As Avery Corman and I sit on a bench outside of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, I use the term “fairy tale” to describe the setting of his new memoir “My Old Neighborhood Remembered.” Corman, author of the novels “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Oh, God” among other books, smiles when he hears the phrase.
“I’ve never heard the expression ‘fairy tale’ used before to describe it,” Corman says. “But it is almost a romantic version of a place that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“My Old Neighborhood Remembered” recreates the Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s, where Corman grew up. It was an era when candy shops and multiple movie theaters existed in each neighborhood, when kids played stickball and roamed the streets for hours — a lost time that contrasts sharply with our fragmented modern lifestyle. However, instead of falling into preachy clichés, Corman’s book avoids overt generalizations through its series of short, sweet vignettes, which abound in humorous and poignant details. The reader sees the crowds outside the Loew’s Paradise movie theater (which seated over 3,000 people) and hears the crack of the bat in Yankee Stadium. Nestled within the description of the neighborhood is a deeply personal story of persistence and acceptance, necessitated in part by Corman’s father, who deserted the family when Corman was 5.
“I tried to make the book aware of time and place,” Corman says. “So it wasn’t just about me, and it captures what was really going on — what life in city neighborhoods was like, what was unique about it, and what its vitality was.”
Corman, 78, dressed in blue jeans and a button-down shirt, has been guiding me through the community where he grew up. He lived at 175 Field Place, just off the bustling Grand Concourse road, near Fordham University. The area, along with the rest of the Bronx, has undergone dramatic demographic and cultural changes since World War II. Most of the citizens of what Corman recalls as a half-Jewish, half-Irish Catholic dispersed in the ’60s and ’70s as the Cross Bronx Expressway and Co-op City developments significantly disrupted the makeup of the region. Today the borough is largely Hispanic and African American, and although it has not developed at the same pace as Brooklyn, signs of economic and cultural life are starting to pop up.
Corman, a careful observer and engaging storyteller in person who speaks with the authority of a historian, largely blames the demise of the Bronx he knew on Robert Moses, the 20th-century urban planner who imposed his will on the structure of New York City. He focuses his argument on the Cross Bronx Expressway project, which he says tore apart the fabric of tight communities.
“These Bronx neighborhoods were like small-town America,’” Corman says. “It was very community driven. Robert Moses made the Bronx into a drive-by area and in a sense created slums as he went through with his larger vision. Have you ever seen anybody get out of a car on the Cross Bronx Expressway to buy anything? When you’re on it, you’re on it.”
Of course, all of the storefronts have changed, but Corman seems surprised that he can still find his way.