1940’s New York Sanitation Building (written by David Van Pelt)
This is not your run-of-the-mill diorama of a random street scene from the 1940s. Far from it. If you look past the garbage cans, the sanitation building and the wildlife, there are stories lurking that are waiting to be told. Stories that were shared by Anthony Alaimo who grew up in this neighborhood during the 1940s and 1950s.
Take for instance the letters on the wall “Prospect Street Field Home of the Prospect Street Angels.” This was indeed the home of a youth gang called the Angels who had begun around the end World War 2. They didn’t have much, but what they had they protected with the enthusiasm of an army of Roman centurions. Not only did the letters declare the street was theirs, it was a warning to those from the outside who were foolish enough to cross into Angel country.
The Angels were so poor they had to pick through the slum houses in the neighborhood just to find a half-filled paint can left behind. Some of the paint was so old, a stick and some linseed oil was needed to coax it out.
Even something as simple as the manhole cover that you see on the sidewalk has a story to tell. Other than covering a hole in the street, manhole covers served as a base in a game called fistball and even used to give directions to a stranger looking for a certain house: The Alaimo house is the one straight back from the second manhole cover.
These were made of a very heavy metal which at the time would have been perfect to cash in at a scrap yard. With the war going on, Brooklyn neighborhoods had scrap drives looking for any metal that could be found to “feed the hungry belly of a war machine.” This scrap metal was used for bullets, vehicles, aircraft and anything to keep the army supplied. Someone once even tried cashing in a manhole cover in one of these scrap drives.
In front of the paint can used to scrawl the Angel’s message on the brick wall there is a discarded newspaper. But it’s not any old newspaper. Although it’s not a copy of the Daily News or the Daily Mirror, which were the biggest sellers in a blue-collar neighborhood, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was also read. Look closely at the newspaper. You can see it is an issue from 1945 with “VE-DAY” emblazoned across the front page.
VE-Day on May 8, 1945, was a day for the ages. One of the neighborhood lads etched out “DOT DOT DOT DASH in the sand at the gas tank lot. Three dots and a dash was Morse code for the letter V, the sign of victory. And what a day that was. People crying in the streets. House wives banging pots and pans, cars blowing their horns; screams of “it’s over!” As Anthony eloquently shared, “America was one nation; tears and language were all the same.”
The tears were not only borne from happiness. Anthony had tasted that bitter pill all too often. His Uncle Tony who served in the 101st Airborne Division had died serving his country, brought to a standstill in the prime of his life by a sniper’s bullet in Holland somewhere. Actually, the family wasn’t even sure he died from a sniper’s bullet. So few details were provided, that they could only really wonder how he died. In a terrible poignancy too horrible to describe, he died on the same day his son was born back in America. On VE-Day, Tony’s wife Antoinette held a picture of her dead husband up to the sky, crying and screaming; alien, strange screams that came from somewhere deep in her belly. Where did those anguished howls come from? Fear? Loneliness? Confusion? Sorrow?
Antoinette never came to grips with her husband dying on a foreign battlefield and on that crazy, emotional VE-Day she was heard saying, “He’s coming home, he’s coming home, thank-you dear God – he’s coming home!” She went into a deep denial and refused to have his body shipped home. When news reels of the war played at the theater, she watched intently for the love of her life to walk across the silver screen. But Tony wasn’t coming home on that day or any day. The euphoria of a horrid war finally ending was brewed directly from the tears and torment of thousands of widows and children who would never know who their father was, other than staring at an old black-and-white photo on a fireplace mantle. The neighborhood of the Brooklyn Navy yard area – which is where this diorama is from – lost many good men in the war. Death was a constant companion and for the Alaimo family, the smell of flowers and formaldehyde wafted through a house cruelly reminding them that it was no longer home.
If you have read this far, no doubt you saw the intriguing two-level aspect of the diorama, with the underground sewer serving as a base. This was one area where the Angels never went. They were frightened off by the adults who told them they would get polio if they went underground. When the city workers toiled below in the stinking water, they wore chest-high boots and slipped on handkerchiefs or masks. They never allowed the neighborhood kids to follow them.
Even the pigeons pecking for their supper on the sidewalk have a small story to tell. Back in those days, raising pigeons was a big deal. From Mafia bosses, to hospital CEO’s, to garbage men – in fact, all walks of life – shared a passion for raising and racing pigeons. The pigeons in this picture wouldn’t have been considered good enough for sport and were called rat pigeons. All that they were good for was to serve as a meal for the occasional hawk swooping down onto the street. Even though these street pigeons had no racing qualities, they remind old Brooklynites and neophytes alike that a robust pigeon industry had spanned all across New York City.
Even though this time and era is long gone, when a diorama like this is married to Anthony’s anecdotes, it is then that memories are kept alive.
The last words are left to Anthony:
“We were FAMILY. We laughed and cried together . Soon the laughing just seemed to stop and crying or dead silence took over. I don’t know what happened. It was just like a snap on your finger (TIME?). Little by little the chairs at the kitchen table got less and less…And then there was none.”
Special thanks to Anthony Alaimo whose vivid memories and words were used in helping co-write this article.
20”w x 5”d x 12.5”h.