Posts Tagged ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’

The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement

January 30, 2012

That would be the air shaft—the slender opening between tenements that developers built to satisfy an 1879 requirement mandating a window facing outdoors in every room.

These shafts did provide a bit of air and light. Unfortunately, they also functioned as dumps, with tenants tossing their waste down the air shaft, rendering them funnels of filth and disease.

Just how disgusting was it? This passage conveys it well. It’s from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty’s Smith’s account (based on her own childhood) of a young girl growing up in a Williamsburg slum:

“The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody’s business. Rats scurried around the bottom. There was always the danger of fire. A match absently tossed into the airshaft by a drunken teamster set the house afire in a moment.

“There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since the bottoms couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody clothes were the most innocent items.

“Once Francie looked down into the airshaft. She thought of what the priest said about Purgatory and figured it must be like the airshaft bottom only on a larger scale.”

“The lovely span of the Williamsburg Bridge”

April 18, 2010

This Williamsburg Bridge postcard looks like it depicts the bridge when it was built in 1903. Perhaps it hasn’t opened, since there’s no traffic.

It was the same bridge that captivated Francie Nolan, the dreamy, imaginative protagonist from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which tells the story of a poor Williamsburg family around 1910.

“Johnny took Francie up on the roof. She saw a whole new world. Not far away was the lovely span of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across the East River, like a fairy city made of silver cardboard, the skyscrapers loomed cleanly.”

Later, as a teenager who had to quit school to work in Manhattan, Francie is disappointed by the bridge.

“Looking at it from the roof of her house, she had thought that crossing it would make her feel like a gossamer-winged fairy flying through the air. But the actual ride over the bridge was no different than the ride above the Brooklyn streets.

“The bridge was paved in sidewalks and traffic roads like the streets of Broadway and the tracks were the same tracks.”