Friday, August 9, 2013

The WAVE: Block Parties and Block Genealogy

Published in The WAVE, August 9, 2013

Block Parties and Block Genealogy
By Norm Scott

Sandy recovery efforts take a number of forms. There are still contractors on my block every day and a dumpster on the corner. But one of the clearest signs of recovery are the block parties that this year have a very special meaning. We had ours last Saturday.

Summer has always been a time for block parties in Belle Harbor and points east and west. You can find them by the extremely loud DJs, sometimes blasting away past midnight. Or cars parked on streets that are usually clear on weekends. Or the sounds of an enormous number of kids having the time of their lives - and exasperated adults trying to keep track of them.

The day after we moved in, August 1979 , there was a block party the next day. People on the block were very kind in greeting born and bred Brooklynites invading a block of multi-generation Rockaway natives. After thirty four years we are still the newbies on our end of the block with four of our nearest neighbors with more seniority. One of them was born in the house 86 years ago. As I see he and another 86 year old neighbor scamper around I take a deep breath of Rockaway air.

Our block hasn’t had many block parties since the 80s. Kids grew up. (I wonder what an adult only block party looks like). In the days and weeks after Sandy with everyone outside, people bonded. There was talk about how we will celebrate our recovery at the summer block party. That seemed so far away.

Organizing takes time and effort and us old folks are often not up to it. Newer families with kids are up to the job. Our block party began with a breakfast hosted by a couple, both police who been on the block for about 5 years, with such generosity of spirit and warmth. We got to talk to people we had barely had contact with, one who has been there for 30 years. I guess it takes a block party – or a massive hurricane – to bring people together.

The mood soon turned somber with the street renaming ceremony for Michael Glover, who spent his early years on the block where his mom had a house directly across the street from his
grandparents. I only remember Michael from his early years when he lived two houses away. There was a marine honor guard, traditional bagpipes, a fire engine and a big crowd moved by the speeches, one by a marine buddy who witnessed his death in Iraq in 2006 and was the first to reach him. Another by his mentor, a Ranger, who went back to the location of his death to honor him. It was raining throughout the ceremony and that seemed appropriate. The sign at the corner was unveiled to many sad cheers. We found out that Michael’s first cousin, who spoke at the ceremony, was buying the house next door to us, another wonderful facet of the rich history of our block.

The sun did shine in the afternoon as the party heated up and guests arrived. I was enjoying all the excitement but at times melancholia and nostalgia intruded as I thought about all the people who have lived on the block. Some moved. Others died. Just last week one of our former neighbors passed away. She was a Rockaway lion. I thought of my former next door neighbors who both died of cancer within a short time of each other over 20 years ago. Also Rockaway lions. We were thrilled to see their eldest daughter at the ceremony for Michael.

As the day went on and I ran into people those names kept coming up. A visiting former resident said, “Oh, you live in the Gerber house. We used to play on the lot before it was built.” That was over 50 years ago. It only becomes “your” house after you’re gone. If you hear it referred to as the “Scott” house check the obits.

As the party wound down late into the night, I sat on my porch thinking about the history of the block and all the stories surrounding it and what an interesting way to tell the history of a neighborhood. I realized I knew almost nothing about even nearby blocks and what a fascinating way for some historian to tell the story of Rockaway through block genealogy.

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