Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History

By Arlene Alda

(Holt, $28, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

We all know Alan Alda, a terrific actor with many fine movies and TV appearances to his credit. But how many of us are aware that his wife, Arlene, (nee Arlene Weiss, of the Bronx) is a gifted musician and a very successful photographer and author of books for kids and adults? Arlene Alda was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hunter College, earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study clarinet in Germany and was a clarinetist in the Houston Symphony, under Leopold Stokowski, before marrying Alan. She went on to become adept at photography and writing and has published 19 books, among them bestselling, award-winning children’s titles.

What is this book about?

Alda’s latest book is about childhood but is for adults. It is a collection of oral histories about growing up in the famous borough of New York City, a book in which well-known people in the arts, business, science and more share their memories of how its culture affected them then and now. Their stories recall life there from the 1920s to 1990s,  and among the 60 men and women sharing them are scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson; Millard “Mickey” Dressler, CEO of J. Crew; rock singer Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts; hip-hop Grandmaster Melle Mel, Al Pacino, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell and Mary Higgins Clark. Nuns, cops, athletes and artists, entrepreneurs and more look back with affection and pride at their youth and the unique place that encouraged them to pursue – and often realize – their dreams.

Why you’ll like it:

If the words “oral history” sound forbiddingly academic, then call these reminiscences family stories instead. Alda re-creates a wonderful slice of urban 20th century Americana here and has chosen an impressive line-up of speakers who invoke the recent, but rapidly receding past.  Whether you grew up in the Bronx or not, you will relate to the era she has captured, and you will be fascinated by the personal tales Alda and her participants tell. This is a warm and engaging book that has tremendous appeal.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Short essays connected by a common thread: a childhood spent in the Bronx. Through the voices of more than 60 interviewees, Alda presents a kaleidoscope of images from these vignettes of life in the New York borough. The pieces span from the late 1920s to the early 1990s and capture the evolution of a neighborhood. Since the Bronx was originally settled primarily by Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants, the initial stories are rich with details about life during the Depression and World War II and its aftermath. Then the narrative gradually shifts with the progression of time to personal reflections from newer arrivals comprised of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. These short slices of life offer intimate glimpses into the childhood memories of well-known people such as Colin Powell, Milton Glaser, Abe Rosenthal and Al Pacino. Whether it was the women’s changing room at Loehmann’s department store, riding a bike to Pelham Bay Park or running to an apartment block to fetch someone for a telephone call at the corner store, living in the Bronx made an impression on all of them as they worked their way up the American dream ladder to become productive and prosperous members of society. Amar Ramasar, principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, sums up the essence of these narratives, writing, “Manhattan wasn’t home until recently, when I moved there. It was always associated with work and studying, but the Bronx is different. It was, and I think always will be, home, comfort, love.” Other contributors include Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin, Dava Sobel, Maira Kalman, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bobby Bonilla. Entertaining and informative; cherished memories from a diverse group from the Bronx.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Alda has compiled a fabulous collection of 65 brief oral histories from a wide range of people who began their lives in the Bronx. The assortment of childhood memories begin as far back as the 1920s, move through the 1940s and 1950s, and end with those born in the late 1980s. Contributors include Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, and—among younger names—dancer Amar Ramasar and Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. While the borough’s underdog status is acknowledged (Odgen Nash’s “The Bronx? No Thonx?” gets quoted), the general tenor is fond and wistful. Mary Higgins Clark sets the tone by dubbing the area one of “only three places in the world that have a ‘the’ in front of their names: the Vatican, The Hague, and the Bronx.” Stories often recall the mundane: stickball in the streets, trying to get “home before dark,” the unforgettable smell of bakeries and delis. Al Pacino recalls teachers who changed his life, and an urban planner remembers his mother drilling him on the subway system before sending him off alone at age 9. There are few readers who won’t be touched by this affectionate look backward, which is as much about the universal state of childhood as the specific borough of the Bronx.”

President Bill Clinton says: “Arlene Alda must be a great listener because all kinds of amazing people tell her remarkable things in Just Kids from the Bronx. No matter where you grew up, you’ll find this a down-to-earth, inspiring book about the American promise fulfilled.”

The New York Times says:  “More than 60 evocative oral histories . . . Just look at the angelic faces captured in the photographs that accompany each of the essays and ponder the question she [Arlene Alda] poses: ‘How did they find a place for themselves?’”

“In these funny, intelligent, generous-spirited reminiscences, an extremely diverse group of Bronxites pay tribute to the borough where they were raised. Many of these are rags-to-riches impresarios whose riches are better known than their rags. Here, they give voice to the place that made them and in doing so, they make you fall in love with the Bronx, and with the resilience and moxie it seems to have bred in its sons and daughters. This is an enchanting collection,” says bestselling and National Book Award-winning author Andrew Solomon.

When is it available?

You can visit the Bronx by borrowing this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.