Tommy Webber is nine years old when his father, a founding minister of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, moves the family of six from a spacious apartment in an ivy-covered Gothic-style seminary on New York City's Upper West Side to a small one in a massive public- housing project on East 102nd Street. But it isn't the size of the apartment, the architecture of the building, or the unfamiliar streets that make the new surroundings feel so strange. While Tommy's old neighborhood was overwhelmingly middle class and white, El Barrio is poor and predominantly black and Puerto Rican. In Washington Houses, a complex of over 1,500 apartments, the Webbers are now one of only a small handful of white familes.
Set during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy is the story of one boy's struggle with race, poverty, and identity in a city -- and a country -- grappling with the same issues. Tommy's classmates at the exclusive Collegiate School for Boys, which he attends on scholarship, dare not venture above the city's Mason-Dixon Line of 96th Street into the unknown territory of muggers, gangs, and junkies. Tommy, however, slowly makes new friends on the local basketball courts and at church, and discovers a different East Harlem, one where an exuberant human spirit hides within the oppressive projects and drab tenements, fighting to break through the cracked sidewalks. Webber interweaves the nation's growing Civil Rights movement -- from watching on television the forced integration of Little Rock's Central High School to participating in the famous 1963 March on Washington -- with the subtler, more immediate changes he observes in the lives of his friends and neighbors.
In simple yet compelling prose, lit by the candor and innocence of childhood, Webber brings to life his East Harlem: children playing under gushing fire hydrants; the piraguas man and his pushcart of rainbow-colored icies; Fourth of July barbecues on rooftops; heated games of 5-2 on the public school courts; streets teeming with ugliness, anger, and despair, but also alive with color, community, and hope.
This is an exemplary coming-of-age memoir written by a white man (Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831 1865) who, as an eight year-old boy, in 1957, moved with his parents and siblings from a comfortable apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side to a public housing project in East Harlem. The relocation came as a result of a "direct call from God" received by Webber's father, a minister who helped found the East Harlem Protestant Parish and wanted to live where he worked. Bitterly opposed to the move at first, Webber details, with pathos and humor, how he slowly adjusted to his new circumstances and found friendship and love in one of the poorest areas of the city. A scholarship student at the all-white Collegiate School for Boys, Webber was often torn between earlier ties to wealthy classmates who never ventured above 96th Street and the working-class African-American and Puerto Rican friends he slowly began to make. In eloquent, moving language, he describes how he overcame an initial fear of the streets; his ultimately successful tries at playing basketball in the East Harlem playground, as the only white boy on the courts; and his friendship with Danny, a streetwise African-American, who yearned to be in show business. (When Danny revealed that he is gay, their friendship remained intact.) The author's parents were deeply committed to the Civil Rights movement, and there is a moving account of their participation in the 1963 March on Washington. Webber's respect for his father increased as he matured, as he realized that "Dad is the man who lives closest to the ideals and principles he espouses." The author still lives and works in East Harlem at a residential treatment school for teens in foster care.
such a different topic than normal books. its very interesting