RECOLLECTIONS OF HOWARD BEACH
David Fishken, 2001
(There's a version of this at www.fishken.com that includes pictures that I got from the internet.
If you find you relate to this piece, drop me a note.)
A bright white object stuck out of the black mud. It was smooth, curved and porous. Tony
was the first to see it and commenced digging out the mud from around it. The more he
dug the more white object there was. It was bone, human bone, the pelvis section of what
turned out to be an entire human skeleton, there in the mud in that section of our
neighborhood we called ‘The Weeds.' The Weeds was a huge expanse of dark, viscous,
stinking mud with narrow, water-filled gullies, and tall reeds with thin stems that looked like
bamboo and fluffy tops that contained the seeds for the next generation of reeds. "Hey,
wanna go play in the weeds?"
This was the new section of Howard Beach in the early 1950's. The Weeds marked the end of the
neighborhood on the south side. It was loaded with wild life; water rats for sure, frogs, seagulls,
migrating birds and probably lots of snakes and other creatures we preferred not to see. We'd scoop
out lots of killies from the gullies and use them for bait on fishing trips to the Cross Bay Bridge. We
left many a rubber boot behind in the squishy mud of The Weeds.
Tony got his picture in the newspaper. He was kneeling next to the skeleton, all dug out
now. No one ever found out who that skeleton belonged to. Some thought it could have
belonged to someone from a boat that had ventured too far inland in Jamaica Bay and got
caught up on a sand bar. Legend has it that some of the residents of Cross Bay were land
pirates. They waited for boats to get stuck on the sand bars so they could row out there and
steal whatever was worth stealing. If there was resistance, the pirates would murder
passengers and crew. Perhaps they would bury them in The Weeds. Thus, the white
pelvis sticking out of the mud, perhaps.
We were all kids, seven or eight years old at the time. Our families had moved here to
small, single-family houses from their small apartments in Brooklyn. No one moved all that
far. The Brooklyn border was pretty close by, near the west end of the neighborhood where
there were no new houses, yet, just more windswept reeds. This section of Howard Beach
was called Rockwood Park, located on the west side of Cross Bay Boulevard just off the
Belt Parkway. We could smell Canarsie, and we could hear the public address system at
Aqueduct Raceway when the wind was right. Between the Belt Parkway and Rockwood
Park was a truck farm that produced vegetables. Next to the farm was a golf driving range.
This was the new section of Howard Beach. The old section was on the east side of Cross
Bay Boulevard and on the other side of a narrow inlet off Jamaica Bay. Private boats were
docked all along this waterway. They could get to Jamaica Bay, and the Atlantic, by heading
out under the wooden Howard Beach Bridge, which is gone now. Rockwood Park opened
for business, so to speak, in 1951. Jews, Italians and Irish filled the place quickly and new
houses in new sections developed every year afterwards, it seemed.
When we first arrived it was heavenly for us kids. It was as if we had been relocated in the
country, far from the busy, city-like atmosphere of Brooklyn, especially so for those of us
who came from apartment buildings in East Flatbush. The first streets in Rockwood Park
weren't cement or asphalt, just rocks stuck in some black goo. Car tires produced a low-
frequency, crunching noise. There were no sewers for either the houses or the streets.
Each house had a cesspool in the backyard and the streets had storm sewers that only
worked when the rain was pretty light. In heavy rain storms the streets flooded. So, we
learned to make rafts out of the wood building materials that were everywhere in this new
neighborhood. You can easily imagine the joy of city kids playing Tom Sawyer and Huck
Finn as they rafted down 158th Avenue. We prayed for rain.
There were no playgrounds in Rockwood Park in 1951, and the school we attended, PS
146, was in the old Howard Beach, too far away for daily play. We made do with houses
under construction, The Weeds, ice skating on the golf driving range in winter, our favorite
Brooklyn sport, stickball, and stealing vegetables from the truck farm in the summer. We
ceased the latter activity when the farmer fired shotgun shell over our heads one day!
Shotguns to protect a farm in New York City!
We played war, pretending that houses under construction were enemy tanks. Rocks and dirt
bombs' were our weapons and broken windows were our victories. We learned how to start up
some of the construction equipment and had real tanks, until we were caught by the construction
boss. Some of the kids had BB guns. Ronnie had an eye shot out and I have a false tooth that replaces
the one struck by a BB. As I think back, it's miraculous that none of us was killed in some dumb accident.
We played stickball, with the ball bouncing every which way when it came down on the rock-
paved street. The first hydrant was a single, the green Hudson was a double, the
telephone pole a triple and into 159th Avenue a home run. The gashes and bruises from
slamming ourselves into parked cars left life-long scars on our bodies.
Out on the streets it wasn't all play for us. There were hazards in the form of kids from old
Howard Beach, especially for some of us, including myself, who were identified as Jews.
Oy, the fights. When we first moved to Rockwood Park we went to elementary school in old
Howard Beach. We were not welcome. We were taunted in the school yard and during our
walks home. On several occasions we were chased, caught, and beaten up. This went on
and on, even after we were shipped out to another elementary school in Ozone Park, PS
63. While we were reasonably well accepted in Ozone Park, the old Howard Beachers
continued to taunt us. It wasn't until we were in high school that we stood our ground. The
fight took place on Cross Bay Boulevard.
They came after the three of us, me, David and Mike. I took on the big heavy one.
Adrenaline pumping, I grabbed him and with all my strength I pushed him into the white
washed wall of the Cross Bay Bowling Alley. He had his head down, so that hit the wall
first, just as he was lifting it to see where he was being pushed. It was a little messy,
leaving blood on the nice, white washed bowling alley wall. David and Mike also stood their
ground, at last deciding to give out some punishment in exchange for what we had been
dealt for a few years. Our lives were much improved after that.
Folks kept up their property in Rockwood Park. Weekends were made for lawn mowing,
fence painting, street sweeping. Eventually, the streets were torn apart so that sewers
could be installed, and the rock pavement was replaced with smooth, quiet asphalt. Now
our rubber ball bounced predictably, though we still crashed into parked cars during
stickball games. The tree-lined streets and well-kept properties made for a pretty nice
Stores came to Cross Bay Boulevard. Waldbaum's supermarket, a kosher deli, a candy
store, a beauty parlor, a bakery and an auto parts store. There was New Park Pizza, years
later the infamous site where white kids chased a black kid all the way to the Belt Parkway
where he was killed by a car. The traffic got heavier and double parking on Cross bay
Boulevard became common. These were the first signs that Howard Beach, officially in
Queens, was becoming Brooklynized.
There was the noise. We were right on the landing pattern to Idlewild Airport, now Kennedy
International Airport. I recall, clearly, the first test landings of jet airplanes as they flew,
passengerless, right over my house. Noise control was a thing of the future. The
screaming jet engines made babies cry at weekend barbeques and we covered our ears
reflexively when those flying monsters came into view. Years later, when we had our
driver's licenses, one of our entertainments was to park as close as possible to the
runway. Our girlfriends would hold us tightly as the noise and vibration rumbled and
crackled just overhead.
Another of our entertainments was the bike path along the Belt Parkway. It ran from Cross
Bay Boulevard all the way into Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. It was an easy, four mile ride
to Canarsie Pier where we could buy an ice cream, drop a line in and fish, or just sit around
and watch roller skaters. It was a longer ride, maybe 15 miles, deep into Brooklyn to visit
our grandparents in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. I loved those
long bike rides, especially when we returned home and proudly told our parents where we
A few famous people resided in the new section of Howard Beach. Dan Lury was a well-
known body builder and purveyor of body building equipment. Myron Cohen was a child
actor who performed on Broadway in The King and I and could be seen on kids shows on
Sunday morning television. Arlo Guthrie, then just a kid, moved there from Coney Island
with his mother Marjorie and sister Nora. Woody Guthrie had just entered the hospital
where he could be cared for. He suffered from Huntington's Disease, then referred to as
Huntington's Chorea. I visited the Guthrie home once and years later described the living
room decor to Nora who didn't believe that I had visited her house. (It wasn’t until a few
months ago that Nora and I conversed and discovered that she, Arlo and I were in PS 63
during the same years.) John Gotti lived in the new section of Howard Beach. His house
was not one of those little cape or ranch boxes that most of us lived in. His house had two
distinct floors, a brick front and white columns.
Arlo, Nora, Woody, Marjorie (Guthrie) were in the neighborhood on one side. I found out recently that I
attended PS 63 with Arlo and Nora.
Our group of kids graduated from PS 63 in 1957. I got lucky. Doris agreed to go to the
prom with me after her sought-after beau failed to ask her. She was tall, thin, blonde and
wrote left handed with a Esterbrook pen that was always filled with aqua ink. She was not
Jewish so my parents were not pleased. But my social life with Doris lasted for one date,
Just about all the kids from PS 63 went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park. I went
to Brooklyn Tech, then an all boys high school of 6,000 guys, and a few others went to
Stuyvesant or Bronx High School of Science. With this dispersion of friends I lost contact
with some of my Howard Beach chums, except for my very closest friend, David. He
brought me to John Adams parties where I got to meet girls and people from outside of
Howard Beach. I met guys from all over the city while attending Brooklyn Tech, and Howard
Beach began to lose its status as the center of my universe, though it was still home.
The dispersion widened when we chose colleges to attend. I went to Queens College,
others went to CCNY or Baruch College. Others went out of town, the lucky dogs! Finally, I
left Howard Beach for Boston in 1967 to attend graduate school, and there I stayed. I still
go back to Rockwood Park to visit my dear friend Richard and his mother, and David's
parents, too. The neighborhood is still very well kept.
The Weeds? They are long gone. Yet, there are still fields of reeds along the Belt Parkway
that borders on Brooklyn. New houses have replaced some of those little cape boxes. The
new, larger houses look kind of silly on plots of land no bigger than an eighth of an acre.
Property values have skyrocketed, of course. Kids have a school playground. The stores
along Cross Bay Boulevard vie for your attention with garish lighting. There's a cuisine for
every palate. There's not much chance that anyone will find a hunk of human bone sticking
out of the mud in Howard Beach these days. But wait a second, aren't those more weeds
down there toward the Cross Bay Bridge?