Friday, May 8, 2009


A trip back to the old block with Al Vann by James Caldwell - January 14th, 2008
“My house was right about here somewhere,” Council Member Al Vann (D-Brooklyn) said recently as he stood in a parking lot in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a cold, gray morning. Motioning with his hands toward the pavement, he tried to map out what used to be 626 Herkimer St.“This is Herkimer Street,” he went on. “Or, it was Herkimer Street.”
Today, where once was Vann’s front door is now a parking lot behind Boys and Girls High School, a nondescript concrete building taking up two blocks along Fulton Street. Behind the school, asphalt and playing fields stretch south to Atlantic Avenue.
The second youngest of five brothers, his mother and grandmother raised Vann in various homes in and around the area now occupied by the school grounds. First there was 635 Herkimer St., then a house at Utica Avenue and Pacific Street, then 1746 Atlantic Ave., and finally 626 Herkimer. None of these remain.“It’s odd, because my entire youth I lived within just a two-block radius,” Vann said. “My whole growing up was right in this little area. Incredible, when you think about it.”
The area was razed and the school built as part of an urban aid initiative called Model Cities, launched by Pres. Lyndon Johnson (D) in 1966. Part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, Model Cities often used eminent domain to take private property for public service. The program was eventually abandoned under heavy criticism, but the effect on the neighborhood was permanent, Vann said. “A lot of things began to change,” he said, “and in retrospect, it was not a good thing to do.”
In particular, the two blocks along Fulton Street where the school now sits was a center of economic activity in the neighborhood, Vann said. There were restaurants, a barber shop, a pool hall, and a bar.
Vann’s mother owned a small grocery store around the corner. “All the businesses on this block were black-owned,” he added. “This was a very important block.” Growing up, Vann worked constantly. During World War II, at the age of 10, he scavenged the neighborhood for scrap iron and newspapers to sell to junkyards. He delivered groceries for stores on Fulton Street and shined shoes on Eastern Parkway for a nickel per pair, then eventually a dime. Later, he moved up to a shoe-shine parlor on Fulton Street, where he worked weekends.
“I’ve been working ever since I was 10 or 11 years old,” Vann said. “I’ve never known a time when I didn’t have to work. We didn’t really know we were poor, because everybody was poor. There was no comparison.”
Despite the work, there was always time for stick ball, punch ball, stoop ball and marbles. Even the street games were not completely diversions, though. “We’d play different teams from different blocks,” Vann remembered. “You know, make a little bit of money.”
His first love growing up was basketball. Vann began playing in Middle School and went on to attend Toledo University on a basketball scholarship. After graduating and returning to Brooklyn to work as a teacher at Junior High School 35, which he had attended, he played in a community league called the St. John’s Flashers, named after the recreation center where the team practiced. “I was pretty good in my day,” he recalled.
When Vann walks his old neighborhood today, little from his youth remains. “It’s altogether different now,” he said. “You can’t imagine. There’s nothing to remind you.” Indeed, when Vann describes the neighborhood of a half century ago, a picture of a bygone era emerges—of jazz records playing in the shoe parlors and people diligently going to church each Sunday.
Above all, he said, a close sense of family and community pervaded life in the old neighborhood. “Supportive is the best way I can describe it,” he said of growing up in the area. “It had a real community feel, where everybody knew everybody, and the adults all had a responsibility to help raise the kids.” Today, those qualities have disintegrated drastically, he said, a shift that looms larger than any physical changes the area has seen. He first started to notice the neighborhood changing in the mid-’60s, when heroin began to seep into the community, then cocaine and crack.
The drug wave had a permanent and debilitating effect on the social fabric of the neighborhood, Vann said, although only in retrospect did he realize the extent of the damage.
“You began to see deterioration in the basic traditional family values that are a part of our culture,” he said. “You’re not really aware of it as it happens. You don’t have an appreciation of the impact that it’s making. You look back at things and say, ‘When did things begin to go wrong? How did they change from the way they were to the way they are now?’”
Vann represented his old neighborhood in the Assembly from 1974-2001. Today, he said, he was focused on using his City Council seat to rebuild a sense of community in the area, which he recognized was a challenge.“Some of us are trying,” he said. “You have high unemployment, which doesn’t help. You have schools that are not doing well, which doesn’t help. But you try to find the fundamental things that will empower the community.”
Al attended New York City public schools and graduated from the Franklin K. Lane High School. At Lane High School, one of his teammates was George Murden, who was a top player and has really made his impact on Brooklyn society as a coach and counselor to thousands of youngsters, both athletes and non athletes, over the decades. Kids who have gone on to success in all walks of life and return to annual gatherings to say thanks to their mentor.
Vann earned his B.B.A. from Toledo University, his Master's in Education from Yeshiva University and his Master's Degree in Guidance and Counseling from Long Island University.
Prior to attending college, Vann joined the United States Marine Corps where he rose to the rank of sergeant. Following his return to civilian life, he had a distinguished career in the field of education as an administrator, teacher and advocate. His experience included teaching at P.S. 256, JHS 35 and JHS 271, all in Brooklyn.
Vann is also a co-founder of the African American Teachers Association along with Br. Jitu Weusi and others.
Al and Mildred, have four children and eight grandchildren.

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