Facebook is good for some surprising things. Lately I have reconnected with friends I have not seen since junior high and I joined a group called “You’re probably from Jamaica, Queens if…”. I haven’t been back to Jamaica in 6 years nor back to my old neighborhood for 17 years.  I haven’t lived there for almost 40. It is interesting therefore to hear the remembrances of those who have grown up there in the many years I’ve been away. There are some things we remember in common e.g. theaters that have been turned into churches and blue light parties in the basement, and some things that I don’t,  the rise of hip hop for example. That was to be expected but there was something else I didn’t anticipate. The layers of successive age strata’s memories also provide a history of the neighborhood that will never be written or even understood because no one will ever put it together and no one would publish it if it were. These memories are micro oral histories collected on a random basis not a scientific one. I suppose one could go to the records to back up some of information and look at long range trends in race, employment and income, but it would be a much drier history than these recollections and stories. The story of going to Mr. X’s corner grocery or repair shop, the creepy man down the block, or restaurants, diners and dives long since gone, provide an entertainment, colored by nostalgia it’s true, but which no book history could hope to equal. A book would chronicle the transformation during my lifetime of a once mixed race neighborhood into one of the most segregated African American areas in the country and I am sure provide a model of that transformation which undoubtedly occurred in other parts of the country.  For those who grew up there it was simply home.  It was a place in which we kids snatched enjoyment from life and either failed to notice or took as given  the low incomes, the growing violence, the scuffling to make it.

It is hardly unique, in fact it is an old story.  Immigrant groups cluster together in an area using networks to find support and others like them.  Whether it was Italian, Jewish or Irish groups whose remnants were still there when I first moved into the neighborhood in 1959 or the black migrants from the south and Caribbean who came while I was growing up there and after I left, Jamaica has seen them all. The difference has been that once these were just stops which individuals or successive generations made on a path to something more. While a host of people have moved on nowadays many have not and probably never will. The successive mini-memoirs in “You’re probably from Jamaica, Queens…” show a deteriorating neighborhood behind the smiles and stories. Not only have the movies moved away to the suburbs, until recently the big box stores, supermarkets, and chain stores had too. The neighborhood adapted and smaller mom and pop stores proliferated, people in the neighborhood followed the stores across the county line into nearby places like Valley Stream, and in fact the entire black southeastern Queens neighborhood is creeping there as well. The neighborhood has always been the home for much of the lower to upper black middle class.  They are mostly hard working people,  many who have several jobs, just trying to raise their families and capture a part of the American dream. The dip in the economy has hit the neighborhood but most are holding on even if only by their fingertips.

As Gladys Knight has said on one album, “As bad as we think they are these will be the good old days for our children.” Facebook has many “You’re probably from X if you…” pages.  It is a good way to connect with memories and a format that probably will not be preserved beyond those pages. I urge you to start one if there isn’t one for your area and join one if there is. It is  producing a kind of oral history that contains the voices of those previously unheard. It’s also a lot of fun.

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