Monday, September 26, 2022

I was in the first class (56-59) at George Gershwin JHS in East NY Bklyn - Happy B-Day George

UPDATE: Jimmy Smits who I knew went to Jefferson HS, just said on TV he also went to George Gershwin JHS where he was on Damn Yankees. I remember the great theater programs there -- and also a teacher or guidance counselor named Miss Smits. Hmmmm!
I sub to the daily posting, The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor (free sub) and the b-day of George Gershwin reminded me of how remarkable it was for a major new school complex that opened in East NY in 1956 was named after a musician who had died at an early age - 39 in 1937 - just think - less than 20 years and he has a school named after him. And his brother Ira came to the school and even wrote the school song -- 

There's a bit of personal history related to the coming neighborhood white flight out of ENY. The school was place on Linden Blvd and Van Sicklen  - a few blocks east of Pennsylvania Ave, not far from the future Starrett City - about a half mile walk for many of us. For decades, kids in my area had gone to Strauss JHS 109 on Strauss St in Brownsville which had already experienced white flight and the white parents in my area had been complaining about the walk we had to take to get there. The school was in a very old building from the 1890s named after the Strauss family that died on the Titanic.

Older students told us about rookying - where the incoming 7th graders were harassed and that fear became a big deal. As the new school year in 1956 rolled around, the new school wasn't quite ready to open and we had to go to the old school they told us for a month. But after the first day of rookying, parents were outraged and after the 2nd day they pulled the entire 7th grade out and sent us to the unfinished Gershwin which was still having its roof put on I believe.
It was heaven - for a month - a new gleaming school - in a fairly newly settled area of  Brooklyn which was almost all white. A month later the rest of the JHS 109 8th and 9th grades came over with the entire staff. The school number was changed to JHS 166. For the Brownsville kids it was quite a walk and they got bus passes.

Along with the school, we also got a massive complex of playgrounds, basketball courts and a full sized football field with real grass -- that part took almost a year to finish. 

While the JHS 109 rep was not good, the JHS 166 school with mostly the same kids - well, probably much more white - was considered one of the best in Brooklyn at the time. There were 16 classes on a grade -- I was in 7-16 -- they reversed the numbers that year - so 7-1 was the tough class. Generally, there were two top level performing classes on each grade -- the school fed into Thomas Jefferson HS -- the only kids who didn't go on to there were the ones who passed the Brooklyn Tech and Stuy tests -- and we were given after school prep for those tests - which I still bombed out on.

Decades later, as even that new at the time white neighborhood began to experience white flight, the poverty in the area increased and the school by the Bloomberg era was considered a failure and charter schools, including the UFT middle school charter (which ultimately failed) were installed and the JHS 166 school was replaced. So the very promising George Gershwin JHS disappeared into history a half century after it began.
I previously wrote about the closing of Gershwin (all 3 of the schools I went to as a kid ended up being closed) ten years ago: Tweed Terminates and my family history 5 years ago: My Family History of White Flight From East New York in the 60s.
And I placed some blame on the UFT for opening a competing charter school in the same building: Saturday, February 28, 2015 UFT Closes Charter: UFT Charter Created Wrecked Co-Located Public Schools in its Wake .
Here is Keillor's post today:

Today is the birthday of the composer George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He was the middle child in a tight-knit family of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. When his father bought a piano for his brother Ira, George sat right down on the bench and started to play. At 15, he left school to work on Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, a sort of house musician for the music companies. Gershwin had an ear for arrangement, and before long, he was writing his own songs. His first one earned him just $5, but soon he was turning out hits such as “Swanee,” which sold in the millions.

Encouraged by this early success, Gershwin partnered with his brother Ira and began composing full Broadway operas. The two produced popular musicals, including Funny Face (1927) and Strike Up the Band! (1930). At the age of 25, Gershwin premiered his “Rhapsody in Blue,” and later “An American in Paris,” which featured accompaniment written for taxi horns. These compositions became orchestral standards. In 1935, he composed his folk-opera, Porgy and Bess, which features such classic songs as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” In 1936, at the end of its original run in Washington, D.C., the cast successfully protested segregation at the National Theatre, leading to the venue’s first-ever integrated performance.


Anonymous said...

I was in the first graduating class and was thrilled to no longer have to walk from Williams and Sutter. Nobody seems to remember Mr Sirisky who conducted the orchestra. I attended Jeff for 1 year before moving to Far Rockaway

ed notes online said...

I was in 7-16, 8-2 and 9-1.
First grad class too. 59.
My walk was from Alabama and Riverdale.
The big field wasn’t finished till the second year I think.