This I Believe

Bill Schechter

The attitudes, values, and sensibilities that I have come to call "my beliefs" go back to the Bronx and to the 1960s. I once lived in both those places.

In the Bronx, I grew up among Jewish garment workers in a cooperative housing project called the Amalgamated. Many of us had grandparents who lived across the street. Most were immigrants who had come from the "Old Country," a place they didn't much like to talk about. We lived in one of seven apartment buildings with 1500 other families. There wasn't a landlord among us, though committees were everywhere. Each family had one vote and we governed the place together. I thought this was normal, just the way the world worked. Only later did others, more educated than I, patiently explain to me that this way of life couldn't possibly work because you needed landlords, executives, hierarchies, etc., to keep things orderly and organized. After all, every-day people couldn't be expected to run their own lives.

Then I went away to college and ran smack into the 60s. There were movements, demonstrations, protests, and lots of questions that the people in charge couldn't or wouldn't answer. Despite all, African-Americans won their rights. And then, women, Native Americans, and gays all reached out for their brass ring. Students helped to end our longest war. The 60s came and the 60s went, kind of like a storm blown out to sea.

Looking around today, there doesn't seem to be a lot left of the Bronx that I knew or of the 60's that I loved. Down on Jerome Avenue, the Jewish delis are gone and the mother tongue is Spanish. A new immigrant group is trying to hustle its way to the top, and more power to them. Politically, this is like one of the slow seasons my father experienced when there was still a garment industry on 34th Street. Of course there are still some good progressive things happening, and I do what I can-well, maybe not quite as much as I should. But I hope the great political movements of my youth are hibernating somewhere. Like everybody else in Boston, I'm big into the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, though I still root for my hometown team, the Yanks. Let's face it, I'm getting older, and looking at the faces of the 60s Generation now isn't hugely encouraging. We promised to remain "Forever Young," but now, "All we are saying is give old age a chance."

Still, even as the the Bronx and the 60's recede in my rear-view mirror, there is something that won't go away. Yes, it's that thing called "beliefs." I might be going to sleep...or watching TV ...or cruising the highway...or the Internet, when suddenly peculiar thoughts will start drifting across my sky, and I'll get all restless for a moment or two.

In the borough of the Bronx, by Van Cortlandt Park, and in the streets of the 60s, I learned a lot about the ability of ordinary folks to trust and care about each other, to join hands and to try make the world a better place for everybody. I guess what I really learned about was Democracy, the kind that grows the greenest down by the grassroots. It's an idea that's more beguiling to me than all of our hi-tech gadgetry. And I still believe in it.

April 2005
For NPR Series

Bill Schechter lives in Brookline and teaches history
at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.

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