On Friday morning of the long Memorial Day weekend I, along with 5 family members, met "NY Like A Native" guide Norman Oder outside a coffee shop on Nostrand Ave, across from the old Girls High School - deep in the heart of the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. For the next 2 1/2 hours Norman led us on a walking tour of a slice of Bed Stuy where my Father had grown up back in the late 1920's, through the mid 1950's. In many respects this was a memorial tour, prompted by my Father's passing a few months ago out in California. Over his entire lifetime my Dad had regaled his family members of what it was like growing up in Bed Stuy as a young man. Now, back in NYC for my son's wedding later that weekend, it seemed perfectly timed for this group of urbane Los Angelenos and San Franciscans to make a sort of "pilgrimage" to my Dad's heritage.
This was a customized tour that I had arranged with Norman, and Norman did not disappoint. He was incredibly well prepared, and was quick with a mixture of historical, demographic, cultural, social, architectural, and economic information to engage all of us (ages ranging from 13 to 60). I felt as though I had been transported into a college classroom experience.
Norman's intense preparation shined through as we stood outside the storefront where my Dad first lived on Gates Avenue in the 1920's and 30's, and he shared with us the transaction history of the building up to the present, beginning in 1900 when the storefront building was first constructed (drawn from building/tax records). Other highlights included a walk through the local park - previously named Tompkins Park, but renamed Herbert Von King Park in the 1970's, Boys High, and walking both lush tree-lined and barren streets of the neighborhood, which is in the early stages of some serious gentrification. We experienced some interesting contrasts in walking a block shared by a liquor store designed like a fortress replete with bullet proof glass surrounding the register, next door to a hipster organic coffee shop.
Norman ran our tour efficiently, and was as knowledgable as what you'd expect from a College professor. He also had the good sense in ending our tour to mix in a walk through the Pratt Institute's sculpture garden in bucolic Clinton Hill, before depositing us at a great pizza joint.
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