A Gift of a Day

There’s no other place like it, Francie said.
- Like what?
- Brooklyn. It’s a magic city and it isn’t real.
— Betty Smith - 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'
a tree grows in brooklyn.jpg

I’m in New York unexpectedly, with a day to spare, and as Francie’s father Johnny remarks in ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, “A day like this is like somebody giving you a present.”

I’m staying in Williamsburg, less than a mile from where ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ is set - and I’m going to use this expected gift of a day to retrace the locations in the novel, the streets and tenements Betty Smith knew from her childhood, which she describes so lovingly in her heartwarming story of early 20th century immigrant life.

I have my well-thumbed copy in hand. Or rather, not my copy, but my wife Louise’s; it was given to her a few years ago when she was unwell, recommended as the perfect book for a convalescent tucked up in bed. We’d neither of us heard of it; it’s not that well known in Britain. But this is an American classic, and quite rightly so, and it’s one of my favourites, now, of all the novels I’ve read since moving stateside. The story of a young girl, Francie, negotiating childhood in a poor immigrant district, it could so easily be a misery memoir, or something folksy and cloying, but it’s neither - it’s beautifully observed and funny, and laced through with such love and humanity and wisdom. Like America itself, it’s eternally optimistic. I love it - and to spend a day walking the streets Betty Smith knew fills me with a delightful sense of anticipation.

‘Some day she would go across Williamsburg Bridge, which was only a few blocks away and find her way uptown in New York to where these fine places were and take a good look at the outside’
— Betty Smith - 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'

There’s a risk with bookpacking, of course, that the passage of time will have erased what was. Set a century ago, ’A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ oozes period. It opens in 1912, with Francie aged 11, sitting on the fire escape of her tenement, watching the bustle in these streets, the cacophony of Irish, Italian, and Jewish co-existence - women with ‘hock shop bundles’, the horse-radish lady ‘sitting in front of Hassler's grinding away at her pungent roots’, men with cold foaming beer, kids rushing in and out to the butcher’s, the grocer’s, the baker’s. The novel moves further back in time and tells the story of her parents: her mother Katie is of Austrian stock, set back by pregnancy and life’s hard knocks, but made of ‘thin, invisible steel’; her father Johnny is Irish, a singing waiter, a wastrel but infinitely lovable - ‘The children did not know that they were supposed to be ashamed of him.’ We read of Francie’s early childhood, her discovery of books, her frustrations as she’s forced to quit school aged 14 to take a job, her commute across the Williamsburg bridge to a clerical office in Canal Street, her enrollment in night school and eventual departure, to college in Ann Arbor - a trajectory which mirrored Betty Smith’s own story. She published the novel in 1943, by which time, already, this kind of American experience was becoming a memory, and in the decades since, Brooklyn has experienced waves of transformation, in circumstance and ethnicity. Now, of course, it’s all about gentrification, Brooklyn being synonymous with hipsters and coffee shops, and I wonder what I’ll find that remains of Francie Nolan’s world.

I leave my hotel on Metropolitan Avenue and explore Williamsburg, and it’s fashionable and fun. There are coffee shops and bike shops, and shops that combine both, and oyster bars and eateries called “Quinoa” and “Avant Garden”. By the Williamsburg Bridge - which seemed once to Francie the escape route to another, more cosmopolitan world - the gentrification has reached epic proportions, with the development of the old Domino Sugar factory into the epicenter of a shining new metropolis. Just up the road is the headquarters of Vice media, and dozens of uber-fashionable young things are turning up to work with clumpy trainers on their feet and clumpy headphones on their heads. I feel rather old. But I have a very nice coffee in a branch of the Butcher’s Daughter, and plot my route east into the less fashionable parts of town - the Brooklyn that Betty Smith knew.

I’m heading for Lorimer Street, in East Williamsburg, where the Nolans live until Francie is six years old. And immediately I get more of a sense of the world described in the novel. The houses are run-down but charming, flat fronted in clapboard or mock-shingle; they have a curiously colonial, seaside feel. There are rusting fire escapes and brick stoops, and despite the streets being empty (it’s mid-morning on a Friday) it’s easy to imagine this place overrun with the street kids of a bygone era, rattling sticks on the railings and persecuting passing hawkers. It’s leafy, too - lots of trees - and I wonder if any of these trees are those described in the novel, the so-called ‘Tree of Heaven’, Ailanthus Altissima, a hardy growth that symbolised, for Betty Smith, the opportunistic nature of American immigrant life.

No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.
— Betty Smith - 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'

I walk past the Leonard Street branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and there’s a plaque to Betty Smith on the railings. It’s a squat, formal building opened with Carnegie money in 1908 - which is odd, because that would mean it was nearly new in Betty Smith’s day, rather than ‘little old shabby place’ described in the novel. As I approach, a girl, no more than eight or nine, is bouncing in enthusiastically with her mother, a scene that would have made Betty Smith smile. I hope she’s received better than Francie, whose love of reading is stonewalled by a sourpuss librarian. Francie overcomes, and sets herself the challenge of reading a book a day, working her way alphabetically through the shelves. As the novel begins, she’s still in the ‘B’s: ‘already she had read about bees and buffaloes, Bermuda vacations and Byzantine architecture’.

Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and dirt.
— Betty Smith - 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'

The family leaves Lorimer Street when Francie is six. The children, Francie and Neeley (a ‘Brooklynese’ contraction of Cornelius) fill the street with inflated balloons brought home by their aunt Sissy, who works at the rubber factory. But they’re not balloons, they’re prophylactics - and in shame, the family leave their digs and head a few blocks south to a more impoverished district on Grand Street. I retrace their walk, imagining the Nolans shifting their few possessions on a haulage dray, and I reach the intersection of Grand and Manhattan, where the bulk of the novel is set. I’m in the heart of Francie’s world now, and we’ve left the hipsters behind; this an authentic Brooklyn neighbourhood, far removed from the gentrification of DUMBO and Williamsburg.

The Nolans move into a rundown tenement building and Katie pays the rent by cleaning the communal spaces. Their apartment is at the top - Francie can see the Williamsburg Bridge from her window. I’m hoping to find the very building where Betty Smith might have lived - and there’s a clue in the novel. She describes Francie on her fire escape, looking down into the school yard of the local junior school. The only local school from the period is Edward Bush Public School 18, which stands at the corner of Maujer Street - which places the Nolan tenement building at roughly 650 Grand. And here, I’m excited to find two surviving tenements in red brick, which seem to fit the bill. They have crumbling cornices in brown and duck egg blue. A Mexican flag flies from an upper window.

I’m keen to retrace a walk described in the first few pages of the novel - a glorious establishing sequence that hurls the reader into the polyglot world of Brooklyn in 1912. It’s a Saturday morning, and Francie and Neeley emerge from their tenement to join the neighbourhood kids ‘spilling out onto Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. They made their slow way up the Avenue to Scholes Street past Maujer, Ten Eyck, Stagg…’. They carry with them the scrap they’ve collected over the week, which they sell to Carney, the junk man, and they spend their share of the profit at Gimby’s candy store - the rest will go in Katie’s tin, nailed to the floor of the apartment, the repository of the family’s future hopes.

Crossing Montrose, I see the spires of Most Holy Trinity Church, where Francie makes her first confession, and where the family attends Christmas Mass. It’s brown stone, not grey as in the novel - but the twin spires are unmistakable, ‘remotely brooding over the dark tenements’. Inside it’s heady and dark, and I can imagine this place in Francie’s day, ‘smoky with incense and guttering candles’. There’s a Franciscan priest by the altar, in a monastic tunic and white rope belt, and I approach to ask if I might take a photograph. His name is Father Michel - or at least that’s what I think he says, but accent is thick and I struggle to communicate. I wonder if he knows that this church appears in a classic American novel, and I mention the Christmas Mass, but he thinks me a lapsed parishioner and shakes his head in reproach. “Not just Christmas,” he says.

Continuing my walk south, on Graham Street now, I pass the crossroads with Seigel. In the novel, this marks the division between the Italian and Jewish districts. Francie calls Graham Street ‘the Ghetto Street’, and she stares at ‘the bearded men in their alpaca skull caps and silkolene coats’. The smells of the neighbourhood excite her - ‘baked stuffed fish, sour rye bread fresh from the oven, and something that smelled like honey boiling’ - but she spars with the Jewish traders and views them with suspicion.

I see evidence of the district’s Jewish past in some of the signage - a paint shop, once Seldowitz and Glaubiger, and Katz the druggist - but nowadays this district is Latino; Graham Street has been renamed the Avenue of Puerto Rico. I’m stirred by New York’s immigrant history, the shifting waves of ethnicities that have ebbed and flowed here over the decades. I walked amongst a Hassidic community this morning, south of the Williamsburg Bridge, and here on the Avenue of Puerto Rico there’s a Taiwanese restaurant and a Chinese take-out called Faith’s Foods - the all-American mix.

‘The Nolans just couldn’t get enough of life. They lived their own lives up to the hilt but that wasn’t enough. They had to fill in on the lives of all the people they made contact with.’
— Betty Smith - 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'

I’ve reached the end of my walk: the intersection with Flushing Avenue where the elevated railway rattles overhead. It’s pretty run down around here - there are 99c stores and shops offering payday loans. To the right of me there’s a forbidding housing project, a massively ugly twenty-story development that a covers a whole block. This is the contemporary equivalent of Francie’s tenements, and it has no period charm, no license for future nostalgia. I wonder if any budding Francies live here, fiercely optimistic despite everything, seeking the beauty in the hard graft of life, but I doubt it.

I think about a moment later in the novel - Francie has just taken her first job, working in a factory that makes artificial flowers, and she stands where I’m standing now, under the ‘el’, waiting for Neeley to return from his job in Manhattan. She has five dollars in her pocket, and together they will return to the apartment and present their earnings to Katie; their life will be better now that the two of them are earning. All American literature is encapsulated in this moment - the determined belief in betterment. Characters are knocked back, they fall, they are battered with life’s blows, but they dust themselves down and move forwards. It’s why, I think, I love this country, and why I retain faith despite our many and varied contemporary fears.

I hope there’s a girl in the projects here that gets to read ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, and that it speaks to her.

I hope she discovers, as Francie does, that ‘the world is hers for the reading’. I hope she finds joy in the little things, and that she takes time to play Francie’s favorite game, ‘figuring out about people’. And I hope she concludes, as Betty Smith concluded, ’To live, to struggle, to be in love with life - in love with all life holds, joyful or sorrowful - is fulfillment. The fullness of life is open to all of us’.