WASHINGTON, January 23, 2016 – In his book, and the movie, “Brooklyn,” Irish author Colm Toibin has told a story which brings life to an America now long gone.
It is the story of a young woman, Eilis Lacey, who lives in a small Irish town with her mother and sister. It is 1951 and Eilis is leaving for America, not in any spirit of rebellion, but because she was unable to find work in Ireland and a local priest who had himself relocated to New York helps her to find employment in a Brooklyn department store.
Once in Brooklyn, she takes night classes at Brooklyn College in bookkeeping. Her teacher is a survivor of the Holocaust. She meets and falls in love with a young Italian-American plumber named Tony. Tony, being a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Eilis learns about baseball.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in the major leagues, and in Brooklyn, he and the Dodgers were constant subjects of discussion.
To understand America, Brooklyn is a very good place to begin. Movies made during World War II always seemed to include one young man from Brooklyn, together with one from the South, in every military unit.
What could be more American?
In coming to Brooklyn, the fictional Eilis Lacey followed a long line of Irish immigrants to New York, propelled to the New World when the potato famine in the mid-19th century sent droves of immigrants to America. New York City saw the beginning of a new immigrant culture in which the Irish would eventually dominate powerful unions, civil service jobs and Catholic institutions.
Newcomers in the 1950s would find a vibrant Irish community, an Irish mayor in William O’Dwyer and an Irish-American Cardinal in Francis Spellman, who was as influential in politics as in religion.
Some 50,000 immigrants left Ireland for America in the 1950s, about a quarter settling in New York. Referring to Colm Toibin’s novel, Irish-American historian and novelist Peter Quinn says that,
“When people talked about intermarriage in the ’50s, they weren’t talking about black-white, they were talking about Irish-Italian.”
A look at Brooklyn’s history in instructive. It was first settled by the Dutch in 1646 and called “Breuckelen.” In 1664, the Dutch colony of New Netherlands surrendered to England and was renamed New York. Brooklyn remained an independent city until 1898 when it became one of the five boroughs of the reorganized City of New York.
This writer grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, just as the fictional Eilis Lacey was arriving. My family lived on street in which the residents of each house were of a different ethnic background and religion. My friends as a child were Irish and Italian, Polish and German, and I am sure many other origins.
On the newsstand several blocks away, in addition to The New York Times and the Daily News, newspapers in a myriad of languages were on sale, among them the Italian Il Progresso, the Yiddish Forward, the Irish Echo, in Gaelic, and a host of others.
There was a Catholic Church three blocks away and a Lutheran Church that conducted services in German, as well as a synagogue. Brooklyn was known as the “city of churches.”
The neighborhood high school, Erasmus Hall, was established as a private academy in 1786. A subscription was initiated for the funding of a secondary school. Contributors included Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Aaron Burr. The Dutch Reformed Church donated a three acre lot for the new school. It was the second high school to be established in the country.
It remained a private school until 1896 when it was deeded to the City of Brooklyn and became Erasmus Hall High School.
The notable alumni of Erasmus Hall would fill many pages. Consider a few: Joseph Barbera, cartoonist, creator of “Tom and Jerry”; Artist Elaine M. Fried deKooning; Art historian Arthur M. Sackler; Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr. Barbara McClintock; opera singer Beverly Sills; Hollywood stars Shirley Booth, John Forsythe, Eli Wallach and Susan Hayward; chess champion Bobby Fisher; singers Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond; writers Bernard Malamud and Mickey Spillane.
In my senior year, Erasmus Hall was named one of the ten best high schools in the country.
In Brooklyn in the 1950s, people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds thought of themselves as quite different, though all felt thoroughly and completely American. The public schools instilled patriotism and a common national identity. If the older generation of that era were alive today they would marvel at the fact that the Irish, the Italians, the Eastern European Jews, the Germans, the Scandinavians and others are now described in the U.S. Census as simply “white.”
They have been busy marrying one another and blurring the lines of division. And now Brooklyn is home to a new wave of immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, China and Korea.
The American story is never finished.
Whether we are now prepared to integrate an ever more diverse immigrant group into our society is less than clear. Remembering the way American public schools once served to bring children of immigrants into the mainstream, Fotine Z. Nicholas, who taught for 30 years in New York City schools, writes:
“I recall with nostalgia the way things used to be. At P.S. 82 in Manhattan, 90 per cent of the students had European-born parents. Our teachers were mostly of Irish origin, and they tried hard to homogenize us. We might refer to ourselves as Czech or Hungarian or Greek but we developed a sense of pride in being American….There were two unifying factors: the attitude of our teachers and the English language…After we started school, we spoke only English to our siblings, our classmates and our friends. We studied and wrote in English, we played in English, we thought in English.”
America, we often forget, is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his Letters From an American Farmer, J.Hector Crevecoeur wrote in 1782:
“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
The author Mario Puzo notes that,
“What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries…whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.”
As a young man growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Puzo was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded that, “For a thousand years in Italy no one in our family was even able to read.”
But in America, everything was possible—in a single generation.
In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal Party leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from the “millions who have crossed the ocean, who should reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West?”
Brooklyn in the 1950s is brought to life by Colm Toibin in his book and in the movie adaptation. It is a place which was instrumental in creating the America we have today. Those who would understand our complex society would do well to recall the values which in 1950s Brooklyn forged an American identity, not only for Eilis Lacey and her husband Tony, but for an untold number of men and women.
America was being made in 1950s Brooklyn and it is still being made there today, and in countless other places throughout the country.