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Mark Naison

Oral history interview conducted by Obden Mondésir

January 04, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.3.07

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MONDESIR: Okay. Today is January 4th, 2017, a Wednesday. My name is Obden Mondésir, I'm from the Weeksville Heritage Center, and I'm with Dr. Mark Naison. And we are at the home of Dr. Mark Naison on -- we're on Eighth Avenue and Sixth Street?

NAISON: Sixth Street, yes.


NAISON: That's correct.

MONDESIR: In Park Slope. This interview is for the Brooklyn Historical Society Voices of Crown Heights project. Now, if you would please introduce yourself by giving your birthday, name, and where you were born?

NAISON: Sure. My name is Dr. Mark Naison. I'm a professor at Fordham University. I was born in Brooklyn at Long Island College Hospital. At the time, was living on Lefferts Avenue between Albany and Kingston in Crown Heights. And my date of birth is [date redacted for privacy], 1946.


MONDESIR: And if you mind, could you tell me first about your family, and the first house you grew up in?

NAISON: Sure. I grew up in 570 Lefferts Avenue. I think we probably moved there right after I was born, from Quonset huts where my parents had been living. My grandparents, maternal grandparents, lived right next door in 560 Lefferts Avenue, and my uncle and his wife lived in the same building, 570. So my family was Jewish. My -- I guess my parents were second generation, I was third generation, my grandparents on both sides were first generation. My other grandparents lived in Brownsville, on Hopkinson Avenue. My parents were 2:00bilingual. They spoke English and Yiddish. My grandparents spoke English haltingly, and conversed to a large degree in Yiddish. The neighborhood where I grew up was almost entirely Jewish and Italian, with a handful of African-American families and maybe one or two Irish families. So that's the setting. I've always lived in apartment houses, until we purchased this portion of a brownstone in 1976. 570 Lefferts Avenue was a six-story apartment building with an elevator. It overlooked a vest-pocket park, which is still there, and right across the street from that was P.S. 91, where I went to elementary school.

MONDESIR: Cool. Could you describe what the neighbors were mostly like?


NAISON: It -- it was an interesting neighborhood. You had -- the grandparents were mostly Yiddish or Italian-speaking. Parents were mostly working class, not college educated. My parents stood out because they were both schoolteachers. You know, people were cab drivers, truck drivers, owned small businesses. It was -- it was kind of a tough neighborhood. You know, every -- the neighborhood bookie held court right across the street. Kids did a lot of fighting. Academics were stressed in my household. Not so much in other households. I got made fun of for doing well in school. Sports was huge. We played every possible street game you could imagine. Stickball, punchball, you know, box 4:00baseball, handball, touch football. The -- Ebbets Field was seven blocks away, and we were obsessed with, you know, the Dodgers, with major-league baseball. What was interesting about it is, it was a time in history -- and I often comment on this -- when White kids in neighborhoods like mine had Black heroes. Because, you know, they -- we were fanatical sports fans. And at this time, major-league baseball was being integrated, professional basketball, pro football. So we didn't, you know, make distinctions by race. And, you know, and so people had this argument about whether -- who was the better center fielder, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Duke Snider. You know, I grew up as a 5:00basketball player. Admiring Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor. Basketball was the big sport in the neighborhood. My cousin Steven, who lived downstairs from us, played basketball at Columbia. You know, we had kids from our neighborhood who were playing in college. People aspired to play pros. The other big thing in the neighborhood was rock and roll. In fifth grade, I still remember, we started having rock-and-roll parties and collecting records. And, you know, I still remember Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" and then Little Anthony and the Imperials, Dion and the Belmonts. We all started singing doo-wop. So it was a -- it was a very interesting time to grow up in Brooklyn. Because it was -- I don't know. Our parents had a lot of fear, because of the Holocaust, of anti-Semitism, of the Depression. And they looked 6:00at America with -- an American society with a lot of caution and trepidation. We thought the sk-- I mean, again, I'm talking more as a sort of Jewish or Italian kid, we thought the sky was -- you know, now America was ours. That people like us could accomplish thi-- you know, incredible things. I didn't -- I didn't experience much anti-Semitism. I can't speak for what a Black kid who -- my age would have thought, because we didn't talk about race. Whether they saw the same opportunities, how racism was talked about in their families, it's not something we talked about. But again, I grew up with Black classmates. Not a lot of them. Black kids I played with. And then, when I ended up going to 7:00high school, Black teammates. So, it -- you know, but nobody ever -- we -- White -- White kids and Black kids didn't talk about race or racism, because it wasn't -- people didn't talk about that publically. That came later. So it was -- it was an interesting place to grow up. I mean, I think there were huge generational divides. Again, we're talking largely about Jewish and Italian people. The older generation, the grandparents, were not comfortable speaking English. The parents spoke two languages. And they'd been -- they'd lived through the Depression, and it scarred them. And they'd experienced discrimination. Whether, you know, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, or Italians being looked down on as the lowest of the low among the Catholics. And the kids, we were this -- these kids growing up in a time of peace, of prosperity, 8:00and when it seemed like people like us, you know, were going to college, we're -- we're, you know, major figures in popular music, we're in sports, so it was -- there was a lot of optimism and energy about the future. Which our parents may have not shared. Because once you went through the Depression, it scarred you. You thought if something good was go-- happening, it probably meant, like, catastrophe was around the corner.

MONDESIR: Okay. And you -- there were neighborhoods like Lequerville? Am I pronouncing it right?


MONDESIR: And Pigtown?

NAISON: Well, yeah. That was interesting. Because, I mean, it -- it was a rough division. We called our little neighborhood -- I don't know, I -- to the older kids, Lequerville, which is Lefferts Avenue, Kingston. Which was mostly 9:00Jewish, mostly people in apartment buildings or two or three-family houses. And then to the southeast was people called Pigtown, which was more Italian, where you had more homes that were probably, you know, one or two-family, maybe built by laborers themselves. And there was an Italian parish there. Not too far from Wingate High School. And there was this Italian festival, where they had all this food that was served. Now, later, that neigh-- when Wingate High School opened up, there would be tension between that little Italian neighborhood and Black students who were coming down from northern Crown Heights to go to Wingate. And there was some fighting. That -- that went on in Wingate and in the streets. Not in our section, but a little south. So-- And, but I 10:00did -- there wasn't great tension between the Jews and the Italians. There were elements of, like, class tension, maybe. You know, the Italian kids tended to be from maybe more blue-collar, the Jewish kids maybe a little more white-collar. You had this sense that there was a sort of organized-crime influence that was behind the scenes. All the older men gambled. There was a bookie. Barry Hamer was the bookie's son. And I had an interesting experience in elementary school. My parents, who were these highly ambitious schoolteachers who wanted to turn me into some sort of, you know, high-achieving genius, decided that they were going to skip me from third to fourth grade, 11:00because I scored very well on a reading test. And I had to do all sorts of -- I had to go -- I -- I mean I went to museums, I took piano lessons, I did -- none of this helped me with my neighborhood friends. It was like it made me a target for constant teasing. The only way I could deal with it was, like, by fighting or playing ball, which fortunately I was good in. It -- it's interesting. Are you familiar with The Hamilton Mixtape? You know -- you know the show Hamilton?


NAISON: Oh my -- okay. Well, it's this -- the hottest show on Broadway, and it's a hip-hop version --

MONDESIR: Oh, Ham-- okay, yeah. I know.



NAISON: Well, there's a mixtape, where hip-hop artists do -- do this, and one of the songs is "I Wrote My Way Out." And Lin-Manuel, who is the -- you know, the -- the -- the person who developed Hamilton, has a little rap there about, you know, getting beaten up in -- in his neighborhood because he was reading, 12:00and his father said, "Fight back," and his sister tapped him in the head and said, "You'll get back through that." So he ended up becoming almost an exile in his neighborhood. I -- I had the opposite approach. So here is -- here's the -- what happened. I go into third grade. And it turns out, a couple of the Italian kids have a little protection racket going in fourth grade. If you couldn't fight, you had to pay them a nickel a week. And then, at the end of the month, they'd take you to this little Italian deli and buy you a -- what they called a mush, which was Italian bread, mustard, and sauerkraut. So after about a month of paying them, I just said, "No." And I still remember, this guy Frankie hauled off and punched me in the jaw, and it had no effect on me whatsoever. So I started banging his head against the sidewalk. At which point they invited me to play in their football team. And I was not allowed to play 13:00tackle football, because my parents-- I don't know if they were afraid I was going to get hurt, because there was no evidence that much of anything could hurt me. They didn't like me associating with the class of people who played football. They felt I would be -- end up with the thugs. And so I -- I -- I started playing, but I had to sneak out. And I was very good. I mean, I would drag three, four kids down the field when I was -- had given the ball. I wasn't particularly fast. I was like a bull. So one day, my father finds out, and he comes running on the field and drags me off. He always went out with a sport jacket and a bow tie. And these are probably longshoremen. It was bad. Humiliated me in front of the whole neighborhood. So this was, you know, the ironies of -- I was sort of in between. I like to say I was part nerd, part thug.

MONDESIR: [laughter]


NAISON: You know? You know, but it was -- you know, and in talking to people, if you grow up in a working-class neighborhood and you're academically skilled, you're going to be teased and maybe bullied. And so that was a sort of reality I had to cope with. But as I said, I had my own ways of fighting back. But that was -- that was PS 91. You know? It was a -- but it was an interesting place to go to school. Because there were certain things about it that I loved. One of the things is, we had a lot of recess. And recess, you would play -- we -- I would play punchball. Which was one of the sports you played. It was -- we had the -- I don't know if people still have something they -- we used to call it a spaldeen. It was a pink ball made by Spalding, and you could play all sorts of games with it. One of it is set up like a diamond, and punch the ball, and you run as far as you could get. You'd have fielders. But also, if you're 15:00really good, you could roof it, and hit it on the school of PS 91, which would get you lots of respect.

MONDESIR: [laughter]

NAISON: So, I used to play punchball. We all -- that -- and that was fun. We'd have recess two or three times a day. You'd also gather in the schoolyard before school, and kids would play and line up in the schoolyard. We had -- we had plays. I -- I still remember actually writing a play in elementary school about the British conquering New York. We had a lot of school trips. And the other thing that I loved is, kids had responsibilities. We were crossing guards. We had something called the Safety Patrol. So what they would do was take the -- the kids who were the toughest and the most trouble, and give them responsibility. So I was a lieutenant in the Safety Patrol in fifth grade. I'd help kids cross the street. You know, it was a useful way to deal with somebody 16:00like me or -- you know. And -- or, we -- we had an audio-visual squad. They trained the kids to show movies. So, while I don't remember really, you know, learning -- it's hard to remember what I learned in school -- I rememb-- I remember recess, I remember the plays, I remember the trips, I remember the Safety Patrol. So, I kind of enjoyed school. You know? And, so, that -- that was my memory of school. I mean, you know, the academic part-- (sighs) I don't recall being tested all that much. I mean, maybe once a year there was a reading and math test, which would be used to place you. Because they -- they tended to organize the classes probably by ability level. You know, 5-1, 5-2, 17:005-3, 5-4. And then the tests were used to put you -- you -- you could -- in -- in something called the SP program. Special Progress. So, you could skip a grade in -- in junior high school. Which I tested into. And then the test would be used to place you in specialized high schools like Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. So-- You know, that's -- so that -- that was kind of my -- my school experience. It -- I don't remember the academics all that much. They were -- I didn't find them that challenging. I didn't find them that interesting. And I -- I -- I knew I was good at it. But that's partly because my parents constantly were giving me books to read. And also, I guess by the time I was maybe in fifth or sixth grade, I discovered that one of the ways to 18:00keep my parents off my back was to be reading a book. They -- their main way of dealing with me was nagging me. Or, you know, it wasn't like a real friendly atmosphere. But because they respected learning, if I was reading a book in my room, I had a better chance of being left alone than let's say watching television. And I didn't have a television in my room. So I didn't watch almost any television in my house, except when I was out sick from school. Where I would go to watch television was downstairs to my uncle Mac and cousin Steven's, where they watched ball games, and -- or something, or shows like Maverick. So, I -- I had -- I developed all these ways of circumventing an environment which could've been hostile and demoralizing. You know. So I had 19:00my tricks. You know, I -- I -- I -- I -- I fought when necessary. If -- you know, I couldn't fight 10 kids, but if two kids were teasing me, I'd fight them. And I'd do pretty well. I played every form of sport that you could possibly play. And I worked at it. So, on a Saturday morning, I'd be there at the little park across from PS 91 practicing my basketball shots. Practicing lay-ups. Practicing hook shots. You know? When I got a little stronger, practicing jump shots. Because I realized that my path to acceptance was going to come through sports. But I also read a lot. Not because that would help me with the other kids -- the last thing I wanted them to know -- but it would keep my parents off my back. So, ironically, the things that would help me later in life, like being an athlete, you know, and -- which, you know, definitely helped 20:00me get into college -- and also reading widely, were things I used as defenses to keep people off my back. I -- I think I was a self-taught person. You know? I -- I don't-- I mean, my parents exposed me to a lot of things. I have to give them credit. They took me to museums all the time, and I -- I love the Museum of Natural History, you know. You know, so-- But they even occasionally -- you know, if we went on trips, we'd go to, like, a serpentarium or a historical site. So there were some positives of having parents who were obsessed with learning. But, a lot of it, I was -- I was self-taught. I don't remember being inspired by a teacher, maybe until I got to high school.

MONDESIR: Okay. Going back really quick, I -- I remember reading about a night center?

NAISON: Yeah, okay. Here's the interest-- the night cen-- every elementary 21:00school in New York City was open 3:00-5:00 and 7:00-9:00. And 7:00-9:00 was night center. They eliminated this in the '70s. So, kids in your age group didn't have this. So, I had this -- so I would go to night center. I mean, it was great to -- first of all, to get out of the house. And so, what would go on in night center. Again, I was a -- I didn't know what the girls did. For all, I mean-- You know. But I played basketball and Nok Hockey. And, you -- I -- there is no limit to how much sports I would play. I mean, if I could play 24 hours, I would do it. So here's a chance to play ball. You know? It's -- in a sort of safe, and also, get out of the house. You know? Eat dinner, go to night center. And you know, there were other places around the city where people had, like, talent shows or music programs. For all I know, there was a 22:00great arts and crafts program, or even a music program. I -- but I -- you know, I had no musical talent. My parents gave me piano lessons. Later I tried to learn the saxophone, because I thought it was cool. You know, because I liked the way, like, rock and roll saxophonists play, and I thought it would help me with girls if I were a -- but I had no talent. So-- So I was at night center. You know? And -- and the park, that little vest-pocket park, I was there all the time. Any spare time. And it was supervised. It was safe. Because they had a cleaner, and they had what they called a parkie, a park supervisor. And that was another position eliminated in the '70s. And the park supervisor would keep us from beating each other up constantly, or the older kids from victimizing, or kids from an-- so you had these safe places to go, on weekends and afternoons and at night. And to get out of the house. Which, you know, 23:00because I -- you know, the less time I could spend in my house, the better. This was my philosophy. So, it -- in a lot of ways, even though, you know, people made certain things difficult for me, I -- I had a great childhood. I mean, I came out of it with certain skills. I mean, that I had developed. But the overall atmosphere was a very positive one. Again, what I said. We all thought that we had more opportunity than our parents. You know, in a society where Jews and Italians had been -- you know, kind of experienced significant discrimination -- and African-Americans much more, or again, we didn't really talk about it -- things were opening up. And so it was -- and Crown Heights. You know? It was -- it was kind of a cool place to grow up. And I -- I had a 24:00lot of fun at PS 91. Did I learn anything? I'm not sure. But I loved being in the Safety Patrol, I loved playing punchball, I loved being in plays, I loved the trips. You know? It was -- and some of those things are not there. In the way -- in the -- you know, now it's test, test, test, learn, learn, learn. But of course the economy is rougher now than it was then. So, it's -- it's -- it's interesting how, when I look back at what I remember. And boy, that -- but I still think you could -- we could use the night centers back.

MONDESIR: That sounds great.

NAISON: It was great.

MONDESIR: [laughter] Like, just to have a few hours to just --

NAISON: And it was open five days a week! And then the little vest-pocket park, you -- it was safe to go. Whether you wanted to go on the swings, whether you want to play handball, touch football-- We weren't allowed to play hardball, and they'd stop us. But we played softball, we played 25:00football, basketball, handball, punchball, you know, and I -- nob-- and I don't recall anybody getting really beaten up badly. You know? There -- the fights were -- were short and were broken up.

MONDESIR: So, you started to go to George W. Wingate?

NAISON: I started -- I went to Wingate. And there, I had this interesting experience. I -- again, I'm 13 years old. I'm at that point maybe 5'6". I wear glasses. And I -- by this time I'm a really pr-- really good tennis player. So I make the Wingate tennis team. I was taking lessons at Lincoln Terrace Park, which was a fascinating scene. It was a public tennis court where almost all the people were either Jewish or West Indian. And there was a tennis pro there who was a mailman on the side, named Phil Rubell. And more than 20 kids who took lessons from him ended up playing Division I college tennis. Out 26:00of Lincoln Terrace Park.


NAISON: And we shoveled off the courts in the winter. We were all good athletes. Again, I would say 80 percent Jewish, 20 percent West Indian. So it in that way may have been also unusual, for New York City. But it was a little tennis factory, in the middle of Brooklyn. You know, who would have known? But, so we're -- the Wingate had a really good tennis team. And so I made it. I'm in gym class, and the class is also there with the track team. And so there -- there were -- the track team was mostly Black. And I was -- I looked like a little kid who was -- you know, I was two years younger. I hadn't gotten my growth spurt. So, a couple of the kids on the track team started teasing me. Now, my atti-- I had this attitude. One, I wasn't afraid of anybody. And two, 27:00I wouldn't back down. So, you know, so one day they -- they -- they saw -- they decided to push me a little further. So one kid said to me, "You stole my sweat socks." So I said, "No, I didn't steal your sweat socks." I just try to ignore them. So about to leave, he gets five friends around, he says, "Tie my shoelace." I say, "Fuck you."

MONDESIR: [laughter]

NAISON: This kid is about six -- they're all about six feet tall. And so, by the end of this, I'm knocked out. You know, all my friends run away, of course. But I'm not -- I said, I don't back down. So I'm ready to come back the next day. And my parents insist I transfer to Erasmus, which is out of the district. So, here I am all of a sudden at Erasmus, which is considered, at that point, a much better high school, although it has 8000 students. So I take the bus. I get off at Kingston Avenue and Empire Boulevard, I get on the bus, and then take 28:00it to Flatbush. Take the Flatbush Avenue bus to Flatbush and Church, and there I am. And wouldn't you know it, within a week, there are two Irish kids in my homeroom class who start teasing me, and I beat the crap out of them. So that was the end of that. So, you know, this is my little experi-- and then -- but I'm -- then, homeroom, everybody's together. Then I'm in the honor classes at Erasmus, which are this elite group, in -- in a school where there was the honor track, the academic track, the -- there're four tracks. The commercial track, and the general track. So the only times you were together with everybody, if you were in the honor classes, was in gym class and in homeroom. So, you know, I was on the tennis team. I wasn't good enough to make the basketball team, two years younger than everybody, which I would've loved to do. And our -- and anyway, Erasmus won the city championship, so it was a pretty high level of play. So, gym class was a riot. It was -- one of the things we did in gym 29:00class was a game called Dodgeball Bombardment. I don't think they let them play that, where you throw -- the way -- you take the ball, and throw it, and if you hit somebody they're out. Now, there were two guys in our -- I still remember their names. They were Italian guys with huge muscles and wifebeater t-shirts named Accomando and Signorelli. And they used to, like, you know, have mafia chants in the locker room. And they terrorized the class. Because they threw really hard. But they liked me, because I was a really good basketball player. And I'd play with them. So, I -- they -- they didn't hit me until the end. [laughter] So, I -- you know, it was kind of an interesting experience. It was 30:00also, what was happening is there was a real fear of Black people moving into my particular part of Crown Heights. And I heard my parents talking about it secretly in Yiddish. And it was -- it was a fear I didn't share. You know, again, I grew up with rock and roll and sports. I always -- you know, and when I was at Erasmus, my doubles partner -- when I was a junior, my doubles partner, Fred Lawrence, was -- we won the New York City public schools doubles championship together. So, you know, this -- we traveled all over. So I just didn't -- not -- you know, there was -- and then I start-- there was a little civil rights group at Erasmus, which I started to get involved in. And it became a source of tension between my parents and I. Because I was very pro-civil rights, and I said, "What --" and I didn't understand what they were worried about. And, again, what they -- you know, for me, fighting, you know, 31:00it didn't matter who you fought. I was -- I'd been fighting since I'd been eight years old. So, if I'm fighting somebody Black or somebody White, it didn't matter. If I'm playing ball with you, it didn't matter. So-- But, I -- I don't know how y-- whether I was that, you know, typical. But that was who -- by the time I was a high school junior or senior, I was -- I had already started to identify with the civil rights movement pretty powerfully.

MONDESIR: Could you tell me more about the civil rights group in -- at Erasmus?

NAISON: Right. It was -- we had something called Erasmus CORE. Congress of Racial Equality. And CORE was the largest civil rights group in New York City that young people were involved in. That, they had chapters on the campuses. They also had neighborhood groups. The NAACP was a larger organization, but 32:00CORE was more committed to non-violent direct action. Picket lines, sit-ins, and things of that sort. So, the Erasmus CORE chapter was very interesting. It was almost all White. And it was organized by people who were children of former communists. There was a group of those folks, in -- and -- and we call-- you know, later, people would call them red diaper babies. So they grew up with a kind of political consciousness, and -- so I'd go to their parties. And I was a rock and roll person, but they would play people like Paul Robeson, or Josh White. Folks-- you know, folk singers, blues singers, that I hadn't been exposed to. And so they had this chapter, and one of the other things they were doing was a campaign to force the largest bakery chain in Brooklyn, Ebinger's -- which, by the way, made great pastries -- to hire African-Americans as 33:00salespeople and truck drivers, because they only hired them as -- as -- as cleaners. Porters. So, we -- you know, I -- and we had picket lines in front of Ebinger's. And my parents were very upset that I would, you know, join the picket line. Because their experience was that if you got involved in political protests, later you'd be blacklisted or lose your job. So, there was tension around that. You know, some of it was, you know, the -- you had some demonstrations, you had some parties. So I -- I went to some of the parties where, as I said, I heard different types of music than I was accustomed to. What was interesting about the CORE kids is they were almost all in the honor classes, as well as almost all White. So-- These were a lot of the kids who were in my classes. Almost none of them lived in my neighborhood, but then again, I'm going to a school two miles away from where I lived, so this -- most 34:00of them lived in-- If they lived in Crown Heights, they tended to live further west, around Ebbets Field or a little south of there. What is that neighborhood they call now? Prospect Lefferts Gardens?


NAISON: Yeah. You know, people living in -- these were people who were a cut above economically, they lived in row houses. You know, so that was my experience with Erasmus CORE.

MONDESIR: And Prospect Lefferts Gardens, most of that was usually considered Crown Heights until a certain point, or--?

NAISON: I don't -- you know, we -- we certainly didn't call it Prospect Lefferts Gardens at that time. I guess it would've been called Crown Heights. You know, so-- Yeah.


NAISON: I -- I would say, my guess, you stopped calling something Crown Heights maybe around Parkside Avenue. You know, Midwood Street would -- we would think 35:00it'd be with Crown Heights, or Maple Street, or, you know, those. Even if -- all the way, maybe, even almost to Bedford Avenue. In other words, anything east of Bedford Avenue, we thought of as Crown Heights. North of Pr-- of -- of Parkside, south of Atlantic, Bedford to Utica. That's -- it's pretty big, but that's -- if I would've given a definition of Crown Heights, that's what I kind of would've done.

MONDESIR: Yeah. I think my first day at work, I tried to walk from the beginning of Crown Heights to the end, and I was just like, "This is taking a while!" But, could you also probably -- possibly discuss the difference in demographics between Wingate High School and Erasmus?

NAISON: Yeah. Okay. Wingate High School was probably 20 to 25 percent Black, 36:00in the late '50s. Erasmus was at most five percent Black. The -- so, the Italian percentage at Wingate was probably 20 percent, Erasmus probably 20 percent. The difference was, there were Irish kids at Erasmus, and very few Irish kids at Wingate. The Irish kids -- there weren't that many in Crown Heights. So the -- those kids came from a diff-- you know, from Flatbush. So, I would say the percentage of Jews and Italians were relatively comparable, but the percentage of Blacks at Wingate was much higher, and the percentage of Irish was much lower. Now, that would change by the late '60s. You know, Erasmus 37:00would become much -- have many more Black students. A lot of the Black students came from out of district. So -- and went there for the better academics. So I tra-- I actually traveled on the bus with Daphne and Trevor Dyce. D-Y-C-E. Both of whom were honors students and track stars at Erasmus who took German -- whose West Indian parents made them take German, so they could go to Erasmus and get the benefit of it. And also, not have to worry about getting harassed by the Italian kids at Wingate, because there was an -- you know, there were relatively equal numbers. So, and Erasmus had a much larger group of middle-class or even upper-middle-class kids. The honor -- I mean, I had -- nobody I knew in Crown Heights lived in a private home. There was some of the 38:00friends I had who lived in these big houses. You know, the Prospect Park South, the area where you go to Ditmas Park, and, you know, these big Victorian houses? I had never seen anything like this. I mean, people with houses with four bathrooms, and, you know. So, that -- and people whose parents were doctors, and lawyers, you know, professors. So, I met what my parents would like to call "a better class of people." At Wingate I -- there were very few students who were in my level. You know, because again, I was this kid who read all this stuff on their own. At Erasmus, I won't say they were a dime a dozen, but there were -- I ended up graduating 16th in a class of 1600. Like, in my junior high school, I was second in the class. You know, at Winthrop Junior High. So, it 39:00was more academically competitive environment, whiter, more upper middle class. And had a better academic reputation than Wingate, whether it deserved or not.

MONDESIR: Did you have any favorite teachers from either school?

NAISON: I had one great history teacher named Mrs. Spieler, who made history exciting. Other than that, my -- the person who made the biggest impression on me was my high school tennis coach, Al Badain. Who was, like, a former legendary basketball coach, and who had a reputation for producing winning teams and getting his top players into top colleges. So, he was trying to get me to go to Yale, which I didn't have that much interest in. But, you know, I ended up going to Columbia, so-- Though -- but, I mean, I don't remember great 40:00teaching in high school. I maybe had one pretty good biology teacher. I was, again, something of a self-taught person. I mean, I didn't teach myself math or science, I didn't love it. I was decently good in it. I read voraciously on the side. I mean, when I was in -- again, idea is I'd have a book in my hand, my parents won't come into the room. You know, if I'm doing anything else -- watching television, forget it. You know? "Why're you wasting time?" Because they wanted every second to be used productively, to turn me into this whatever they wanted me to become. So, I read Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and, you know, all these English novels, and I -- I educated myself to a -- to some degree. Just as an avoidance strategy. So I didn't -- certainly didn't read Dostoyevsky 41:00in my classes. So I came -- when I ended up going to Columbia, I was decently well read. What I wasn't prepared for was the amount of writing. I didn't get great writing instruction. So I -- I kind of had to learn to write in college. At least, write on a high level. So-- But, you know, I -- I enjoyed the social part of school. Especially in the honor classes, you know. And -- and the -- you know, again, the kids in my classes had parties. So I had things -- you know, places to go. The school was sort of too big to have too many dances, so I didn't -- there wasn't the social life so much associated with school. But your friends. You know, you'd go to the ice cream parlor, you'd meet to go to Coney Island, you'd go to a party. And then I was on the tennis team. And then I -- also, I was in the marching band, because I played the saxophone. I was 42:00terrible. But, you know, you have 250 people, you can't mess that up. If -- especially if you're trying not to mess anybody up. If anybody's really good, you know, I -- I also organized a pep band for the basketball games. I found really good musicians, so I just made believe to play the saxophone. I got to sit in the front row and watch all these great basketball games. So, Yeah. I -- I -- I have pretty good memories of school. I did well. And I loved -- I loved being in the tennis team. We were one of the -- I came in third in the city in the indoor singles championship, and doubles, we won the city championship. I was undefeated and won singles in my senior year. Even though I hurt my shoulder and had to serve underhand. I got -- I got -- so I was good enough to eventually be captain of the Columbia tennis team, coming out of 43:00Lincoln Terrace Park. You know. Shove -- you know. So-- It was -- it was a pretty cool upbringing. You know, though I -- when you look back at it, I think that a lot of things that we took for granted don't exist anymore. You know, all the sports programs, the arts programs, the music, the parks where you were safe, the night centers. So I think I benefited in ways I didn't understand at the time from things which I assumed would always be there, and ended up not being there.

MONDESIR: So, you started -- you went to Columbia in 1960--

NAISON: Two. It was --



MONDESIR: So, you weren't in public school around the time for the -- do you remember anything about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville --

NAISON: Oh, no, no.

MONDESIR: -- strike?


NAISON: That was -- gosh. I was -- by that time I was in -- in graduate school at Columbia, in '68, and living in the Upper West Side. And my parents had moved from Crown Heights to Rego Park in 1964. They did it in the middle of the summer, when I was away at camp. And I went from having my own room to a couch in the living room. So, I basically almost never -- I didn't regard that as my home. I almost never went home again. And I was als-- there was also tension with my parents around other things. I always had jobs, I had apartments, I was semi-self-supporting. So we left Crown Heights in '64. And I -- I almost never was in Brooklyn. And also, not only did my parents leave Crown Heights, but my grandparents, and my uncle and aunt moved to Rockaway. So, within m--

MONDESIR: Rockaway Beach?

NAISON: Yeah, but like --



NAISON: -- 100 -- 104th Street in Rockaway. They moved to a high-rise there. It -- this is 1964. So all of a sudden, all my ties to Brooklyn are severed by 1965. There's no reason to go back there. So I had no contact with what was going on in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I heard about it. But, you know, it was all second and thirdhand.

MONDESIR: Okay. I mean, did your parents have any opinions of it either way, considering that they were --

NAISON: Well, I --

MONDESIR: -- teachers?

NAISON: -- by that time, I -- here's what happened to me. And when I was in college, in my senior year, I -- I met and fell in love with a -- with a Black girl. And when I told them, they, like, flipped out, and basically we never talked. And so that -- I was in the rela-- that relationship for about six years. So my conversations with my parents about any serious subjects sort of ended in -- by the beginning of 1966. So, it was -- you know, so, I mean, I'm 46:00sure that they identified with the teachers, but it was not something we talked about. So, yeah.

MONDESIR: Okay. Also, you mentioned Winthrop Junior High School. Was that-- where is that?

NAISON: Okay. Winthrop Junior High School was on Winthrop Street and Remsen Avenue. And at that time, it was an almost all Jewish and Italian school. There were as few Black kids as Winthrop as there were in -- in PS 91. Now, this is hilarious. My son, when he was in junior high, was on the junior high school basketball team at Junior High School 51. And they play-- they went to Winthrop to play the team from Winthrop, and my son's friend, Julio LaSalle -- my son said, "My dad went to this school." And Julio said, that was -- "He 47:00must've been the last White kid to go there," because it was an all -- you know, basically all-Black school, and mostly West Indian. This would've been early '90s. So that -- it -- it was -- Winthrop was very much like PS 91. At that point. And I took a bus there. I could walk there. Took the bus at East New York Avenue, then the bus down Remsen. The one thing I remember, though, is there was a White Castle on Utica. Near East New York. It --

MONDESIR: White Castle?

NAISON: A White Castle! You know, the hamburgers.


NAISON: So, that was a real treat, to get a White Castle hamburger. You know, it was -- that was there in the '50s.

MONDESIR: They're -- they're a grilled, right?


MONDESIR: Or it --

NAISON: Yeah, yeah.

MONDESIR: That was -- I think that was a special thing about them.

NAISON: Yeah. So, anyway, you know, so that was Winthrop. I was there for two years. What do I remember about Winthrop? Oh, god. It's -- it's so weird. 48:00Almost nothing about classes. I remember a game we played in the schoolyard, when we were lining up before school, which has long been banned, called Johnny and the Pony. Here's what happens. You have 20 kids. This is only boys played. One guy gets against the wall, bent over, and 20 people grab him, and then another 20 people come and jump on their back and try to pound them and make them collapse.

MONDESIR: [laughter]

NAISON: And we did this every day before school. In the schoolyard.

MONDESIR: That -- yeah, that's definitely not allowed now. [laughter]

NAISON: Yeah. I mean, no. No. So you don't -- I'm sure you don't have Bombardment or dodgeball and Johnny and the Pony. The other thing that I remember is, there was a knish man who sold -- you know what knishes are?


NAISON: Yeah. They sold knishes from a -- a -- a thing outside the school. And for, like, you know, 10 cents you could get this huge, delicious potato 49:00knish with mustard. You know. So that was a treat. Johnny and the Pony, knishes, really good basketball games in gym class. Some of the kids ended up -- I was not the best player in that gym class. I was close to, when I was in Erasmus, because then, the people were picked off to be in the team. The best players. But here, there were a couple guys who became high school stars, who I played with. So that was a lot of fun. I remember a French teacher named Mr. Grabanier, who spoke with a British accent. That was unusual for Brooklyn. Mr. Grabanier. And I remember, my parents were pissed that I wasn't valedictorian. But Linda Calvert was smarter than I was. She really was. She's actually -- I remember she wore glasses, had blond hair, and she -- she was really -- she was 50:00smarter than I was. So-- And Miriam Halpern. I came in third. So-- [laughter] My parents were, "You're an underachiever! You should be number one!" I was -- it was -- it was pretty funny.

MONDESIR: Were -- so, your children, they went to school in Brooklyn also?

NAISON: Yeah. My -- my -- they both went to PS 321 in Park Slope, where my wife is now the principal. They both went to Junior High School 51, on Fifth Avenue and -- between Fourth and Fifth Street. And my daughter went to Midwood High School, and my son ended up getting a baseball/basketball scholarship to Berkeley Carroll. And they both ended up going to Yale.

MONDESIR: Are there any comparisons you can make with the education your children received in Brooklyn, as opposed to what you received?

NAISON: It's interesting. Both of my stud-- children were star athletes. And 51:00-- my son in baseball and basketball, my daughter was in -- in basketball, and -- but mainly in tennis. So, I think that-- I -- I think there -- maybe the teachers -- some of the teachers they had were a little better, but-- Hmm. I don't think they would tell you how there were memorable teachers. I think that -- and PS 321 was a great elementary school. And there were some pretty good teachers there. And I think they had a really good experience there. Fifty-one, they had a coup-- my son had a great photography teacher who he's still in touch with, Joe Zarba. Had a great science teacher. A great Spanish teacher. So I think they had maybe a few more really exciting teachers. But I 52:00don't know how different it was. You know, again, our home was one, you know, they -- they were exposed to a lot here. You know, reading, going to museums, going in trips. And they -- they had great community sports programs. Even though, you know, in this neighborhood, which we -- the parents organize. So-- I think they had a good experience going to public school. You know, Junior High School 51 was a tough school in the -- in the '80s and '90s. It wasn't -- it was very diverse, there were, you know -- but my son was a basketball player. And so he got respect. And my daughter was -- was also, you know, known as an athlete. And they -- they had a great experience. My -- my kids had great experiences in schools. Probably better than mine. In terms of socially and 53:00stuff. But I don't want -- you know, look, I came out okay. I figured out how to be weird.

MONDESIR: [laughter]

NAISON: My -- my kids weren't weird. They were part of the crowd. You know. They -- they're both very socially adept. You know, I was not. So, but I -- you know, I worked around it. So, no harm, no foul, as they say.


NAISON: It was demanded that I be skipped from third grade to fourth grade. I don't recall them talking much about teachers, or anything like that, or being very involved.

MONDESIR: I -- I guess I'm under the assumption that communities weren't more involved with schools, and, like, parents -- not that would come -- like, they wouldn't know the teachers were, necessarily.

NAISON: I -- you know, I don't have much of a rec-- see, school was easy for me. You know. I mean, I -- I -- I was reading by the time I was in fourth 54:00grade. Math came easy. I did science fair projects. You know, I read on my own. There was -- there were -- issues didn't come up, that I can think of. So I don't recall my parents ever coming to school or talking to teachers or saying, "Your teacher said this about you." It was -- I mean, so, I -- that's -- I can't think of much, relating to that.

MONDESIR: Okay. And parent-teacher associations were not a thing at that time either?

NAISON: I don't remember them. I don't remember anybody ever talking about the PTA at that time. Absolutely not.

MONDESIR: Okay. Yeah.

NAISON: Remember, in my fifth-grade class, I -- we -- you -- you had -- you had ratings, in terms of fighting. So number one was Myron Gittell. He was the toughest. I had to fight Tommy Digadi for the number three position. I beat 55:00him up. At -- that was outside. Then I challenged Barry Hamer, the bookie's son, for the number two position, and he b-- and that was in front of the class, when the teacher left. He -- he -- so, he beat me up in front of the class, so I couldn't take the n-- and so I was stuck in number three. [laughter] So, think about that.

MONDESIR: Okay, that's [inaudible] sense.

NAISON: You know, in third -- I move into third grade, there's a protection racket.


NAISON: You have to pay a nickel a week, then you're -- you have fights in front of the class to see who's number one, two, or three? I figured, since all the kids were a year older than me, number three isn't bad. If -- if everybody's a year older than me. I could beat up all the kids my age. I never met a kid my age who could beat me up. Which gave me a certain physical, probably overconfidence, to this day. I always assume that I'm tougher than everybody.


MONDESIR: [laughter]

NAISON: So I -- I won't back down in the subway. My wife -- drives my wife crazy. Somebody shoves me, I'll just get right in their face.

MONDESIR: I mean, that's -- if you're on the A train and it's rush hour, what else can you do?

NAISON: Yeah. [laughter] Exactly. But anyway, it just -- it was just such a weird way to grow up. And, you know, and I meet people who were -- you know, got bullied, and they retreated to their apartments. They got -- they got involved. They started reading science fiction, or fantasy. Me, I just -- you know, I looked forward to the fight. It was sort of, "Okay, going to fight. Okay, fine." I -- it didn't bother me. So it was a little -- it's -- it's a little -- so, I had -- I s-- I solved my own problems.


NAISON: You know, the only reason my parents even knew that I got knocked out was the school called them. I wouldn't have told them. I was ready to go back the next day. It was -- it happened on a Friday. I was ready to go back 57:00Monday. All of a sudden, you know, there's a crisis and I have to go to a new school. I had nothing to do with that. That was the only time I remember my parents really being involved, is that fight. So--

MONDESIR: Okay, cool.

NAISON: So, it was -- it was fascinating how -- you know, that the West Indian presence came, because in -- there's this full-length field, right next to 570. They started to -- we -- there were West Indian kids started to play soccer there. Now, no -- none of us ever played soccer. So, they asked me if I would be goalie, since I couldn't kick to save myself. So I would occasionally sit in and play goalie for them. But that was the first time I saw, you know, kids playing soccer. It was West Indian kids. African-American kids played basketball. And some -- and more kids were coming into our park to play. And then the Hasidic kids, it was like -- because we were very secular. I actually 58:00went to bar mitzvahs at Chinese restaurants.

MONDESIR: [laughter]

NAISON: It was like, religion was not a big part of our lives. I even -- I actually -- we had something called Religious Instruction, in public school, where you went to a -- if you were Catholic, went to the church. And so I went to the Brooklyn Jewish Center for Religious Instruction classes. But Brooklyn Jewish Center also had a gym. And they had a great basketball program. The coach of our -- we -- we had a basketball team at the Brooklyn Jewish Center which was good enough to beat high school JVs. So I remember, we went to Madison High School before a game to beat the JV. Some of the kids -- because that's how good the teams were, in Brooklyn. The high school basketball teams were unbelievable. I don't know if you know these names, but at one time, in 59:00one division in Brooklyn, you had Billy Cunningham playing for Erasmus, Roger Brown playing for Wingate, and Connie Hawkins playing for Boys High. They had a game, Brooklyn against the United States, and Brooklyn won. These three were three of the greatest pro basketball play-- they were in one division in Brooklyn. The level was -- there were 200 kids in my high school who could make college teams. I almost made the Columbia freshman team, and I never played organized high school basketball. It was un-- so, it was like a religion. Jewish Center basketball was incredible. Sandy Koufax played Jewish Center basketball in Brooklyn. You know, so, it -- it was -- but so, it was -- you know, when you saw Orthodox Jews with yarmulkes and, you know, with the peyes and, you know, where it was, like, really strange to us. So, we -- you know, as I said, the term for them we used -- this is the secular Jews -- the "yarmulke 60:00bops." So-- And, yet that was the future of Crown Heights; West Indians and Hasidic Jews. And we began to see that in the early '60s. But then, people just moved out en masse. My neighborhood looks exactly the same. 570 is still there. The building across the street, the two-family houses.

MONDESIR: Yeah. I was there quite recently.

NAISON: Yeah. So -- and this park is the same, and PS 91. So, it -- it's just 100 percent change in population. But physically, looks the same. So, it's -- it's interesting. To -- to be there.

MONDESIR: Cool. Yeah, I didn't know --

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Mark Naison

Born in Brooklyn in 1946, Dr. Mark Naison was seventy years old at the time of the 2017 interview. Raised in a Jewish family household where reading was emphasized, he attended PS 91, Winthrop Junior High School, and Wingate High School. Naison's pugilism led to a transfer to Erasmus High. He went on to Columbia University and a professorship of History at Fordham University.

In this interview, Dr. Mark Naison talks about life in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn during the 1950s. He describes the neighborhood as very working class and, in demographic terms, mostly Italian and Jewish. Dr. Naison remembers being ostracized for the intellectual pursuits that his parents foisted upon him, and the gameplay, athletics, and fighting with his public school peers which he used as social compensation. Interview conducted by Obden Mondésir.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the Weeksville Heritage Center series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


Naison, Mark, Oral history interview conducted by Obden Mondésir, January 04, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.3.07; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Congress of Racial Equality. Brooklyn Chapter
  • Erasmus Hall High School
  • George W. Wingate High School
  • Naison, Mark D., 1946-
  • P.S. 91 (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)


  • Community development
  • Community identity
  • Education
  • Ethnic neighborhoods
  • Games
  • Public schools
  • Race relations
  • School children
  • Social classes
  • Teachers


  • Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Crown Heights oral histories