Thomas Webber, author of Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

December 16th, 2004

Thomas Webber,

author of

Flying Over 96th Street:

Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

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Tommy Webber is nine years old when his father, a founding minister of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, moves the family of six from a spacious apartment in an ivy-covered Gothic-style seminary on New York City’s Upper West Side to a small one in a massive public-housing project on East 102nd Street. But it isn’t the size of the apartment, the architecture of the building, or the unfamiliar streets that make the new surroundings feel so strange. While Tommy’s old neighborhood was overwhelmingly middle class and white, El Barrio is poor and predominantly black and Puerto Rican. In Washington Houses, a complex of over 1,500 apartments, the Webbers are now one of only a small handful of white familes.

Set during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy is the story of one boy’s struggle with race, poverty, and identity in a city — and a country — grappling with the same issues. Tommy’s classmates at the exclusive Collegiate School for Boys, which he attends on scholarship, dare not venture above the city’s Mason-Dixon Line of 96th Street into the unknown territory of muggers, gangs, and junkies. Tommy, however, slowly makes new friends on the local basketball courts and at church, and discovers a different East Harlem, one where an exuberant human spirit hides within the oppressive projects and drab tenements, fighting to break through the cracked sidewalks. Webber interweaves the nation’s growing Civil Rights movement — from watching on television the forced integration of Little Rock’s Central High School to participating in the famous 1963 March on Washington — with the subtler, more immediate changes he observes in the lives of his friends and neighbors.#

In a December 16, 2004 interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Webber talks about the East Harlem he knew as a child, and the hope that remains in its neighborhoods today.

 

 

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Tom Webber, age 10

“I carry East Harlem within me wherever I go just as surely as I carry my likes and dislikes, my beliefs and values. Yes, I’m an American. Yes, I’m English and a little Irish and who knows what else. But I’m more than just plain old white. I’m Tom of 105th Street, Tom of the Wilson Houses, Tom of El Barrio. I can diddy-bop, give skin, hold my own in a sounding match, eat bacalao with relish, and speak some pointed Spanish. I’ve been changed and molded by the neighborhood, taken El Barrio, like the air I breathe, into my blood. At my core, in my hearts of hearts, in my corazon, I’m an East Harlem White Boy.”

*

– Listen to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong play Drop Me Off At Harlem

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JJM  The humorist Dave Barry said, “Tom Webber had the most interesting childhood of any white person I know,” and after reading your book, it is easy to see why he would say such a thing.  When did you decide to write your memoirs?

TW  In 1995, I attended a conference where Jonathan Kozol spoke about a book he had just written called Amazing Grace, which is a story about a South Bronx church congregate and a set of families he visited over a six or eight month period. He wrote beautifully about what life was like in the South Bronx. Kozol’s writing began in the fifties when he wrote Death at an Early Age, which is about teaching in the public schools, how frustrated he felt as a teacher, and how the kids he taught didn’t really have much of a future. I have loved his stuff ever since. I believe he now lives on a farmhouse somewhere in Massachusetts. While writing Amazing Grace he moved temporarily into a hotel on the east side of Manhattan, and then took the train to the Bronx every day to sort of live with a family for eight or ten hours a day. From this experience, he then writes their story. While it was a beautifully written story that I loved, it was not really anything like the stories that I know, having grown up in the public housing projects of East Harlem. Since I lived there day and night, traveled up the elevator with the piss on the floor, knew kids who were being beaten by their parents, and experienced the good and bad parts of life in the projects, I felt I could add depth to the story Kozol told — not that I could tell it better but that I could tell it different. At that point I decided I had to write my own story about growing up in East Harlem from the perspective of a young white male.

JJM  What was your life like prior to this move to East Harlem?

TW  We lived in a wonderful place called Union Theological Seminary, which is the school of theology of Columbia University. My father was the Dean of Students there. It is an old, somewhat liberal seminary where many of the famous protestant ministers of the thirties, forties and fifties got their education. The most famous philosophers and theologians of the day taught there. I think I met two black people in the entire place — one was the mailroom man, and the other was the carpenter who came around to fix something if it was broken. There were no black students, and no black faculty. We roamed the halls and the classrooms, and we sort of ruled the seminary. It was an enchanted life, set in the quiet and beautiful Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York. When my father told us that we were going to move, I was choking for air. I did not want to leave. The Seminary was my world. It was my home.

JJM  Why did your father decide to move to East Harlem?

TW  He would say that God “called.” Whether he actually heard God’s voice, he debates that a little bit. {Laughs}. He and two fellow seminary students started the East Harlem Protestant Parish in 1948, eight years before he decided to move there. Because the parish had grown, and since many of the people in it — as well as the other ministers — were living in East Harlem, he didn’t feel he could be one of the leaders of the parish without actually living there. So, he felt that God was telling him it was time to commit his whole life to the East Harlem parish. He didn’t believe he could be Dean of Students as well as help run the parish — he needed to do one or the other. He was famous for having family councils, and called one to announce this decision. It wasn’t so much “counseling,” since he and my mother had already made their decision. It was more like rallying the troops.

JJM  How do you remember taking the news about this move?

TW  I was devastated. I didn’t like the idea that I was going to move out of the world I loved. I had visited the parish and East Harlem several times, and it was a little frightening to me. Most of the people there had dark skin, and many of them didn’t speak English. In those days, the streets of East Harlem were incredibly crowded with people — twice as many as there are now. People would run up and down the streets, shouting, and playing games. It was scary for a little boy of six or seven who was used to a very quiet street, and where an exciting event might be seeing someone walk their poodle.

JJM  Yes, you wrote, “At the Seminary, it was rare to see anyone walking a dog or pushing a baby carriage on Claremont Avenue. Here, people seem to live on the streets.”

TW  Yes, that’s right, and they did live on the streets, especially in the summertime. Since there was no air conditioning, people lived on the stoops, or in front of the fire hydrant. So, it was pretty frightening, and I did not want to move. Now I have lived my entire life since then in East Harlem and it’s home; but I was very much against moving there at the beginning.

JJM  What do you remember doing immediately after your dad announced this move during the family council meeting? Did you go into your room with your brother and talk about it?

TW  That is one of the things about writing a memoir — it is difficult to remember all the details. I do remember talking it over with my older brother Johnny, and seem to recall that he stomped out of the meeting. But, we didn’t move for another six months, so it wasn’t like we were going to be moving the next day. I kept hoping that something would happen to make Dad change his mind, or that Mom would change his mind for him, but Johnny told me that it was all set, that nothing would prevent us from moving.

JJM  You were eight years old at this time?

TW  Yes, and by the time we moved I was nine.

JJM  And your brother was three years older than you?

TW  Yes. He was eleven or twelve, becoming a wise teenager at that time.

JJM  Sure, that is a tough time to move anywhere…

TW  Yes. I think I was lucky that I hadn’t started puberty yet before we moved. I was perhaps more open to exploring certain things than my older brother.

JJM  You quote your mom as saying, “Negroes are the same as other people, only with brown skin instead of white.” You then responded, “I am not so sure, they don’t act like the people I know.” What was your image of black people before the move?

TW  The only two blacks I knew were the mailroom man and the carpenter at the Seminary. The mailroom man was an older southern gentleman who always wore a suit that smelled a little strange — it must have been washed one thousand times because he had a musty smell about him. Then there were my experiences of going to the parish in East Harlem. The shouting and the running and the laughing and the craziness of the streets presented a chaotic view of East Harlem, and an entirely different world. During those days, imagine four thousand people living on one block — between First and Second Avenue on 100th Street. Many villages in Vermont only total eight hundred people — there were four thousand on this one block of East Harlem. It was unbelievable, and quite frightening for an eight-year-old. It was too wild, too out of control. And I simply assumed that was how people of color were; people who spoke a strange language and who acted different than the people I was used to. I didn’t really have a way of understanding it.

JJM   You must have had anxiety about being able to make friends. What are your memories of your first successful encounter with an East Harlem child your own age?

TW  In the book I tell the story of my meeting a boy named Rabbit on the basketball court right across the street from our apartment. I was so relieved that he was friendly to me, and that he didn’t want to fight me. There was great relief in realizing that when I talked to people they were not so much different than the friends I had at the Seminary. Rabbit wanted to play basketball with me and to beat me at it the same way my old friends at the Seminary did. He was interested in me, and he wanted to talk to me. I believe that because I was so different than everyone else in the neighborhood, people found me interesting. I wasn’t someone who they had to prove they were tougher than, or prove that they knew the rules of East Harlem to. Instead, they could sort of take me under their wing. Also, I knew of worlds that they didn’t, so while they showed me how things worked in East Harlem, I would occasionally take them downtown to museums, and share with them what the world there was like. My family was also unique to my friends. They loved coming to our apartment because there were so many books, as well as adults who talked to them and who showed an interest in their lives. Many of my friends didn’t have this in their own lives.

JJM  Your mother encouraged your friends to read…

TW  Yes. She started a reading program for them. One entire wall of our living was filled with books, while many of my friends didn’t have one book in their entire house. When I gave my friend Danny a book at age eleven or twelve, he told me it was the first time anyone ever gave him a book for a present. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to give a book for a present. Books were for school. My mother believed that education is reading, reading, reading, and that is how you get ahead in the world. She felt that education is what parents need to make sure their kids get. The idea that kids didn’t read, or didn’t have access to books and parents or adult figures who would read to them, was hard for her to accept, because reading was absolutely essential to our family culture.

JJM  That must have been a little shocking to you.

TW  It is very interesting how often people use the word “shock” with me. When I was eight or nine-years-old, even when I was walking down the streets of Harlem, I wasn’t shocked, because I didn’t know what to expect. Everything was just so different, and there were so many new experiences hitting me in the face. The first time you go to a Yankee game, for example, it is very different from anything else you may have experienced, but it is not going to shock you. It is something else, as if you are just taking it all in, taking in the world. So I was never shocked, I just felt that that must be the way things are here.

I would occasionally try to get an explanation from my parents about why things were the way they were in East Harlem. My next door neighbor used to beat her children, and I would try to get an explanation from them about why something like this would happen, or I would ask them about the welfare system, and they would always take the side of people in ways that the people themselves would not. It was interesting and a little disconcerting to hear my parents talk about welfare as being something the government needed to provide in order to make sure mothers without jobs or with young children didn’t starve and then to hear the recipients of the assistance themselves talk about how they hated it. To many of them, welfare was the most abominable thing in the world.

JJM  You say they considered it shameful.

TW  Yes, they would say it was shameful, but my parents wouldn’t want to admit that. The welfare recipients knew it was a system that was not helping them, and that it was actually keeping them dependent and often made them feel ashamed.

JJM  Did you talk to your father about that at all?

TW  I don’t remember any conversations about it until after I went to college. My mother was involved in the Welfare Rights Organization, whose goal was to make the system more sympathetic, and to prevent welfare workers from trying to catch regulation violators. My parents were always fighting to improve the welfare system — not to get rid of it or create an alternative to it.

JJM  Your best friend Danny was a central figure in your childhood. You portray him as a very interesting kid who took a lot of risks. You once told him, “I never know what you are going to do next.” What did you learn from him?

TW   I learned a love of life from Danny. I also learned that you can’t always be afraid of trying new things, and that you have to go out and overcome things. I was a naturally inquisitive but shy kid, so it was hard for me to walk up to people and easily become friends with them. I generally let them come to me. If I were playing basketball, and there were five other kids playing on the courts, I would go to an empty court and start playing by myself and see if someone else would come over to play with me. Danny was just the opposite. He taught me that if I liked something, or if I wanted to meet someone, to not be scared, to take on the challenge. I often think of Danny when I am doing something that requires courage. Life is too short to be afraid. Danny, who I loved like a brother, died of AIDS at the age of forty-six, so maybe there is a downside to being that adventuresome. But he taught me a certain love of life that has always stayed with me.

JJM  Basketball, pretty predictably, played a big part in the community in terms of how the boys gathered, all the posturing during the games…

TW  There were four things that got me comfortable about living in East Harlem: The first was my dad’s church, where I met many people from the neighborhood; the second was basketball, where I made many of my friends; the third was Union Settlement House, where I took acting lessons, guitar lessons; the fourth, of course, was Danny. Danny didn’t like to hang out with other boys with me — he wanted me pretty much to himself. So, we had our own adventures, whether it was going out to Coney Island, or riding the Staten Island Ferry…

JJM  You told a story about how he balanced himself on the handrail of the ferry during one of those trips to Staten Island.

TW  Yes, that is the sort of thing I was talking about, regarding how fearless he was. He once told me he was going to cross the subway tracks, and I told him that the subway in New York has a third rail, and no way was I going to let him cross the tracks. But that was the kind of thing he would do. Mostly he would do it to get a rise out of me, to get me upset or worried, but it was done in fun. He took so many risks. I remember him hanging off the roof of a tenement, balancing on the handrail of a ferryboat, climbing on the outside back bumper of a city bus. He would do that all the time, but that was who Danny was.

JJM  Concerning an experience you had with the police at one time, you wrote that one advised you by saying, “Son, I have a piece of advice for you. Don’t hang out with these niggers and spics, they will only get you in trouble.” Was this typical of the type of advice you got from police during that time?

TW  The police force was mostly Irish and Italian in those days. I don’t remember seeing a black cop in East Harlem in the fifties. It wasn’t until the mid-sixties before they started showing up in the neighborhood. The cops were not used to seeing a white kid hanging out with black or Puerto Rican kids, and I could tell that they didn’t especially like it. While there was a large Italian population in East Harlem, you wouldn’t see them, at least not hanging out with blacks and Puerto Ricans. They went to their own churches and attended their own parochial schools. I grew up in a neighborhood that was one-third Italian, yet I didn’t meet one Italian kid until I came back after college. So, seeing a white kid in East Harlem playing with black and Puerto Rican kids was not something the cops encountered very often. That quote you refer to is the only time a cop was ever that blunt with me, which is why I remember it so vividly.

JJM  Was the language among the other white community members as blunt?

TW  I don’t know how they talked among themselves because I never hung out with them, but I would hear them calling out, using the word “nigger,” for sure.

It was a very interesting neighborhood. I recently did a reading at New York University, and afterwards, a woman about my age told me that she grew up in the neighborhood the same time I did, and felt that East Harlem was nothing like I wrote about in the book. I asked her where she grew up, and she said 114th Street and Mt. Pleasant, which was an Italian neighborhood. I asked her how many blacks or Puerto Ricans she met, and she said none. So, here she was, growing up the same time as me, but she didn’t have a black or Puerto Rican friend, or even one she knew. For her, East Harlem was an Italian neighborhood, yet we lived eight blocks from each other. I think that is typically American, and even in East Harlem today, there are blocks of Hondurans, Mexicans, or Haitians where they pretty much stay in their own groups.

JJM  Of your family’s Summer residence in Maine, you wrote, “At night I am lulled to sleep by the lapping of the waves on the rocky beach below our cabin, especially if it’s high tide and there’s a wind over the water. No place could be more different from East Harlem; even China couldn’t be more different. Only the roosters crowing each morning at the chicken farm next to the golf course remind me of 102nd Street.” How did you view your Summer residence in Maine after your first year in Harlem?

TW  It was during that first year that I realized I had certain privileges other kids didn’t. I certainly knew that from going to school, and from reading books, but going to Maine was a special privilege. I remember very distinctly how other kids from the street and the building watched us pack our car with toys, baseball bats, and summer stuff before leaving on our trip. They would ask me where I was going, what I was doing, and I realized I was going to this incredible, wonderful place that they may not have even heard of. I felt very embarrassed about that, and every year after I didn’t want to be anywhere around when we packed the car.

JJM  Would you tell them where you were going?

TW  I would say we were going away for the month. I remember Danny asking me once, “What is Maine?” He had no idea what or where Maine was.

JJM  Did you ever invite any of your friends up there?

TW  No, I did not. Sorrento, Maine is one of those communities where fifty lobstermen live the entire year, and then three thousand wealthy people show up during the Summer to live on Frenchmen’s Bay, which is across from Bar Harbor. My father and mother bought a log cabin without electricity, and it was our place to go during the Summer. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It is funny because I grew so used to living in East Harlem amid all the noise that it is difficult for me to sleep through all the quiet of Maine. It almost spooks me out. I became very “East Harlem” in that way. I remember at Summer camp, the city kids were unable to sleep because they were so used to hearing noise all the time. Noise made them feel safe, and quiet made them feel unsafe. My father, who has lived in East Harlem for as long as I have, but who didn’t move there until he was twenty-nine, still has the opposite reaction. He sleeps better in the quiet and not so well through the noise.

JJM You write about the different ways the community valued music. There are great descriptions in your book about the doo-wop singers in the projects, for example…

TW  There is sadness but also great joy in black and Puerto Rican culture. The joyousness comes out in music and performance and in church services. When you go to a black church service, it is a place of joy, and you feel the joy of singing, of praying, of preaching, and just being with your folks. Singing in public, playing music, playing any kind of musical instrument, or singing with a group was a vibrant communal pastime. Singing would be done on your stoop, or in the house.

We used to joke about the differences in the cultures; when you go to a black party, there was always music, dancing and singing; a Puerto Rican party would be filled with dancing; but when you go to a white party, you would sit around and talk all the time. I remember going to a church service where people were clapping and shouting during the middle of the service, and I asked my mother about that. She told me that we don’t clap or shout out in church because it is a place of reverence, it is not a place to get happy, or to shout out, or to sing uncontrollably, or to fall on the floor with the spirit in you. What went on in the black churches was completely opposite of the churches my parents grew up in, or of the white churches I went to as a child. Yet, if religion doesn’t make you happy, what should make you happy? If singing and dancing isn’t something we can do to share with our friends and make us happy, what is the purpose of music? Just to sit in a concert hall to listen to a symphony orchestra play? No, it is something to share, and something that can be an extension of who you are and who you want to be. I think almost all the kids in East Harlem sang and danced. I will never forget how proud I felt when someone said I danced like a black kid.

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