Monday, October 31, 2011

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

This is the latest in a series of books that were the perfect thing for me to be reading during what was going on in my life in New York right then. Since my second week here, almost two years ago, I had worked at a social services agency in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a working-class, largely Hispanic community where a lot of young people from outside New York are moving for affordable rents and access to the L train. Ten or fifteen years ago, those same kids would have moved to Williamsburg, which is also along the L train, closer to Manhattan. Parts of Williamsburg are becoming expensive, but some of the housing projects and ratty old large apartment buildings look pretty much the same as I expect they did 50 years ago, and in the case of the apartment buildings, maybe more.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is set in Williamsburg, just north of Broadway off the J train (it's referred to as the El in the book, a reference to it being an above-ground train I think). Then as now, the parts of Williamsburg off the J train are poorer than the L train regions, teeming with immigrants, overcrowded apartments and small shops.

Several of my coworkers grew up on Williamsburg's south side, as some call it, the children of poor immigrants just like Francie, the main character, and her family. The immigrants are largely Puerto Rican (they're not technically immigrants but still need to learn English) and Dominican now, but the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods in the book are still semi-intact to this day, although few recent immigrants live there anymore.

Point being, the book helped me reflect on everything I had learned in the last two years, how New York changes constantly, but at the same time, some things never change. It's a classic of young adult literature about a bookish girl finding her way in the world and about the struggles of a poor urban family in the years before World War I when the world, as was New York, was becoming a different place.

I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn yesterday. Tomorrow I start a new job in the Bronx.

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