It began most respectably, that day, the day I met gifted young Savanna, some kind library workers, and some menacing young men. I had a most respectable, even boring, goal: start the next chapter of my dissertation in urban history, specifically on how Brooklyn neighborhoods changed over time with changing populations. A good idea, right, for a Brooklyn girl, born and bred?
I needed a chapter on Brownsville, a neighborhood as ungentrified now as it was from its very beginning. Always struggling, always poor, whatever the population. Only the accents and the skin color changed. I had collected some research, some thought-provoking photos, and re-read a classic book, a literary memoir about growing up there that was as vivid now as the day it was published. My plan was to get in the mood by going out there, looking at some of the places that remain, looking at what has changed, taking some photos. I didn’t know it then, but that book would also lead me to the author’s sister and both living stories and buried memories about old Brownsville.
As to modern Brownsville? OK. Maybe I knew it was not exactly the mundane activity I told myself it was. I’ll admit my instinct was not to tell anyone where I was going– not my dad, not my teen-age daughter, not my adviser- because I knew what the reaction would be. True, it has one of the highest crime rates in New York but I was going anyway. I wasn’t interested in hearing any commentary.
To my delight, I found the charming branch library that was built back in the thirties. In fact, it was originally the Brownsville Children’s Library. I met those nasty youngsters on my way in to look around and ask questions. I think they accosted me just for fun. Their idea of fun, not mine. I soon learned they had been harassing the young library assistant who was assigned to show me around. That was Savanna, shy and smart, whose college scholarship was being celebrated that very day. I was invited to have a piece of cake and join the proud moment.
A few days later, she was found beaten and left for dead in a vacant lot. When I saw her mother on TV, insisting someone must know the truth, I realized we had been classmates years ago. We were both struggling single mothers, taking the bus to Brooklyn College just as we had done for high school.
We weren’t friends, didn’t even know each other, but I sure remembered her. She was someone you didn’t forget, in spite of the years, the now grown-up clothes and hairstyle and responsible job.
So I did what any mother of a teen would do in the circumstances, and reached across the decade gone, and the fact that she would not remember me, and wrote: How can I help?
It all started first day, when I began to learn more than I ever expected about how Brownsville is now; and how it is like, and not like, Brownsville then; how young people struggle, now and then, to make hope when there is no hope; how I made new friends out of a long-ago fellow student and two very old ladies with long memories and untold stories.
You can read more about Erica in Brooklyn Secrets, the third book in the “Erica Donato” mystery series, published by Poisoned Pen Press. The first two books in the series are Brooklyn Bones and Brooklyn Graves.
GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment by 12 a.m. eastern on December 24 for your chance to win a print copy of BROOKLYN SECRETS. (US entries only, please.) Good luck everyone!
About the author
Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in New York the city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn neighborhoods in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. The third, Brooklyn Secrets, is now available. In it, Erica find herself immersed in the old and new stories of tough Brownsville, and the choices its young people make.
Visit Triss at trissstein.com