against us, as a tool by people with more selfish motives. Times haven’t really changed, and you would think that we’ve had time to come to understand that we’re all humans.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Dan, so often I think the same thing. Have we changed? Are we any closer to being the non-judgmental people who are supposed to love one another? The answer is yes and no. The country did vote in an African-American President (although there are those that still hate him for his color) and I do see acceptance of people of color where before there was none. But, we have a long way to go. There are too many that still thrive on hate and bigotry simply because of color, sexuality, religious preference and gender. How do we fix that? The answer is very complicated, but it starts with teaching our children about love and acceptance and being the person that shows those ideals to them and the rest of the human race. It make be a long road, but if we could change those nasty thoughts and perceptions, we’d eventually be on the right path.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are absolutely right, Mary, it starts with teaching our children. Hatred and fear isn’t inherent, it’s learned from others. I was taught to avoid both, although, a healthy respect for danger was encouraged. In general, I am encouraged by the progress we’ve made. I am sad that the voices of hatred have much broader access, but so do the voices of tolerance and respect, so I think we will eventually win this battle. Gene Roddenberry might have been right, maybe it will take until the 23rd century. Thank you so much for this comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Where is the ‘oh my !’ button on WP ? Like does not cover this. Sadly change comes slow. Some people have changed, some people have not, and some people realize this kind of fear and hate is not right. too bad we can not get a not to give into fear and hate amendment added to the Constitution.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I would so like to think we have moved on….but, no. Years ago, the house down the street was rented by Jamaicans. My son became friends with one of the three boys and took him across the street to another buddy’s home. That mom came marching up the street to tell me that my son had brought a ‘black boy’ to her house. I was stunned speechless. And this was in the 1990’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow – That’s sad, Lois. The number of times I have to ask “what’s wrong with people?” seems to be increasing. I’m an optimistic person. I do see positive change, but stories like this and the others that I didn’t ave room to share, still make me shake my head.

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  6. Quite an experience, Dan. Made me feel vaguely unclean just reading about it. I haven’t read Bradley’s book, but I imagine your post would make a very worthy foreword or afterword to it. Thanks for shining a personal light on this lesser-known bit of history.

    Like

    1. The whole experience made me feel that way too, Paul. I’ve wanted to share this story before, but I didn’t want it to be tangled up with some other issue. When it comes to race, there always seems to be an event in the news. Brad’s book gave me a nice point to latch on to.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Like John Hric, I wish there was an “Oh my” button. I really don’t know what to say because I just don’t get it.
    I did make a note of the book though and have added it to my reading list. *Sigh* This stuff really depresses me. I know what you mean though about having moment of truth events when you wish you had taken the high moral ground. We all do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joanne. John brings us a little bit of beauty each and every day, and a zinger now and then. As I’ve gotten older, I have taken the opportunity to “choose to make a statement” rather than go along with unacceptable behavior, but I still find myself in situations where it would be unwise to do so. I’ve told this story many times, Some people react like you did, but some smile and tell me I was lucky. I don’t get it either.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, that was intense, especially for you, and especially on a Monday morning. I have not experienced this time period or this geography, so that was quite a read for me.
    Of course, I’d heard about those real estate practices…but never from a first-person perspective.
    One of the main reasons I enjoy living in the city is because of diversity. My neighborhood is mostly just my dead end street, and it’s diverse.
    I like to look at my kids’ interactions and realize things are improved compared to when I was their ages, but I know we still have a long way to go. I always think those kids who live in the ‘white flight’ areas leave home disadvantaged.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Joey. I’ve been setting Mondays aside for more serious topics. Not always, but at least every now and then. I think you’re right about the disadvantage of living outside or a diverse neighborhood. My parents moved from a diverse town to not-at-all-diverse in order to find better schools. Fortunately, work, family and church connections kept us grounded in the original neighborhood, which I still consider home. In many ways, things have improved. Parents who don’t teach fear and hatred are part of te solution – kudos to you for being in that group!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Charles. I remain optimistic, but we won’t make significant progress until we stop looking at the things that make us different and start thinking about the things we all have in common.

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  9. Dan, your post brings so many thoughts to mind that it’s impossible to share them all or even get them all in order in the time I have right now. I think in many ways things are better, but there are of course always people who will hate those not like them…and that’s not limited to whites. We live in a predominately white suburb of Chicago, but there are also many Indian people here, a different “different” group. Our church has white, a few black, and some Indian people, which I enjoy. There has been bigotry and hatred since the beginning of time and even when we do our best to overcome it, it will remain, changing in shape and direction, perhaps, but always there. We have to do our best to change that, but the most immediate way is to model tolerance and diversity in our own lives.

    One of the comments above sparked a train of thought that I’ve had many times before. Disagreeing with someone of a different race or belief system is a thorny issue. Just because there’s disagreement, there’s not necessarily racism or hatred. It can easily be that we just don’t agree with those beliefs. Blaming racism takes all discussion off the table and that’s an enormous problem. Make people or classes victims does the same and allows them to not have to be responsible for their behavior, a form of racism or classism that does no one any favors.

    janet

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Janet. We will never all agree, but living in a truly diverse community means that we can agree and disagree as equals, not on the basis of any particular attribute. I wanted to share this post because many of have had occasions where we are the victim of someone elses beliefs and many of us have benefited from those beliefs when we didn’t really agree. Sometimes, we can try and make a statement, start a dialog or walk away. Sometimes we can’t. You’re right about the best way being to start with our own lives. We can all make progress. Maybe someday, we will have collectively made enough.

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  10. The book sounds excellent. I will give it a try. Once again, Dan, a well written post that I can only relate to intellectually. Having come of age in central Utah where skin color was not an issue because there was only one — white — the only discrimination in housing was against non-mormons and smokers, which no one ever protested, so I only found out about it later. I could read though, so I knew what was going on in our country, I’ve just never had first-hand experience with it like you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Janet. Discrimination against smokers – you guys were ahead of your time. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I experienced (at least in the local news) riots battles for civil rights. We grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood and really didn’t understand that there were problems until later. This is a hard issue to cover in 1,000 words, but Brad’s book gave me a touchpoint so I took advantage of it. It’s one story out of many, but at least I had the chance to tell it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’d like to think that the world has evolved since then but there are days when I turn on the news and really wonder.
    What we teach or kids is really the key.
    Hopefully the next generation will do a better job than of accepting and respecting each other.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Well, I don’t own any bikes or cars, but when I go for checking out an apartment I make sure there are no schools around, no temples, no carpentry shops (no offense here), no fabrication shop, no gardens, no wedding party halls. My current apartment is absolutely secluded. Yes, I have the rear side of the church right next to my apartment building, but I don’t mind it because it’s a place where the priest lives, so there’s hardly any noise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like a good list Sharukh. I didn’t know about alternate-side-of-the-street parking and I didn’t know that we wouldn’t have access to the driveway. This was long before the Internet so there wasn’t much opportunity to research the place. If we had stayed in NY, I would have been better equipped to find a nicer place. The apartment was very nice inside, and it was affordable, but the limitations were hard to cope with.

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  13. And it isn’t always the obvious. For years in Louisiana, the grumbling has been about the boat refugees from Vietnam. I get so tired of the knee jerk responses of so many Americans to outsiders from anywhwere. As if most of us didn’t originally come from somewhere else back through the line. Except for those who have truly been under attack since the first boats landed..

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I heard about all this racial garbage back in the 1970s. I remember being to thankful I lived in Denver. Denver wasn’t as wide-spread at NY back then. Neither was it so prejudice. African-Americans and Hispanic had been moving into “so-called” white areas of town for a while. The city had gotten the message [in the right way] when there were the riots at Kent.

    I’ve often wondered why the people of eastern states [as a group] have a bigger problem accepting change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think part of the underlying issue on the East Coast is that there were lots of tightly packed neighborhoods and lots of ethnic-grouping already in place. I think, originally, people settled “together” for language and religious issues. My paternal ancestors settled with a lot of people of the same religion, and the first thing they did was build a church. The farther west you go, the more “organically” diverse the population was, with certain notable exceptions (see early comment from Utah). I’m not sure any region has a lock on distrust. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In Los Angeles there are distinct neighborhoods, also in SFran. Watts riots are an early memory for me — BUT as a westerner I was shocked at how like Europe the East Coast was in the 70’s. Four corner in NJ, four Catholic churches, from four countries, and NOBODY went to the “wrong” church. My former husband’s wife was so upset she was marrying a Hungarian Jew — she was not Hungarian…. And of course there is the distaste for blondes from California (yes, we are stupid and don’t do anything more than paint our nails) exhibited in Legally Blonde, which I felt first-hand in Harvard…

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I grew up in the south of Germany where many immigrants from Turkey, Greece and the Balkans had settled. My first friends parents came from then Yugoslavia and I had Turkish class mates. It was never a problem for me to see their mother walk around with a scarf. My parents never had a problem with immigrants or said anything g in this direction. But I think my family was quite different than many Germans in those times. There was a lot of resentment too and by God the Germans should know better!

    And if I look into the Brexit disaster and the things that are said here about immigrants I feel we are rather going backwards then forwards. But I forget its just parts of our people who think like that it is not a “culture” accepted by all anymore. I too think it’s yes and no. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bee. It is a sub-group, but they can be vocal and technology allows them to spread fear and hate much faster and across a wider audience. Times continue to change, I hold out hope that we change for the better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too even though it looks pretty bleak here. The killings have started as I feared. Most think it’s just some drunk stupid people but in my opinion even one murder because of race or nationality is too much. And politicians like Trump, Farage, Wilders and LePen use and abuse these this sort of thinking to their advantage. Fear is a powerful feeling. It makes people do strange things…..

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Great post Dan. I have too many flashbacks to write a constructive response. My parents immigrated here from Jamaica in the 60’s and later brought me here in the 70’s. My father faced so much discrimination over the years but he was committed to doing the right thing. He became a US Citizen and I later became one in 1980. This story does not have a happy ending. My father succumbed to cancer almost two years ago, but really, he succumbed to the hate. He died hating everyone who was not like him. (Hispanics, Jews, Whites, India). This hard worker who believed every penny was worth something and no job was beneath him died a racist. He learned how to hate all to well. It is so sad that this is how he is remembered publicly. I have to stop at this point, I have never shared this with anyone before, so thanks for reading Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark, all I can say is thank you for sharing this. This subject is so hard to even talk about these days. I’m sorry to hear about your father’s experience. Hatred is learned, it’s not inherently part of us. I can’t really respond well to this comment, but I can say that I am very glad to have met you and to consider you (and to be considered by you) a friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I have pondered over this question for a long time and decided that things do change. Specific things. But the general drift of events never changes. The future is chaotic. Just like the past. Maybe, because the earth is round, history too just goes round and round. After sometime, there’s nowhere else to go but the beginning. We are stuck here, spinning on the same axis. Even when we are peaceful, chaos build up. Human overpopulation was eventually going to yield serious destruction.
    If you read the feminists’ stories, you feel the horrors of a male-dominated world. Then you flip the page and read about pollution. Flip again and you find global warming, unstable economies, war, race, bad governance, education, child trafficking, etc.
    After a while, you just get tired. Tired and drained and hopeless.
    I have felt all these.

    Thank you, Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. I try so hard to remain optimistic, but every time we repeat major mistakes, I really wonder about us as a species. Maybe you’re right, maybe it’s just our nature to repeat things over and over. And yet, we search the universe for “intelligent” life. Makes you wonder…

      Liked by 1 person

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