The Transformation From City Life To Suburbia For A Teen In The 1970s

View From A Bronx Kitchen – Photo June Kachejian 1974

When I attended St Brendan’s School in the Bronx in seventh grade, my parents told me they wanted to move us out of the neighborhood to either New Jersey, Connecticut, or Long Island. We were a family of six living in a two bedroom apartment with a tiny kitchen and living room on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. It was all I had ever known, so it was no big deal growing up in a small living space. It was pretty much the same for all my other friends in the neighborhood. Most people spent little time in the apartment anyway; we were always outside.

It was the middle of the 1970s, and like so many other people growing up in the boroughs, there was a concern that the rising crime rates and basic living conditions were deteriorating. For most, the chance to move out of the boroughs was too far out of reach. My father and mother were determined like thousands of others who did it, to move on out.

For a couple of months, we would go every other weekend to look at houses in Jersey, Westchester, and other suburban areas. It was exciting to walk through these houses we looked at, knowing that it was a possibility that I could get my own room, have a back yard, and all the other extras that made up the suburban dream. I noticed that every couple of weeks, someone would move out and move on from the neighborhood. I was losing classmates throughout the school year.

Eventually, in the middle of my school year as a seventh grader, my parents told me that the house on Long Island we had been to look at a couple of times was going to be our new home. It was exciting to know that I was going to get my own bedroom, have a backyard, and mow a lawn. When you grow up in the city, everybody always has that dream of moving out to the country, as we used to call Long Island.

As excited as I was to move out to a big house, I was extremely upset about leaving my friends. I was not too upset about leaving St Brendan’s. That school had been a nightmare for me. Yes, I understand discipline, an excellent private school education, and all that, but you do not think about what’s best for you while hearing the sound of a ruler swishing through the air, about to crash down on your knuckles. Additionally, as I was about to find out, the lack of art programs like music and more put me way behind the students in my new school on Long Island.

It was the Spring of 1974, and after having moved into my new house in Nesconset, in the middle of Long Island, I took a school bus for the first time in my life and headed to my first day at middle school. I think I speak for the millions of middle school-aged kids who have had to change schools at 12, 13, and 14 years old. It is one of the most intimidating and frightful experiences a kid nearing the age of puberty can go through.

To this day, I will never forget what I saw the first time I walked into a classroom at my new school. Kids were having a water pistol fight. The teacher was yelling at them, and they didn’t care. What in the name of Lost In Space was going on? I thought, is this what public school is like on Long Island? I went to St Brendan’s, where if you got caught chewing on a piece of candy, you would be whacked with a ruler four times and then thrown in a closet.

One very stupid-looking, immature kid shot me with the water pistol as I sat down at the first desk I could find. I thought, “Wow, this is how they greet a new student.” I gave the kid a stare that he may have never seen before. It was the same stare I learned to use in the Bronx, trying to get out of being mugged, which usually never worked. This time, it did. Sadly, it worked too well as everyone seemed to look at me like they hated me. It was not a good start. Things only got worse.

I was never a great athlete. In the Bronx, that didn’t matter too much. We played stickball, basketball, and street football, but nothing was supervised unless you played in little league baseball. I was pretty bad at all of it. On Long Island, it seemed that the better of an athlete you were, the more popular you became. My first gym class at the middle school centered around playing volleyball. The kids seemed to already not like me. It got even worse when they witnessed my futile attempts at playing volleyball.

I made it through the rest of the school year. Summer began, and that’s when it hit me. The only summers I had ever known were those I experienced growing up in the Bronx. Every day in the Bronx was full of adventure. You would wake up in the morning and go outside, where you stayed for pretty much the entire day. You would call for a friend, or they would just show up outside, too. You played stickball, hung out on the stoop, went to the pizza place and played pinball, went to the Oval Park or PS 80 schoolyard. Someone was always around to hang out with. You were never alone.

I understood why my parents had moved me out of the neighborhood, but I didn’t want to hear it at the time. That first summer after I had moved, I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. There was nobody around to hang out with. I had to walk a mile or two to get to a pizzeria in a suburban shopping center. The only place to do anything was a 45-minute walk to the Smith Haven Mall. This was not the way I grew up. I soon became severely depressed.

It was a struggle for a few years. I would go back often to the Bronx. At times, almost every weekend, I would with my grandmother to see my friends. I was growing up in two different worlds. My teenage friends in the Bronx were so much more mature than the kids on Long Island, but there was also a hardness that I began noticing more and more. Some of them kept questioning why I was coming back so often. It didn’t make sense to them that I had the chance to live in the country and would want to return to the Bronx.

When I turned 16 and got my license, things began to change. As everyone knows who lives in any suburbia, you’re trapped without a car. There are no subways in Suffolk County. By the time of my senior year, I wasn’t going back to the Bronx that much anymore. I had gotten involved in music and began focusing on what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Opportunities were starting to come my way, or at least with the ability to drive, I could take some shots.

It’s been over forty five years since I left the Bronx. I still have a few friends I stay in touch with and will forever cherish. Nobody knows you as well as your teenage friends do.

I am often in Manhattan for many reasons. However, every once in a while, I still go back to the neighborhood. Of course, it has changed dramatically. Yet, it still smells the same, it sounds and feels like I never left. As I walk down the street I can still hear my friends calling for me to hang out. I can hear echoes of my own voice yelling up at my mom to throw a dime out the window for cubby cone (ice cream truck). As I lean against the 206th Street subway station next to the candy store, I can still see my father coming up those steps from work. The neighborhood still keeps calling me back. I am sure I probably will never return to live there for so many reasons, but I have never stopped wanting to do so……….

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