I was doing a writing exercise the other day; one where you list the loves you are “running after” in your current project, and how your writing might nurture that love. That made me smile. How many writers have just one project in the works? I had to choose between my first novel, its two sequels, and a musical based on the life of Jacob Riis. I picked the novel.
Imposter is set in 1904 Manhattan and Brooklyn. The majority of the action takes place in the neighborhood just south of Bellevue Hospital, on the streets around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and in Canarsie.
One of the loves that guides my project, I think, is my boyhood home, maybe your home too: Canarsie. When I thought about how to nurture my Canarsie love I listed the obvious: describe it accurately, bring it to life for my readers, and...and then I stopped. An image formed in my brain, but how could I convey it? I wrote, “give it a wink.”
Canarsie is, and probably was in 1904, a winky town. It’s been the butt of a thousand jokes. It’s a place every New Yorker knows about—they see it at the far southeast end of the maps on the walls of subway cars, and as an exit on the Belt Parkway—but not many have actually been to.
When Hollywood needs a symbol of a backward, backwater community, Canarsie is right there in the back of their minds. I remember as a kid on East 93rd Street watching an episode of I Spy called “Casanova from Canarsie.”
Why Canarsie? Good question. The community is never mentioned in the show. But they needed a title to convey a sense of lightheartedness. The episode was strictly tongue-in-cheek. It even featured Wally Cox, a character actor known for bringing TV shows comic relief. If you wanted to make people laugh in the 1960s, just throw in the name Canarsie. It even sounds funny.
Canarsians are actually proud of things like that. They are, like I said, “winky.” They know the rest of New York, Hollywood, and maybe the world see them as northern hillbillies and they don’t mind. They just look back with a slightly twisted grin and wink. As if to say, “We’ll accept your derision while we enjoy our semi-suburban lifestyle and maybe even take your cash while you’re not looking.” After all, it was the Canarsie clan of the Lenape who sold Manhattan—which they didn’t own—to the Dutch, and then took their $24 in trade goods back to Brooklyn with a wink.
Just north of the Canarsie Cemetery, the place where so many Baisleys are buried, lies Church Lane. It’s little more than an alley, and it drops from Remsen Avenue down into what in most parts of America would’ve called a “hollow,” a low lying area off the beaten track.
When I was growing up, Church Lane was a dirt path that ran from the north side of Grace Protestant Church west to East 86th Street. It rose and fell with the contours of what used to be farmland, creating two “suicide” hills for daredevil bikers.
Within the four-block area between 86th and Remsen, a half-dozen shanties used to sit. The families who lived there were old Canarsie stock. Although the little homes had all the amenities of city life—running water, indoor toilets, electricity—they looked like places you’d see in a movie set deep in the hills of southeastern Kentucky. The faces of the people who lived there were lined and hardened, probably inherited from their oysterman ancestors, but their lips easily bent to a smile.
I remember many a cold Christmas Eve venturing down to that hollow with the Grace Church carolers. One of our church families lived there. It seemed like we were walking into another world. Our voices echoed off the surrounding high ground. But the folks we visited made us feel welcome.
I miss that little hollow. While working on my first novel I tried to imagine what it was like in 1904. I described it as, “a few shanties that seemed to have been planted randomly by a drunken farmer.” I added, “The hollow at the bottom of Church Lane was a page from a history book. Even in the summer heat the air smelled of wood burning in ancient stoves. Neither the Brooklyn Union Gas Company nor the Kings Country Electric Light and Power Company had discovered this relic of old Brooklyn.”
Church Lane is fully paved now. The shanties are gone. The only house that remains from the 50s and 60s is a two-story dwelling on the edge of the hollow. Only the youngest bike riders get a thrill careering down a much tamer Suicide Hill. Grace Church is now the Church on the Rock. Everything changes. But you talk to a Canarsian, old or new, about their home, and they say how much they love it; what a special place Canarsie is. And they’ll say it with a wink.
I do hope you’re enjoying Tales of a Canarsie Boy. I’ll be adding new episodes in the months to come. By the way, if you’re from Canarsie and have a story to share, please contact me via this blog or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d love to include you as a guest blogger.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.