Bronx Tales: A Q&A with author Arlene Alda
Arlene Alda, a Bronx native, attended CUNY’s Hunter College and graduated with honors, becoming a professional clarinetist and playing in the Houston Symphony orchestra before picking up the pen. She is now an award-winning photographer and author, with 18 books under her belt, including “Just Kids From the Bronx”—a collection of memoirs from celebrities and other notables looking back on their childhood in the borough.
In this Q&A with City & State she discusses what sets the borough and its residents apart and what she learned from the Bronx stories she collected.
City & State: What gave you the idea for the book?
Arlene Alda: Many ideas come and go, but I couldn’t let go of a happy experience I had a while ago. One fall day Mickey Drexler, CEO of J.Crew, and I decided to go back to visit the apartment building in the Bronx where we both had grown up. I had just met Mickey a couple of months before, and even though we grew up in the same building, we didn’t know each other at the time. As Mickey and I started trading stories of childhood in the courtyard of our building, he excitedly talked about his family with insights into what kind of childhood he had. Mickey’s humble beginnings and current stature in life were not lost on me, and talking with him was exhilarating. I realized there are so many interesting and accomplished people who grew up in the Bronx whose stories I, and others, did not know. So I decided to step up to the plate to interview some of them for the book I began imagining. I ended up with 65 varied stories for “Just Kids from the Bronx.”
C&S: How did you choose the subjects and how did people react to the idea when you asked them to contribute?
AA: Initially, the subjects for the book were chosen at random. Many of them, like Regis Philbin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mary Higgins Clark, Jules Feiffer, Mickey Drexler, for instance, are friends and acquaintances of mine. I then networked and accessed lists of prominent Bronxites, to round out and update the stories. The ones I ended up interviewing for the book loved the idea and were happy to be interviewed. I would never have asked the subjects to write their own stories. That would’ve been too much of an imposition in many ways, both for the writers and non-writers alike.
C&S: How long did you spend compiling these stories?
AA: I audio taped/interviewed each of the 64 people in the book, (except for Abe Rosenthal’s posthumous piece) transcribed them, then edited them so that each story retained the voice of the interviewee, and was a unique story to that person in his or her time. I arranged the stories in chronological order, so that one could get a picture of time moving forward, with all the changes in the Bronx, and indeed, the country, that implied. All in all, it took me over four years to complete the book. So basically, I didn’t compile the stories. My work was cut out for me as soon as I started interviewing the wonderful Bronxites.
C&S: What was the most interesting thing you learned?
AA: Schools, neighbors, teachers, family members, mentors and role models of all kinds were important throughout the decades. It also appeared that without the intervention and caring of these mentors and role models, some of these “kids” would not have made it … and that included the “kids” from my generation as well.
What common themes, if any, did you notice in these tales?
The importance of education for ensuring a better future, and how important the economic opportunities of the times were. If you grew up in the South Bronx during the ’70s and ’80s, you had a tougher time getting a good education and carving out a path for yourself.
C&S: What makes the Bronx different than other boroughs?
AA: As Mary Higgins Clark says, “There are only three places that have a ‘the’ in front of their names: the Vatican, The Hague and the Bronx.” The Bronx also has more parkland than any other borough (25 percent of the Bronx is parkland). The borough has three major world attractions: the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden and Yankee Stadium. But the most striking characteristic, as far as I can see, is that every Bronxite I’ve met, whether having liked or disliked the Bronx when growing up, no matter the age or the ethnicity, was excited to be sharing his or her childhood stories with me. There’s an affinity we Bronxites seem to have for one another. It’s our shared country of origin, in a metaphoric sense. The people make the borough, and there are a lot of very proud people from the Bronx. And having a winning ball team doesn’t hurt!
C&S: How has your Bronx block changed since you grew up there?
AA: I walked my old block very recently, and I would say the buildings themselves look almost the same … but where are the hordes of kids playing in the street? They’re not there. Times change. TV, air conditioning, electronic games, safety concerns with both traffic and strangers, the dangers of today’s street culture have taken their toll on young kids playing outdoors, unsupervised. Even so, I feel totally comfortable on my Bronx block, over 60 years later. I still think of it as “mine.” The memories are vivid and palpable and I smile a lot when I go there.
C&S: What’s your favorite place to go in the borough and when was the last time you were there?
AA: I’ve always loved Bronx Park, the zoo and the Botanical Garden. I was just at the Botanical Garden last week. I was too late for the orchid show, but was able to see some of the gorgeous flowering cherry trees and spring flowering bulbs. I also was at the Botanical Garden on May 3, talking about “Just Kids From the Bronx.” Great audience!
C&S: In 2015, what is the single thing that would most benefit the borough?
AA: This is not my area of expertise, but I would imagine that jobs are critical. And then, even more of a cultural presence would liven up the borough appreciably. Artists often lead the way. Lead on! Once people know the Bronx is a destination that is fun and interesting, they will come. For the first time in decades, there are more residents staying in the Bronx than are leaving. That’s a good sign.