Phil Coltoff grew up in the kind of post-World War II neighborhood where mothers leaning out of second story windows threw down sandwiches—meatloaf or schmaltz, depending on the family—to boys playing extra innings of stickball in the street as long summer afternoons stretched on toward dusk.

It was also the kind of neighborhood where, before the virulent anti-Communist McCarthyism of the 1950s set in, union members and socialists sat on stoops fiercely debating politics and passing around copies of the Daily Compass and the Daily Worker. Before Latino and African-American families arrived in larger numbers, the old neighborhood was mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish—a generation of immigrants from disparate backgrounds who found common ground as leftist members of the working class. Rather than retreating into their own ethnic enclaves as the area’s demographics shifted, Coltoff and his friends headed off to the newly integrated Morris High School for mixed race dances—and an informal education in social justice and civil rights. 

Coltoff credits these early encounters with inspiring him to become an activist, a social worker, and eventually CEO of the Children’s Aid Society—a post he held for 25 years. As he writes in The Block, his new book about coming of age in the South Bronx, “Our deep friendship, our shared experience, our sense of trust in one another, our working–class orientation, our inventiveness—and in some ways our disdain for authority—were a central motivation that permitted each of us to find his or her own direction.”

In The Block he effectively uses his own life as a case study in how “growing up in this tight, family-oriented, ethnically and racially diverse era was a great exercise in learning and in finding out about yourself, your family, and your place in society.” Everyone on Coltoff’s tenement-lined block—on Crotona Park East between Wilkins and Prospect Avenues—was poor: the Jewish kids envied their Catholic friends for the new coats they received on Christmas, and teenage boys lied about where they were from when they met girls from Brooklyn’s ritzy Ocean Parkway. But his story, filled with schoolyard bullies and notably free of gun violence, predates the neighborhood’s infamous decline in the 1970s: Coltoff’s South Bronx was no slum.

More than a wistful look back at a bygone adolescence defined by pompadours and pegged pants, fistfights and days spent playing hooky, the book is an invitation to think critically about urban communities and how our childhood experiences—whether learning Italian from the kid who feasts on “macaroni” every Sunday or attending a rally with a new friend—make us who we are. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter encourage social work students (the book’s intended audience) to consider how these various elements in a child’s environment—friends, school, outdoor space, violence or the lack of it—can shape the course of an entire life. 

photo: Philip Coltoff in front of 1436 Crotona Park East Woodside One Apartments Management Office in the Bronx

NYU Stories sat down with Coltoff, a visiting professor at the Silver School of Social Work, to talk about the pleasures, perils, and politics of an urban upbringing, then and now.

In the book you describe the block as its own miniature social unit. How did your interactions there prepare you for a life in the larger city?

The block was this space that for many of us represented the breakthrough of the old culture into the new America. Most of us were from first- or second-generation immigrant families, and you had this feeling of holding on to your identity with respect to culture, food, and language in this larger thing called America. Intergroup relations, multiculturalism—there are lots of sociological terms to describe this process of getting outside a narrow cultural comfort zone and into the bigger world. For the Jewish kids, that meant learning to befriend and admire and love the Italian kids and the Cuban kids—and then when we got to junior high and went to school with people from a slightly larger area, the Irish kids from a few blocks away. It was about learning who you are, learning about difference and expanding your horizons without giving up who you are. I remember in the 7th grade I became great friends with a kid named James McKeever, and one day he said, “Why don’t you come over after school? My mother would love to meet you.” And then I was introduced to a whole new world. It was, for me, incredible.

It sounds like the ideal adolescence. Is there a block like this left anywhere in New York today?

Yes, absolutely! The families today are not Jewish and Italian like the ones I refer to, but for today’s immigrants the situation is very similar. I have gone to blocks in Harlem and Washington Heights, where it’s largely Latino families, and where the closeness of the block—the buildings on it and the little park next to it—so resembles what I was describing. Might the language you hear in the street be different? Yes. Might the clothing look different? Yes. But it’s a similar idea, and not just in poor neighborhoods: I’ve also been to lots of blocks in Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights, and Carroll Gardens, where life on the block is beginning to take on similar characteristics, even in newer communities. Colin Powell, who actually grew up just three blocks away from me in the Bronx, and he likes to say that every block had an “auntie”—the person who looked out for everybody, the eyes and ears of the block who knew which kids were misbehaving. Those aunties still exist. 

So many of the stories from your childhood seem to take place in Crotona Park. Why was that such an important gathering place for the neighborhood?

Without the park it would've been a slum. It would have been just tenements facing each other on a narrow street, just 25 feet apart. But the park opened up the world. It’s wonderful for a park to have a lake for rowboating, a bocce court, a tennis court—those things should be in parks. But even if it were nothing but an open space to take a walk, to sit on a park bench, to watch a bird, to walk your dog—that still provides essential psychological space for people who live in a city where the density of the population is so great. You look at people sitting in, say, Washington Square Park on a nice spring day or a nice fall day and they all look happy, whether they're reading or talking or having a sandwich. There's this wonderful feeling that the world is okay.

book cover: The Block

You write about a childhood friend, Tony—a popular, athletic guy who was always complimenting and looking out for his friends. Is that unusual? Is there a name for it?

The name people use in academia is “the affirmer,” and you find one in almost every group—youth groups, family groups, social groups, political groups. Who do you go to when you have a problem? Who’s the one who says, “Gee, you look terrific,” or “Wow, I like your hairdo”? Little things like that make an enormous difference. Life in America today is still group- and family-oriented. If you find people who are not part of groups, they tend to be isolates—not only unhappy but in some cases seriously damaged.

Do you think it’s possible to re-create the community-oriented experience you had in school for today’s kids growing up in poor neighborhoods?

I think we can and we must. Most schools in urban areas today tend to be nothing more than reflections of the ghettoes where they’re located—whether that’s Harlem, Bed-Stuy, or Staten Island. When I was CEO of Children’s Aid Society we began to establish community schools—not charters, but public schools focused on connecting kids to who they are, to their culture and their family. We also created a safe place for kids after 3 o’clock, with everything from tutoring and recreation to snacks and dinner if they needed it. Public schools are, at least in theory—and I think it should also be true in practice—where we really teach kids about democracy. This is where they encounter and learn to respect difference. 

The South Bronx of the 1950s that you describe would be almost unrecognizable to someone visiting two decades later. What went wrong?

Well, there were a lot of factors. The Cross Bronx Expressway and Co-op City, which I mention in the book, were two big ones. At the same time, the borough was aging, and the apartment buildings and the tenements were deteriorating. It didn’t see enormous urban renewal that Manhattan went through at the time, where billions of dollars went to restoring housing up and down the West Side. Landlords become less interested in keeping up the buildings—and at one point in the ’70s it seemed easier for them just to burn them down and get the insurance money.

photo: Philip Coltoff in his office

But what the South Bronx Expressway really did was create two parts of the Bronx. Everyone who had a chance to get out of the southern part and into a new apartment in Co-op City did—why wouldn’t they?
But it turned out that these were the people who were needed in the community—storekeepers, institutional leaders, clergy. So the geopolitical end result was that you left a whole part of the Bronx devoid of institutions, and the only people that were left were those who couldn't go anyplace else. That’s what makes a slum.

You mention a couple of community organizations that packed up and left during this period. How could they have helped if they stuck around?

When you look at how communities are held together—and most of us don’t think of it this way—they’re being held together institutionally. Sure, the people are the nucleus. But if a neighborhood didn't have a pharmacy, a laundromat, a grocery store, a church, a synagogue, a school, a transportation hub, it's not bound by anything. And if it doesn’t have community organizations—a meals on wheels, a hospice, a boys and girls club, a youth group—it doesn’t have the fullness needed to sustain a neighborhood. And then after a while, the tensions that exist in life, without that institutional guidance, can become very divisive, and people either leave or develop a sense of hostility toward others they see as replacing them. It’s a complicated process of feeling alienated.

Too many organizations, then and now, when they feel like they’re losing the people who were in their original membership, pack up and leave, rather than shifting gears to serve the new population in the neighborhood. Institutions, particularly community organizations, have to know they're there not just for one population—not for only those who started there or who look like them. They’re a community resource and it doesn't matter if people have white skin, brown skin, or black skin when they need a safe place to go. Community organizations are the glue. You take away the glue, and sooner or later everything breaks apart.