The Park Slope that Kevin McPartland remembers in his newly-released novel Brownstone Dreams is one that most current residents wouldn’t recognize. It’s a working-class world of stickball tournaments and street gangs, hidden handguns and unspoken alliances. It’s 1962, and it follows the young Bobby Dutton as he falls too deep into the violence of the Brooklyn streets.
Kevin paints a vivid and at times heartbreaking picture of the era, thanks in equal part to his lived history and his skilled storytelling. The story is culled from his experiences growing up in the Slope, imbued with memories of the neighborhood spots he frequented and the people who joined him.
“I was a street kid,” he says. “So even though they were rough, I felt very comfortable on the streets.”
We talk about the novel and Kevin’s past over coffee at Roots Cafe in South Slope, where we’re joined by Louise Crawford of Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn. She and Kevin became acquainted after working in the same writers’ group for two years, and she speaks of the novel with praise and admiration.
“Everyone in the group loved Brownstone Dreams and couldn’t wait to hear the new chapters that he would bring in week to week,” she tells us. “Seeing the book published is really gratifying. The book means a lot to me because I’ve spent years writing about the ‘new’ Park Slope, and Kevin represents old Park Slope, the Park Slope just below the surface of the new.”
Kevin started writing the novel back in 1995, an undertaking which he says was “more out of therapy than anything else.” He draws on his experience and that of his cousin, on whom the main character Bobby is based, and who died tragically after years of heroin addiction. Kevin himself lived most of his childhood with his grandparents at 481 5th Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets. He went to high school at John Jay and killed time with his friends in the PS 124 schoolyard.
He recalls 1960s Park Slope as a blue collar neighborhood. Most fathers worked in construction, as iron workers, or longshoremen on the piers, and most of the young men aimed for civil service. Alcohol was ingrained in the culture and drugs were becoming increasingly prevalent. When asked if he remembers the time fondly, Kevin doesn’t mince words.
“No,” he says. “I wanted to get out. People left. They left dead, or they went in the military. Some stayed.”
Kevin did get his way out — at 17 years old, when he enlisted in the military and left for a 14-month stint in Vietnam. But what was it about growing up in Brooklyn that made heading to war seem like a better option? As Kevin describes both in conversation and in the novel, the violence of the street gangs could prove similarly dangerous.
“It was a particular rivalry,” he says. “Gangs out here were known as South Brooklyn, and then 7th Avenue was the Jokers. The Jokers and Tigers were up there. Downtown, like Butler Street, you had the Butler Street Gents, and then if you went up around Prospect Park, there were a lot of racial troubles… It was distinct borders. My world was very small. Living between 11th and 12th on 5th, I had no business going on the other side of 9th Street. I had no business crossing Prospect Avenue, or particularly going up to 7th Avenue.”
Much of the conflict in Brownstone Dreams stems from one moment of trespassing those boundaries, depicting the brutal consequences that follow. Often, fights were arranged to settle the score.
“There were gang wars,” Kevin says. “A lot of them were at 3rd Street park. It was set up, sometimes between gangs, or sometimes one on one between individuals who had a beef with one another. And then that would escalate, someone would jump in, and then it would be groups, maybe fourteen milling around, people getting hit with baseball bats, people getting whipped with car antennas. You know, until it ran its course, or until some neighbor called the cops.
“It was like the mini Gangs of New York,” he adds, laughing. “Not that extreme. A lot would escape not that injured, but occasionally someone would be severely injured.”
Did he feel unsafe growing up?
“I was used to it. It was all I knew. I had to step back and look at it later in life, all of this, especially after the military. Only then, reflecting back, did I see. It was a different world.”
But it wasn’t all bad. They were still children, of course, and still passed time the way children do: in play.
“Stickball was a big deal,” Kevin recalls. “That’s what you did to pass time — triple headers, you know, seven-inning games. That went on for hours and hours, and the older guys had big money games down on 16th Street and 3rd Avenue.”
It was a thoroughly organized game, self-structured, and comprising teams from throughout the boroughs.
“Visiting stickball teams from Manhattan would come in, or other neighborhoods, and each would throw $5 in the pot, and there would actually be an award for the winners of the game.”
There was also singing, a surprising pastime which had groups of neighborhood kids harmonizing popular songs on street corners. Kevin and his friends “dabbled” in it, but mostly he remembers witnessing the others. A popular spot? The 7th Avenue F/G station, which offered a great echo. And of course, there were the local businesses which functioned as after-school hangouts: Moe’s candy shop at 5th Avenue and 15th Street (now a bodega), the pool hall at 11th Street and 5th Avenue, among others.
Still, these pastimes were colored by heavy alcohol and drug use. Kevin describes a typical Friday night:
“We were usually getting high. Stickball was over, and one of the older guys would get us quart bottles of Rheingold [beer], cheap wine. Then the airplane glue got involved; then the pills got involved — tuinals, which was a barbiturate. My whole group was into that [airplane glue], sniffing yourself into a stupor. Why we did that, I don’t know.”
As is often the case, Kevin’s feelings toward his childhood are conflicted, warmed by nostalgia but also understanding — now, with distance — the true danger of the circumstances. It’s this conflict which gives Brownstone Dreams such depth.
“It’s not this rosy, nostalgic view of pre-gentrification Brooklyn,” Louise chimes in. “It’s kind of bracing. It was really tough, and divided.”
Kevin returned to Park Slope in 1967, traveling from a war zone in Vietnam right back to 5th Avenue. He immediately left.
“I came back, and I found the same sh*t, you know?” he says. “I matured a little. I survived Vietnam. I said, I ain’t staying here.”
He got an apartment out in Bay Ridge (he jokes, “Of course now I regret not thinking, Ooh I should buy a brownstone on 10th Street for about $14,000. Had I had my crystal ball…”) where he stayed for ten years. From there, he moved out to Staten Island, where he still lives surrounded by his family: his wife, two children, and four grandchildren, with another one on the way. Today he spends almost as much time in Park Slope as he does at home, but the return was gradual.
“I ended up working at the phone company, and I started working in trucks out here,” he says. “I started to get very nostalgic for my old neighborhood, seeing the changes. I was in the yards, climbing on roofs, putting in phones, and I said, ‘Wow, I still love Brooklyn.’”
His involvement in the Park Slope community grew deeper after he was accepted into the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, where he was able to work on rewrites of the novel. Soon he was frequenting local restaurants and bars (he particularly likes The Gate) and, in his words, “getting a feel for the new Park Slope.”
“I mean, I like new Brooklyn! I like new Park Slope,” he says. “The thing that strikes me is the buildings are the same. It’s a weird feeling, you know, to see that this street looks exactly the same, but the neighborhood is different– so different now. It strikes me as bittersweet.”
And in a neighborhood that is populated more and more by transplants, there is a sense of ownership and pride in knowing that he was here from the beginning.
“I get a kick out of that,” he says, laughing. “I like saying I was born and raised here.”