A Boy’s Coming of Age in a Bed Stuy Brownstone

Think being a single parent is hard today, imagine what Tilly dealt with raising 3 kids alone in Bed Stuy during the 40’s and 50’s.

Back then, gangsters controlled the streets, gypsies peddled stolen goods along Sumner Avenue (now Marcus Garvey Blvd) and feminists were forming the foundation for a new social movement for self empowerment.

It wasn’t a place they wanted to raise James and his 2 siblings, especially after her husband died. Bed Stuy was one of the few neighborhoods in Brooklyn where rent was affordable.

But who would watch the kids while she was at work? What would keep them out of mischief until she got home?

Surprisingly, the apartments inside the brownstones they lived in helped ease her concerns.

living in a Brownstone

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Leave it to a child’s imagination to see a brownstone walk up as an indoor playground.

I’m certain James did back then, especially on days when bad weather kept them from going out to play.

Sliding down the staircase bannister to escape being tagged “your it” made it easy to forget why you couldn’t go out that day.

Brownstone row houses, like this one, has banisters along 2 staircases that takes you from the english basement, to the parlor floor and then upstairs to where the bedrooms are.

James and his siblings were under the watchful eye of the landlady downstairs, who was home all day tending to her middle class household while her husband was at work.

And this put Tilly’s mind at ease.

in love in Bed Stuy

James, like most young men in their teens, was head over heels for a girl he went to junior high school with.

And what he wouldn’t give to kiss her.

Few places made a secret rendezvous possible, but there was one place in every building in Bed Stuy where that magic moment could happen.

490 macdonough st parlor floor plan crg1080
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And that was the vestibule, the small space between the upstairs entrance outside and the doorway into the foyer of the parlor floor.

The parlor floor at this brownstone in Bed Stuy exhibited how well its first owners had done in life.

Fine oak and mahogany wood dressed the doorways, floors, window encasements and mantles along with marble tile inlays surrounding ornate fireplace grills.

Since this was where guests were entertained in late 19th century Brooklyn, the parlor floor had to make a lasting impression.

James could care less about architectural details. He only wanted to steal the few seconds needed so their lips could meet. But it would never be.

And she’d always be remembered as the one that got away.

Stoop Life

The war drums were beating again. This time it was for the Korean Conflict and it left few options for James to consider about his future; either go to college or join the army.

He’d spend the summer before his senior year discussing it with his friends while sitting on the stoop. He would also sit and watch how the neighborhood gangsters ran the streets and controlled the rackets.

Tilly made sure none of her children got mixed up in a life of crime. However, James O’Kane would eventually make a legitimate career out of it. He would go on to use his observations of street level organized crime to become a professor, author and expert criminologist.

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James is retired now and lives in New Jersey these days but I imagine he reflects on his days in the old neighborhood with great fondness.

It was in Bed Stuy where he experienced his first crush and base his life work on.

And if this brownstone townhouse at MacDonough Street could talk, it would tell you it’s your turn to live here.

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