Always a future for ghosts of past in The Bronx

August 07, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK -- We took the subway to The Bronx, though everyone said this was dangerous. We wanted a peek at Yankee Stadium while there was still time. We left the stadium and walked up to the Grand Concourse, though everyone said this was suicidal. We wanted a glimpse of the old apartment house, whose time had long since passed.

The apartment house was located at 1269 Grand Concourse. My grandmother raised two children there a long time ago, and my mother had moved back in with her when my father went off to the war, and I'd been born there a few months later.

There were relatives all over the place back then: an uncle, barely 16, who'd rushed my mother to the hospital the night I arrived, and cousins and aunts and uncles, all living within a few blocks, whose lives I've known mainly from stories passed down of the infinite small pleasures of yesterdays in The Bronx: of suppers on the fire escape, and sweltering afternoons playing on the roof the kids called Tar Beach, and stickball games in the street.

One by one, everybody in the family went away. My father came home when the war ended, and he and my mother and I moved Baltimore a few years later. Then my mother's brother came here. Cousins moved to Queens and to Jersey, and uncles and aunts grew old and moved south to Miami and so, long ago, had my grandmother.

The neighborhood in The Bronx is all black and Puerto Rican now. We knew this strictly from news reports, which made vague reference to race and overt reference to troubles. Nobody in the family had gone back in many years. Everybody preferred to remember the Grand Concourse of dear memory.

So we took the subway to Yankee Stadium and intended to go no further. We figured we'd watch a ballgame while there was still time, while the newspapers here all talked of the imperious Yankees threatening to join the exodus from The Bronx, and then we would go home.

The reasons for the Yankees' threats are a little hazy. The owner, George Steinbrenner, says people are too frightened to come to his stadium. But the cynics say Steinbrenner's a liar, that he wants a modern ballpark like Baltimore's, where he can install skyboxes and make money beyond the counting, and forget all that hallowed baseball history now dragging him down.

It's clear Steinbrenner is already packing his bags. On a sunny weekend afternoon, Yankee Stadium seems vacated already. Concessions are opened only here and there. Souvenir stands, which might hold treasure troves of Yankee lore, instead offer only a few trinkets. It feels as if Steinbrenner no longer wants people to come here, as a way of making his case for leaving such sacred ground.

We left after five innings. The game was slow, and the crowd of 20,000 nearly silent, and there was a sense of wanting something more intimate. Out there in right field, my father had cheered the great Ruth; outside the ballpark's gates, my uncle had spotted Gehrig and today, half a century later, still talks of it.

Up there on the Grand Concourse, though, that's where my family had lived, and where I'd been born and visited into my teens, and where the family's history in this country had some of its earliest days.

"Is it safe to take a walk on the Concourse?" we asked a cop.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, probably," he said. "It's daylight. There's a lot of traffic up there."

So we went. I can't exactly explain why it was important to go, but it was. I think it had to do with family stories passed through the years, with fire escape suppers and stickball games, and also with paying respects to all manner of ghosts.

And maybe, also, to see if The Bronx is as bad as everybody -- Steinbrenner, and the news reports, and the instincts of thousands of families who'd fled -- insists that it is. I can't give you an answer on the last. I can tell you that we were edgy, but we kept walking. I can tell you there were people everywhere, and we didn't look them in the eye because we thought it might invite trouble.

But there was no trouble. We walked from 161st Street to 169th, about three-quarters of a mile, and we saw scores of people picnicking in a little park, and scores more along the sidewalks, sitting on beach chairs or front stoops, playing music on the radio, parents calling to children, the children overheated and at loose ends, and everyone paying no attention at all to us.

We finally found my grandmother's old apartment building, and it precisely matched my memories except for one detail: In front of a little courtyard, there's now an iron fence with a lock, intended to keep intruders out.

That's The Bronx we've heard about: so dangerous that people put up fences and locks where none existed before. But there was also a Bronx we hadn't heard about: signs of large new buildings going up in several places, squadrons of kids still innocent as any in suburbia, and neighbors sitting in the afternoon glare and enjoying each other's company.

Years from now, maybe they'll remember their own days in The Bronx with the same warmth my family has for its own time here. The news reports tell us about the crime, but miss all the infinite small pleasures. We walked back to Yankee Stadium feeling as if we'd made a pilgrimage into the past. The subway ride back was a breeze.

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