Tales of an Unsung Borough

By Sally Susman
Arlene Alda Alan Alda

“Just Kids

From the Bronx”

Arlene Alda

Henry Holt and Company, $28

The assignment to review Arlene Alda’s “Just Kids From the Bronx: Telling It The Way It Was” left me a bit cranky. “Isn’t she a children’s book author?” I thought. After a quick look at her Wikipedia page, I was reminded that Ms. Alda is the author of 15 children’s books, many of them prize winners and one a best seller.

Ms. Alda’s website cites a chorus of accolades for her latest work from political elites and celebrities, including former President Bill Clinton, who says that “Just Kids From the Bronx” is “an inspiring book about the American promise fulfilled.” Barbara Walters claims these “fascinating recollections . . . run the gamut from surprisingly funny to painfully shocking.”

I was certain the publicity machine was overpromising and that the pages were bound to underdeliver. Before I even cracked the cover, I wanted to disparage this book.

So, I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud before I even finished the foreword. Ms. Alda offers the reaction of one contributor: “I’m glad you’re doing a book about the Bronx. I’m sick and tired of hearing about Brooklyn.” As a New Yorker, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I’ve also had enough with the Brooklyn fever, the farm-to-table foodies and bearded hipsters. I decided to give these oral histories about this unsung borough a chance.

“Just Kids From the Bronx” is 60 conversational interviews deftly edited by Ms. Alda. In fact, much of their beauty and power lies in their brevity. The lineup of Bronxites is carefully curated — individuals who’ve excelled across a broad swath of disciplines, ranging from educators to business people, from athletes to artists and many others. The reader is taken on a chronological journey of compelling memoirs.

Each entry is a snapshot — a slightly faded photograph — a mere glimpse into the life of the storyteller. The chronology of interviewees — the first born in 1922 and the last in 1991 — provides a historical and cultural backdrop as the reader witnesses nearly a century in the evolution of a borough. The Jews, Italians, and Irish give way to African-Americans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans.

“Just Kids From the Bronx” opens with an anomaly — the only excerpt not from an interview, a posthumous contribution from an unpublished memoir by Abe Rosenthal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and longtime executive editor of The New York Times. Mr. Rosenthal’s mother would regularly shout, “ ‘Fresh Air!’ . . . And then from her lips came the command that rang through every apartment in the Bronx neighborhood every day: ‘Go grab some fresh air!’ . . . As other American pioneers and gamblers kept moving west, the Jews of New York kept moving north toward fresh air.”

With this first excerpt, Ms. Alda opens a window into the Bronx — the aspirations of the mostly immigrant residents and the sense that something magical and life-enhancing was in that air.

My favorite interviews have the best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark talking tenderly about the loss of her father when she was just a girl; the prize-winning scientist and M.I.T. professor Mildred Dresselhaus offering anecdotes that reveal the source of her ferocious work ethic; Regis Philbin, the entertainer, admitting that, as a boy, he wanted to be Bing Crosby; former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a four-star general, remembering being the Shabbos goy earning a quarter by turning lights on and off for Jews on the Sabbath, and Joyce Hansen, a children’s book author, recalling how all the action in her world “took place on the stoop. It was our town square.”

The book’s real star is, of course, the Bronx itself, vast and physically beautiful. The reader travels its major thoroughfares and back alleyways. We see then-President Franklin Roosevelt riding down the Grand Concourse in his open car, waving to a crowd. We can practically hear the crack of the stick hitting the ball in the endless games of stickball.

Education and family are themes that run through nearly every story. The Bronx High School of Science is referred to time and again as a transformative institution. Teachers cared and scholarships changed lives. Arthur Klein, pediatric cardiologist and president of the Mount Sinai Health Network, expressed the pride evident in so many Bronx Science students: “When I graduated from Bronx High School of Science, there were twenty-one of us in my graduating class who got into M.I.T. We were the largest single contingent from any high school in the United States going to one of the foremost universities in the country.”

Family mattered most of all. Jemina Bernard, an educator, made the point that she didn’t know the terms “extended” and “immediate” family but benefited from “love and nonstop constant support of my whole family.” Robert Levine, an entertainment lawyer and literary agent, said, “As a kid, I was fat and my mother supported me unconditionally. When she took me to the family doctor who told her, ‘You know your son is too fat and you should do something about that,’ her response was, ‘My son is too fat? Look at your wife.’ ”

Al Pacino relished the stories told by his adored grandfather as they sat on their building’s roof: “And you know — it was beautiful. I mean the world up on the roof. I wish I could describe it to you artfully. It was as close to poetry as I could get.”

Not all tales are sweet, and “Just Kids From the Bronx” avoids saccharine sentimentality. References to the tough and difficult conditions permeate. One woman, identified only as anonymous and a self-described “shy girl and pretty much of a loner,” reveals the pain of her childhood as a victim of incest.

I wondered whether “Just Kids From the Bronx” might not travel well. The same way I imagine people in Ohio don’t really understand a Woody Allen movie. Are there just too many inside jokes and proprietary nuances?

Upon reflection, I believe these oral histories are universal. Together, they form a study of the power place holds in one’s psyche. Between interviews, I found myself pausing to muse on my own Midwestern upbringing. And I asked close friends whom I’ve known only as adults about where they grew up. Ms. Alda’s premise holds true: Our original neighborhoods root and steer us through our lives.

In her own essay, Ms. Alda writes, “We lived in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Mother, father, older sister, older brother, the mutt fox terrier Spotty, and me. We ate our meals, played cards and board games, did homework, and told jokes in a small area adjacent to the kitchen called the dinette.” And of her parents, she remembers her “father’s belly laugh” that “drowned out the punch line” of his favorite joke, and a mother so patient that she could easily wait for “chicken to roast or a cake to rise or clothes to dry on the indoor bathroom clothesline.” Like many other kids from the Bronx, Ms. Alda’s mother was motivated by the immigrant’s dream: “This is America. Your life can be better than mine.”

“Just Kids From the Bronx” is proof that the immigrant dream endures, and the kids make it come true.

Sally Susman, a regular book reviewer for The Star, lives in Manhattan and Sag Harbor.

Arlene Alda has a house in Water Mill. She will speak about her book tomorrow for the Fridays at Five series at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton.