Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Home of the original Fretta’s Pork Store, Lenny’s Pizzeria and Roll-o-rama Bowling Alley. The place where Anna Stretti and Michael Cosentino received their first communion. A quiet neighborhood in the sixties, when news of John F. Kennedy’s demise and men traveling in spacecraft shocked a street-smart yet awfully naïve group of Italian-Americans.
Bensonhurst is located at the very south end of Brooklyn (not to be confused with South Brooklyn, which is actually to the North), off the pretty Narrows Bay that separates it from Staten Island. Many of its street names were preceded by the word “Bay,” such as “Bay 38th Street,” and to be sure, the smell of briny seawater has always been part of its charm. However, Bensonhurst was never much of a fishing village. It actually began as a farming community before the turn of the century, and indeed many weedy, overgrown “lots,” or unoccupied pieces of land, still existed in the sixties when the neighborhood was about 75% Italian-American. Although quite a normal American town at first glance, a walk through Bensonhurst’s narrow, tree and fire hydrant lined blocks was both a passage through the cherished memories of Southern Italy, and the new hopes and dreams of America. Some stoic, freestanding homes still stood, built mainly by the Irish and White Protestants who first inhabited the fairly flat and countrified landscape. The Italians, however, preferred to build tidy, attached or semi attached homes of sturdy, red brick. Of course, tiny, postage stamp gardens fronting these homes dotted the blocks, enclosed by fanciful and freshly painted black iron fences. And although these bits of land bloomed with those beloved roses Neapolitans so often sing about, the Italians turned Bensonhurst into something not quite city, yet not at all as rural or suburban as in its beginning years. Most houses offered stoops, either grey cement or brick. That’s where sticky summer evenings were spent playing cards and laughing about family calamities.
The Italian-Americans of nineteen sixties Bensonhurst were proud of their homes, and their neighborhood. Working class people, middle to upper middle class. In those days very few mothers worked; instead, they elected to stay home to rear their brood, and to keep the plastic on the upholstery clean! These are the ladies who single handedly ran their households (“I let him think he’s boss, then I do what has to be done!”) Quite a breed. Above sixty years of age, it was all about wearing black for the continuous deaths they encountered in families where 100 members were the norm. The younger constituents were fashion plates, all high heels and furs and green eye shadow. This was the sixties, after all! Good mothers, though, all of them. They were, in fact, keepers of all of their neighbors’ children. Kids migrated from one finished basement to the next, playing with GI Joes and Barbie dolls. Just a scream out the window, “Emma, is he there!” got the relieving response “Yeah, he’s in the cellar with my Joey!”
“Goin’ on the avenue” always meant at least a half a day’s shopping on 86th Street, the main drag. Proudly sitting under the West End elevated train, this noble if not a bit worn for wear street was flanked with every imaginable vendor. Sparkling clean fish, butcher and deli shops vied for business using garish red and yellow window signs announcing “Live Snails Today!,” “Pork Chops, .99 lb” and “We cater!” Produce shops literally spilled onto sidewalk stands, boasting raging red peppers, sunshine yellow corn, spring green broccoli rape – every vibrant color represented from local New Jersey and Long Island farms. Italian imports, too. Of course, clothes, hardware, houseware and shoe stores abounded. Double-parked cars sat as busy Bensonhurstites scurried to and fro these ma and pa shops. Irritated car horns and the almost unbearable rumbling of the overhead B train pulling into the Bay Parkway station intermingled with either southern Italian dialects or the local Brooklynese, or a lingua franca combination of both.
Here and there, peppered throughout Bensonhurst, were the neighborhood schools, either public or Roman Catholic. Still not refurbished in the sixties, these buildings all looked alike: red brick, square, unappealing. Students walking to school could be identified by their garb: Roman Catholic girls wore uniform jumpers of bright green and red plaid (a remnant, no doubt, of the strong Celtic contingency in the early New York church, yet so totally foreign to Italian couture and sensibilities). Their male counterparts wore blue slacks and red ties. The public school kids went sixties casual. Whether they attended PS 101 or St. Mary’s, though, most children in the Bensonhurst of the sixties learned to play life in the Schoolyard. Stickball taught them camaraderie and competition. Hop Scotch instructed them on poise. Standing in line taught them discipline. The streets, however, were the place where the latest fads caught the fascination of these young minds all throughout the decade. The summer craze consisted of Scully, a giant board game, sketched out on the concrete or street with chalk. Kids moved from one box to another sliding bottle caps filled with melted crayons or tar from the pavement. Top spinning tournaments dominated the Fall, while Winter was all about building go carts and constructing shacks in the empty lots. Spring was welcomed by Yo Yo competitions. And contrary to many rumors, trees grew profusely in Brooklyn, and children played under and in them, just as their suburban contemporaries did, all year round.
Like so many neighborhoods of New York City, Bensonhurst was not immune to the tides of change. As children became more educated than their parents, they moved on to Manhattan, or to their Mother’s dismay, New Jersey! Parents, at first reluctant, soon followed to be closer to grandchildren. Little by little, other ethnic groups moved in; Asians and Russians, mostly. Yes, Bensonhurst is different now. But not to the second generation Asians and Russians who will write about it in years to come. Bensonhurst will always belong to someone.