The Block Party: The Big-City Bridge To Racial & Cultural Divides

Written by Larry Usoff on January 9, 2018

An old man remembers…

Sometimes, as old people are wont to do, I’ll think of something that happened a long time ago. In this particular recollection, I’m back in Brooklyn, right after the war ended. Around the corner from where I lived at the time there was a vacant lot, and for us neighborhood kids it was just about everything! Over one summer we cleaned out all the trash and played stickball there, when the lot was frozen over we played hockey or, for some of us, we ice-skated. Me…well, I couldn’t get my ankles to cooperate and I’d fall on my keester as soon as I got on the ice. I played hockey on ice in street shoes. In the warm spring and summer time the lot served as a hunting ground…but not for us. Somewhere, hidden in the trees or wherever, there were bats. As the sun was setting they would come out from wherever their hiding place was and go hunting for food. Once we tried to capture one with a butterfly net, but, being bats they avoided the net very neatly.

Probably the best part of the vacant lot was when we used it as a kitchen. We numbered about eight or nine of us that lived in the immediate vicinity and so when we met at the lot it was to do…” something”. On many occasions, as I said, it was our kitchen. Each of us would bring something to cook over the “hole”.
Nowadays I believe they’d call that a “fire pit” …but back then it was the “hole”. Using wire coat-hangers we’d cook bacon, or toast marshmallows and, when they were available, chestnuts. My favorite was a “mickey”, which was a potato buried in the hot ashes for about 20 minutes and then brought up and cracked open. If we were lucky, someone remembered to bring salt for the food. Oh, it was grand, and the lot provided year-round “entertainment”. All of that would probably not be allowed to take place today…too many fears about the food not being “sanitary” or whatever.

How many, reading this, remember what a “block party” was? For those that are too young to have experienced it let me enlighten you. One city block, especially in New York City after the war, was likely to have many different types of people living there. When the war was declared over, and Japan had capitulated, a block party was in order. Both ends of the block were cordoned off, and as the evening came upon us, tables of every size, shape and description would line the street. No sooner were the tables covered with a cloth then the food began appearing, and when you have ten or twelve different nationalities participating, you just know that the “menu” is going to be something wonderful!

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My building, which was four stories high, had five different countries represented alone! The Italian family on the first floor had three sons and we were all buddies. I ate at their place a lot, and they ate at mine. In fact, the father, who was a chef, taught me how to make spaghetti…for a large group, and I never learned how to divide the ingredients. When I made spaghetti for my family there was always enough for five or six other people as well!

I remember that one of the buildings had an Indian family living there. Running from table to table and putting things on my plate was what it was all about…and then I came across the Indian food. Not being very smart, everything that I put on my plate was soon in my mouth, which turned out to be a big mistake. The Indian food was spiced on the very hot side and no sooner did I swallow a bite of it then I looked around for a water pitcher! To this day I do not eat Indian food and I’m sure not all of it is spicy as that was. Memories probably make things more or less than they actually were, so I might still try Indian food again. Thai food was off my menu also but when a restaurant opened nearby and had an opening special it was time to try it…and I liked it.

To be sure, in the intervening years, there’s been many things that have been tried, and liked. My diet, for over sixty years, did not include broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, or squash…but I eat them now because they are prepared in a manner that is delicious! Watching food being prepared is very interesting and although there’ll be no change in the kitchen hierarchy, it wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that I could sustain life on my own…but I wouldn’t like it. Cooking wasn’t a specialty and the diet tended to be one-can meals or something fast-food, and eating like that piled on the pounds, which were more difficult to take off than they were to put on.

Parting shot: we want to be remembered, every one of us, and in a nice way. If you can, you should be jotting down memories, identifying pictures and so forth so your family can share in your good times. Thomas Campbell said, “To live in memories, is not to die.” Live it up, folks!

Image: Excerpted from: photo credit: The Library of Congress German Doctors at Ellis Island (LOC) via photopin (license)

Larry Usoff
Larry Usoff, US Navy Retired. Articulate. Opinionated. Patriotic. Conservative. Cultured enough so that I can be taken almost anywhere. Makes no excuses for what I say or do, but takes responsibility for them. Duty. Honor. Country. E-mail me at: