Monday, December 15, 2008

NYC: Back On The Block

an excerpt from the nytimes of 10/17/08
The Jump Rope Girls, 20 Years On, By SUSAN HARTMAN
TWENTY years ago, six girls lit up a troubled Brooklyn block. Gunfire could be heard in the distance. There was a stream of visitors to the apartments of drug dealers. But these girls had claimed a patch of sidewalk in front of their building, and from April to October, on a strip of Parkside Avenue just east of Prospect Park, these 8- and 11-year-olds were unstoppable.
GeeGee Goodwin, top, with her son, Aaron Jr.; Peachie Navarro, middle, with her son, Cleveland, in background, and a nephew, and Jackie Rendon, bottom, with her son, Josiah.
No matter what was going on in their lives — financial problems, divorces, family illness — they showed up. Some days, they played double Dutch, but many other days they performed what they called “cheers” — a clapping, foot-stamping game that drew from rap music, from traditional childhood games, from cheers they had learned in school and from their own lives. They worked these bits into short, dramatic routines.
The girls had personality galore: Jackie and Steffie Rendon, the twins, were strong-willed, green-eyed 11-year-olds, their ponytails flying as they jumped. Always nearby were two other 11-year-olds — Elbe Vasquez, their ebullient, curly-haired cousin, and Peachie Navarro, who was quieter and had almond-shaped eyes.
The two 8-year-olds, joined at the hip, were Starr Bryant, who was tall, athletic and had high cheekbones, and GeeGee Goodwin, who had slightly bowed legs and a megawatt smile.
In the fall of 1988, the girls’ cheers and their lives were described in an article in The New York Times. Ten thousand turns of the jump rope later, Parkside Avenue looks much the same — a tree-lined mix of brick apartment buildings, and two- and three-story row houses and town houses.
Two of the girls who were part of this world have moved on — Elbe moved to nearby Sunset Park in 1998, and Steffie to Florida in 2004.
But the other four are still powerfully connected to the block, and are negotiating the world for their children, a task likely to be even more daunting, given the waves of economic distress hitting the city and the nation.
Three of the women live in the apartments in which they grew up: Peachie, a pharmacy technician who has two children and helps support a four-generation household; Starr, who is raising two daughters; and GeeGee, mother of an 8-year-old son.
And although Jackie, the one who made it into the middle class, moved away, she returns to the block every day at 5 p.m. to pick up her son at her mother’s apartment.
“There’s a homey feel,” Jackie said of Parkside as she sat in her Nissan Altima waiting for her child. “My mother’s here. My sister’s here. Even if they weren’t, I’d come back.”
Parkside, part of the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood, sits within the 71st Precinct, which, along with the rest of the city, has seen a sharp decline in crime in recent years. The murder rate has dropped 69 percent since 1990; rape is down 80 percent, according to police data. But despite signs of gentrification on Parkside — a house that cost $76,000 in 1984 recently sold for $760,000 — safety can still feel elusive.
Drug dealers sit on boxes and folding chairs at the end of the block. As Peachie summed it up: “If I can see it, smell it, what does my daughter see?”
Many current residents have vivid memories of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Parkside was hit hard by the citywide crack epidemic. Thirty-six murders were reported in the precinct in 1990, and the block felt the tremors from nearby events, among them a riot the following year involving blacks and Hasidic Jews in nearby Crown Heights.
Throughout this turmoil, the girls stayed focused on their cheers.

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