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.
“The unusual thing about this area is that everything is just as it was,” Corman says as we track down his old apartment, library, junior high school, basketball court and other locations he recalls from his youth. The Loew’s Paradise theater closed long ago, but its entire façade, complete with its old ticket window, looks exactly as it did when Corman took dates there in the 50s.
Still, throughout our walk, Corman occasionally seems saddened at how few children were out on the streets. This may be in part due to the suffocating 90-degree temperature and humidity, but Corman also speaks of broader social changes.
“You don’t see a lot of kids playing games any longer,” Corman says. “We used to swarm all over the streets. That’s a function of larger things in the culture: television, video games and probably homework. I don’t remember ever getting homework.”
On our way to the old public library building, we pass Poe Place, one of the many parts of the community named after Edgar Allan Poe, who lived on nearby Kingsbridge Road from 1846 to 1849. Three teenage boys sit quietly on a porch front in sleeveless shirts off. The heat is starting to get to me as well, but Corman is unfazed.
“Can you see anything towards the top?” Corman asks as we stop in front of the El Mundo Discount department store. Well above the El Mundo sign, I spot two sets of Torah tablets in between pairs of engraved lions. Corman explains that this building used to be home to the Jacob Schiff Jewish Community Center, complete with a temple and a basketball court.
“On D-Day, we were told to go to our various houses of worship,” Corman says, “and pray for the safe return of our service people in the invasion. And we did not go home to get adults to take us, we just went directly from school — which speaks to the kind of freedom we had in the neighborhood as children. Safety was not even a word.”
Corman believes that World War II brought the community together because the spirit of the home front was ubiquitous. As we pass the Wagner Building, a former site of the civilian Defense Department with a National Recovery Administration eagle still emblazoned on its front, Corman explains how the war made its way into every facet of everyday life. Patriotic bunting and posters with slogans such as “Loose lips sink ships” were found all over, and ads were war-themed. “There’d be servicemen smoking on all the cigarette billboards,” Corman says.
We eventually made our way to Corman’s old synagogue, which is now a boarded-up church. At the top of the columned façade, the letters of a biblical quote have largely faded away, revealing the words “Concourse Center of Israel.” This is where Corman had his bar mitzvah before avoiding religion altogether for over 20 years. Corman calls the time around his bar mitzvah “traumatic” because he was finally told that his father was not dead; he had only moved to California and avoided all contact with the family. Corman eventually started going to a synagogue again after he had kids of his own.
Our last stop is Creston Junior High School, a brick building with a white stone archway and bright blue doors. Corman’s eyes begin to tear up as he discusses his motivations for writing his book.
“The book is in a way an homage to my mother who is kind of the heroine of the book. She scratched a life out for herself and made something of it,” he says. “I also did it for the kids who got me through my childhood and to the kids who accepted me. To those kids who said, ‘You’re one of us, you’re not an outsider, we’re not pushing you away,’ I owe them a debt.”
As we shake hands and go our separate ways, I feel a sadness similar to the one I experienced while reading the memoir — as if I am leaving the old fairy tale world behind. However, even though most people in the neighborhood do not live like Corman used to — mere steps away from school, movie theaters and grocery stores — tight-knit community life hasn’t disappeared. It’s just up to us to cultivate it.
As Corman puts it in his book, “The progress of these last years will continue, or it will all slide back.”
Gabe Friedman is the Forward’s arts and culture intern.
Avery Corman’s Bronx Tale