In last night's HBO special The Bronx USA, producer George Shapiro (photo) revisits his home borough of the Bronx with some of his DeWitt Clinton class of 1949 classmates. We visit his old Mosholu Parkway neighborhood, even his childhood apartment, and his old grade school where he teaches middle-school students how to play stickball. We get to hear him and other aging Bronxites also reminisce about their experiences growing up - hanging out with friends at the Candy Store, reading comic books, drinking egg creams, playing stickball in the street, and other spontaneous forms of play particular to the different seasons. We also get to hear from the South Bronx's Colin Powell about being a schlepper in a local shop and from Fordham University grad Alan Alda about meeting his wife in the Bronx. We see familar landmarks - the Bronx Zoo, Yankee Stadium - and hear the El clattering by. We even get to walk on Arthur Avenue and visit some of the old Italian shops that have graced that great neighborhood for decades and decades.
"Neighborhood" hardly exists anymore in most people's experience - at least not the way it did for first-generation Bronxites, who remember what it was like just to go out and play or knock on your neighbor's apartment door. Those octogenarian ex-Bronxites remember neighborhood and treasure it still in the life-long friendships that bring them back to the superficially very different Bronx of today. For this septuagenarian exile from the Bronx, it was a nostalgic treat - even if I didn't go to DeWitt Clinton or play as much stickball as they did.
But there is a lot more than nostalgia in The Bronx USA, which intersperses the oldsters' reminiscences with the contemporary life-experiences of modern-day DeWitt Clinton students - mostly first-generation immigrants as well, enduring experiences even more challenging than those endured by the Class of 1949. The visit to the high school (now co-ed) and the moving conversations between the two generations take the documentary way beyond the charming nostalgic kitsch one might have initially expected from such a production.
The old guys back in the Bronx for a return visit and the contemporary graduating high school seniors have both been formed by their experiences of each other and their Bronx neighborhoods. The older generation represent those who in their time taught each other friendship and resilience and have succeeded in their lives. The younger ones are those who in our time are likewise learning from and teaching each other similar basic and fundamental lessons of friendship and resilience, as they aspire to move on and succeed in their lives. For all its wonderful nostalgia, The Bronx USA ends looking forward to the future - a future filled with hope in the kind of people New York's only mainland borough can and does produce in every generation.
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