Both books go directly to the source – the citizens – when writing about cities. Carl Carlsen did not depend upon the local historians, nor did he rely on the preconceived notions of contemporary news hacks. He sought out the guy living in the tenement demolished when a car crashed into it and the Black woman who owned her own hair salon and retired in her early 60s. These people, not the pundits, experienced the drudgeries and triumphs of neighborhood living.
Conducting an oral history project is no lark in the hay. No interviewer relishes coaxing people to talk in front of a recorder, particularly when they’re shy about doing so. You hear objections like “Why you wanna talk to me? I’m nobody special.” Carlsen sails through the choppy currents of such resistance to discover treasures.
Why does the title include the release number “2.0?” It’s because there was a first iteration, Brickyard Stories: A Neighborhood and Its Traditions published in 1985. That book contained poems and prose poems based on the recollections of a generation displaced by urban renewal in the Brickyard. Like a software release, this new edition is enhanced. It paints a comprehensive panorama of the last century in the life of working class neighborhood in a mid-size American city. It features more history than the original, more people, more dialect, and more sheer poetry. When I first cracked it open, I thought, “Well, I hope he includes a map to show where Lynn’s Brickyard was.” I needn’t have worried. Carlsen includes twelve historical maps of the Brickyard, the first one from 1706!
If there was a story locked inside one of his participants, Carlsen drew it out like a fine thread through a worn button. When interviewing socialist artist Arnold Trachtman, he unearths the tale of a youthful scrape against 1940s anti-Semitism. Like me, Trachtman was never taught by his father how to fight. He couldn’t defend himself against the bigoted parochial school kids in the neighborhood. So he taught himself boxing at the local Jewish community center, and then confronted the assailant in a dramatically drawn-out fight. Great story.
Another typical vignette: Chris Maniatis brags about her father Darrell O’Connor and his singular occupation. When she’d tell cab drivers, “I live in the house with the tin sculpture,” they knew exactly where to take her.
Carlsen and Terkel each handle demotic speech differently. For example, Terkel quotes Billy Joe Gatewood, a nineteen-year-old who’d “come from the Appalachians”: “There’s maybe too many young boys runnin’ around. They haven’t got nothin’ else to do besides running the streets and get alcoholic.” Not bad. It has the sound of real speech, but it’s missing something. In contrast, Carlsen’s characters speak more like the way people talk. They leave words out and even release half-baked concepts, confident they’ll still be understood. Here’s Doris Harewood relating what happened when southern Blacks moved to her neighborhood:
“We did nuthin’ to ah, to make their transition from
wherever they came from any easier
Lotta people from the South they lived in
well, compared to what they had . . .”
Lou Ames: “Charley Spivak was a trumpet player,
The Sweetest Trumpet Player This Side of . . .
of something. I forget,
but that’s what they called him.”
I prefer Carlsen’s raw rhythms to Terkel’s more measured tones.
Carl Carlsen is what we community organizers used to call “a small-d” democrat. He lets everybody speak – the edgy socialist, the sub-shop owner, the friend of the local pol, the variety store customer. Maybe before they talked to Carlsen, they thought they were “nobody special.” But afterwards, they became quite the opposite.