Brooklyn On Line - Bedford Styuvesant - Memories
Say the words Tar Beach to any senior citizen, like myself, who were former Bed-Stuy residents and see the smile that comes in their faces as those strong memories of a pleasurable yesterday returns to them.
Before the era of hair dryers and tanning salons there was TAR BEACH.
We the youthful residents of the southside of St. Johns Place, between Nostrand and New York Avenues, considered ourselves fortunate in living in those 1880s built tenements. We had a whole city block of directly connected roofs as an auxiliary playground to the streets and backyards of our neighborhood.
One could reach Tar Beach in two ways. The first was via the interior tenement stairways to the metal (supposed to guard against fires) roof door. The other way was to scale up the fire escapes abutting our miniscule kitchens, from floor to floor, and finally gaining access to the roof and Tar Beach via the metal fire escape ladder.
The entire roof was covered with a tar/gravel base which bubbled in the summer heat and which many of us, the children, used as a chewing gum subsitute. Of course being careful not to bite down on any pieces of the imbedded gravel. Much of the roof and its tar/gravel surface was covered with wooden planking. This allowed us to keep both the tar from our shoes and the noise of our frolicking from reaching the third floor tenements whose ceilings were directly under Tar Beach.
Neighborhood girls in there ever shrinking bathing suits would catch the sun's rays on Tar Beach. Both in hoping to catch the attention and, of course, the admiration of the young men and to tan themselves before the Coney Island Summer Season began.
Tar Beach became a wonderful location for picture taking, as the great light with few shadows and the background of Bed-Stuy, from this height, all contributed to make for fine pictures even with the primitive Kodak and Brownie cameras and slow/grainy films of our times. Neighbors would be asked to take family pictures of other neighbors as they dolled up in their Sunday best and trudged up the stairs to Tar Beach. This was before the beach chair era. We would carry up our good kitchen chairs and set them up on the wooden roof flooring on Tar Beach. Of course, all the while, with our Mother's advisement, "Don't forget those chairs when you come down from the roof," ringing in our ears.
It was literally possible to walk a full city block, across the roofs, without having to set foot on a sidewalk.
We had a local gal, living on the top floor of a near New York Avenue tenements who left the shades up on her airshaft bedroom window. She knew full well, this little vixen, that while she undressed she was providing many of the neighborhood guys, who were watching her from the roof, with a free strip and peep show.
My friend Paddy Devereaux, who lived in a tenement closer to Nostrand Avenue, kept pigeons in coops that he constructed out of chicken wire and orange crates on his section of the roof over his tenement. This provided us with great (free) entertainment as Paddy was on a first name basis with all of his flock. He would enter them in distant flying contests and we would gather by his coops to await the return of Blackie, Big Girl, Plenty O' Feathers and his other favorites flyers to return to their Tar Beach roosts.
In the excitement, first of V-E Day, when Tar Beach became a shooting gallery as we used a neighbor's air rifle to plink out the light bulbs which illuminated Harf's Butcher Shop sign on Nostrand Avenue. Then on V-J Day we threw a blizzard of torn up newspapers and magazines from Tar Beach to the street below. It was August 1945, but when we finished St. Johns Place looked like a blizzard had just filled the street below with snow.
After the war when radios again became available in retail shops, I purchased a used short-wave radio set. My bedroom was on an airshaft on the top floor of the 865 St. Johns Place tenement. To improve reception, I developed an antenna system using two eight foot bamboo fishing poles. I lashed these to the Tar Beach vent pipes and put a 100 foot copper line with glass insulators on either end between them. At the center point of the wire, I fastened a copper downwire, with ceramic insulators, which then dropped down the airshaft into my window and was then anchored to the exterior antenna jack of my transoceanic short-wave radio. For its time this was state of the art in home antenna science. I had many sleepless nights excitedly listening to foreign radio transmissions in English and in collecting the special cards which were mailed to individuals, like myself, who had received their signals. Several of my Tar Beach buddies copied my receiving setup. We were the only roof antennas and remained so until after 1947. There should be a Before 1947 and an After 1947 in Tar Beach History. Before 1947, my type of antenna was the only type to be found on Tar Beach and then After 1947 the rapid proliferation of television antennas sprouted until long about the 1950s, it looked like a forest of metal on Tar Beach. Some of the smarter, daring and more technically proficient Tar Beachers would keep their eyes open when making a Tar Beach reconnaissance. When they found a larger and more state of the art television antennas they would piggyback their lead-in wire to the better reception equipment.
In college, we studied that wonder Matthew Arnold poem, "Dover Beach," in which the poet mused about that locale. I feel the same way about my relationship and remberances associated with Tar Beach and all the hours that I spent wrapped in its cocoon.
I would be interested in hearing from any former resident of BEd-Stuy who remembers their Tar Beach.
865 St. Johns Place, Brooklyn, 16, New York
and now of
8002 Red Willow Drive, Austin, Texas 78736-1717