August 22, 1964 - Martha and The Vandellas debuted at No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with their single, "Dancing In The Street." I was only 10 at the time.

Bed-Stuy was still a "mixed" neighborhood back then. Originally mostly Hasidic, there were still many of their families... The first time I ever saw a tattoo from "the camps" was one day when the landlord came by to collect the rent and when I asked what the numbers were for, my mother shushed me and apologized, embarrassed... He lived upstairs, his son Moshe was my best friend and we always played together in the hallways. I remember their entire family along with the others would move out in to the backyard, to a little hut they built every year. When I asked my mom why, she said "Passover" as if that somehow explained it.

That summer seemed like the hottest one ever. In those pre AC days we all spent as much time as possible on the stoops, or hanging from the fire-escapes. The kids; spics, Jews, coloreds, all together, playing while the grownups griped about the weather and sharing the latest gossip.


Demonstrators Harlem 1964


Then we heard on the news the story of a 15 year old Negro kid who had been shot by a white cop up in Yorkville. He was from Harlem, but was a student in a nearby school and his classmates had seen it all... a "small disturbance" ensued. The next day there was a protest.

The following day, after the kid's funeral, people didn't go home. There was coincidentally a rally by CORE regarding the three civil rights workers that had gone missing in Mississippi... and it all started to become one thing. The cops made statements about it all being a "crime thing" and not political. Malcolm X made a statement warning the police that blacks had guns and would not take it well if the cops started playing rough. Meanwhile the mob got bigger...

Two days later Harlem was in flames, with the nightmarish scenes broadcast on TV and all the adults asking each other if it would spread.

In Brooklyn there was a meeting of the Black Nationalists... the crowd started getting riled up...

There was a troop of mounted cops on Nostrand Ave, just around the corner from my house on Park Place. A sound truck from the NAACP was trying to tell people to stay calm. It didn't go over well. A few guys started rocking the truck and the cops charged in to "rescue the crew".



Bed Stuy protest

Then, all hell broke loose.

For several nights I went to sleep to the sound of police shotguns being fired from the rooftops (the cops had learned from Harlem to take the high ground) they would shoot straight into the air, so that the rain of pellets cleared the streets below.

In the morning I went out with my mom, I guess to try and get some groceries. Nostrand Avenue looked like a war zone from a movie. Burned-out cars, broken windows on empty store fronts, blood on the sidewalks... The cops roughly told my mom to take us home. We tried again the next day, but it was worse.

Then that night, it went quiet. Days of riots were over, at least in my neighborhood. They would flare up again all over the country that summer and each time, the adults looked at each other with the same questioning expression they wore that first night when it had started up in Harlem.

The neighborhood was never the same afterwards. The Jews all sold out and left. Even my mom was too scared to stay and we moved to South Brooklyn (Ha!)

That summer, one of the greatest party songs ever was heard everywhere...

Nobody in Brooklyn thought it meant what it meant... 


Dancing in the Street - Martha & The Vandellas



Post script







Jose Rosa

Jose Rosa

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