The Riot on 17th Street

Pop Lenahan

In light of recent events, I’ve decided to repost this true story from June 2014. It’s the view from the other side of the badge through a child’s eyes.


Copyright 2014, MJ Belko

My great-grandfather, Pop Lenahan, bought a home on 17th Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn at the turn of the last century.  It was a two story red brick building on a block lined by brownstones.  Both of my parents grew up on that block not far from Prospect Park.  It was a beautiful neighborhood back then, full of immigrant families who took a first-time owner’s pride in their homes.  Such a thing would never have been possible  in the Old Country.  The sidewalks were paved with a smooth, dark gray stone flecked with sparkles.  The idea that the streets were paved with gold was more than a metaphor to the new arrivals.

The homes on 17th Street had postage stamp-sized backyards, backed by the occasional garage on the next street.  Pop Lenahan had fenced off the greater portion of his yard and planted a rose garden.  I never set foot in that garden while he was alive.  It was off limits to all of us.  Pop guarded that little garden with a possessiveness only an Irishman could understand after generations of his people being denied ownership of that much of their native soil.

Pop’s daughter, Annie, married Richard and they raised their six children in that house with Pop.  It was a typical Irish New York family—cops, firemen, and the occasional priest.

Sometime in the late sixties and early seventies, the old neighborhood changed, overrun by welfare recipients who had no respect for what they hadn’t earned.  One by one, the old timers left, driven out by the crime,  the filth, and the willful destruction.  Old Mrs. Pascoe, the landlady of  the brownstone my mother grew up in, was one of the holdouts.  A Polish immigrant, she had spent decades caring for the building she owned, getting down on her hands and knees every day to polish the wooden floors and railings.  But even she had to surrender after an angry tenant dangled the old woman by her wrists over the third floor railing one day.  But Pop Lenahan refused to go.  Annie, widowed by then, stayed with him.

Every summer, Annie’s brother Dan, a Maryknoll priest, came home for a visit.  His return was celebrated by a cookout attended by the whole family—an innumerable multitude of siblings, cousins, children, grandchildren, and in-laws.  That particular day turned ominous when uniformed cops began coming and going from the house during the day.  They didn’t stay to eat or visit. They quietly walked into the nursery at the end of the hall on the ground floor, stayed for a moment, and left.  I wanted to know what was going on but knew the adults wouldn’t tell me.  It was simply none of my business.  When no one was looking, I went in through the kitchen and peeked into the nursery.  Police riot gear was resting against the wall—shields, batons, and helmets.  I wondered, very briefly, why the gear was there; but the furtive behavior of the adults made it clear there would be no explanation.  My uncles were cops and fireman.  My late grandfather had been a cop.  They knew what they were doing.

The party broke up earlier than usual that year.  Most of the adults and children left, but we stayed behind.  We didn’t own a car and I imagine my mother didn’t want to risk taking six kids (including one still in a stroller) home on the subway in a dangerous neighborhood without my father.  My father, the eldest child, was not going to leave his grandfather and widowed mother alone to face whatever was coming.

As it got dark, my father ordered us all to stay in the backyard.  Most of the remaining adults moved nervously in and out of the house.  Finally, I learned what was happening.  A riot was about to begin.  I don’t know how the police knew about it so many hours before it began; but something had tipped them off, prompting the strategic placement of riot gear in the home of a cop’s widow.

The shouting began first, then the fires.  From the backyard, I could see the glow of the flames over the rooftops.  The houses had been built in a tight row, with no space between them where you could see the street.  I imagined the rioters, monsters to my young mind and not humans at all, scaling the front of the building and climbing down into the backyard.  I looked at my youngest brother, asleep in his stroller, then at the cinderblock back wall of the garage behind us, and wondered how we would carry him out of there if the rioters tried to get to us.  I knew my mother, who rarely left our apartment, would never make it over that wall.  My father was somewhere inside the house, probably on the upper floor with the rest of the adults.  We were on our own.

Curiosity finally overruled my father’s orders and I crept through the kitchen and hid behind the stairs at the end of the long front hall.  There was a cop standing in the vestibule watching the street through the wide open double doors.  My great uncle Dan, the priest, was standing next to him, casually dressed in khaki pants and a white T-shirt.  The survivor of a Japanese prison camp during World War II, he seemed unfazed by what he saw.  Outside was pure chaos.  Fires were burning, people were screaming, and men were running madly down the street toward something I couldn’t see.  If you had asked me then what a riot was, I’d have told you it’s when a bunch of angry people all start running in the same direction.

After standing there silently for a few minutes, the cop turned to my great uncle and said what remains my last memory of that night:

“Father, you better put your collar on.”


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. MJ Belko
    Dec 22, 2014 @ 23:33:06

    Reblogged this on Storyteller.


  2. mlrover
    Dec 29, 2014 @ 00:50:47

    Reblogged this on historyfanforever.


  3. Judith Post
    Dec 29, 2014 @ 02:47:50

    Great post.


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