By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Most people are familiar with the basic history of the “Greatest Generation” – how many of its members suffered during the Depression, fought during World War II, then came home to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and start careers and families.
Beyond this basic outline, however, many details aren’t well known, especially about the New York area. What were the neighborhoods like in the old days? What were jobs like? What about family life?
Some of these questions are answered in a new website, The Listening Project: Midwood (also known as The Listening Project: Brooklyn), put together by documentary producer Dempsey Rice. Ms. Rice, a Windsor Terrace resident, got the idea while working as an artist in residence at the Council Center for Senior Citizens on Quentin Road. The artist-in-residence program was sponsored by Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide (SPARC), a collaboration between several government agencies and arts councils.
Most of the people who Ms. Rice interviewed are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Their Midwood is not the Midwood of today, whose main population groups are Orthodox Jews, Russians and Asians. Rather, these longtime residents represent the Midwood of the 1920s through 1980s – a neighborhood dominated by non-Orthodox Jews, with some Italian-American and Irish-American Catholics.
As these interviews bear out, many old-time Midwood residents originally came from the rundown tenement districts of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. Milly Barnathan recalls her early childhood on the Lower East Side: “We would look out the window and see rats in the yard. The bathrooms were in the hall, and when I had to go to the bathroom at night, I’d have to wake my mother up,” she says. When she moved to Brooklyn, she says, “Things got better.”
Not all the seniors, however, followed the same path. Hilda Baxt grew up in London and remembers that in 1939, during the Blitz, all children were evacuated. She and her brother were placed in a house in the countryside, and she recalls the kindness the daughter of the family showed to them. Ms. Baxt, according to Rice, came to the U.S. to marry an American soldier – but then decided not to.
Manny Sorge remembers childhood poverty and having to work early. He and his brother both shined shoes and got paid in silver dollars. His mother kept those silver dollars, and whenever one of them needed shoes or clothing, she’d take one of the dolars to pay for it.
Employment opportunities for women were limited. Simona Sperling declares, “I was always the secretarial type,” and says she had never wanted to be anything but a secretary. Her most valuable work experience, she says, came when she worked as a secretary for a lawyer and learned many valuable tools about law and business that helped her in everyday life.
A more unusual career path was taken by Stephanie Stone, who was first a “camera girl,” taking customers’ photos in nightclubs, and then a singer and pianist at the Nut Club, a tourist bar in the West Village. During World War II, she says, “New York was wide open,” with clubs and bars open until 3 or 4 in the morning.
There are also several relatively young interviewees. For example, interviewee Irwin Cohen says, “Barbara Streisand graduated from high school with me,” which would make him about 71.
Ms. Rice, who is also known for her documentary “Daughter of Suicide,” about her mother’s suicide and its affect on her family members and friends, worked at the center from 2010 through 2012. The seniors, she said, were largely cooperative and eager to tell their stories.
For anyone serious about local Brooklyn history, The Listening Project; Midwood is a must.