Bensonhurst at the Time of President Kennedy’s Assassination
How it Was November 22, 1963
On November 22, 1963 I lived in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York. I lived three blocks from where I went to school. When walking to and from school I passed by a Catholic orphanage, which has a playground across the street, and a public high school for girls. I was in the 4th grade in a Catholic grammar school. The teachers were almost all elderly nuns who emigrated from Ireland. Since President Kennedy was the first, and only, Catholic president the nuns held him and his family up as model Catholics.[i] President Kennedy being of Irish extraction was a plus. Roman Catholicism in America was at its height. Sister Luc-Gabrielle, a Belgian nun, had a song “Dominique”, was number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart[ii]. With the Cuban Missile Crisis taking place just a year earlier the Cold War was in full swing. The movie PT 109, which told the well-known story of President Kennedy’s war record, was released in June. The big construction project in the area was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. It would be the largest suspension bridge in the world. Verrazano was in honor of Italian navigator Giovanni de Verrazzano who first explored New York Bay. Narrows was because it was to link the narrowest point between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The school, Regina Pacis, was next to the Regina Pacis church. The parish monsignor planned the construction of a youth center. The planned center would cost 2 million dollars, it seemed an exorbitant sub at the time.
There was a television set in the classroom that was mounted on a cart. Sometimes we would watch educational programs. We were watching television and the programming was interrupted to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. One of my classmates yelled out, “It was the Cubans!” When I got home my father was outside. He told me, “The President died.”
News related to the assassination, President Kennedy, and President Kennedy’s funeral replaced regular television programming. Much of the programming was repeated many times. The live television coverage showed the shooting of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. There were numerous replays of this incident.
[i] President Kennedy’s womanizing wasn’t public knowledge at the time.
[ii] Billboard Charts, https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100/1963-11-23, last accessed 11/4/2018.
How Things Changed
The neighborhood changed over the next few years. The most noticeable was the orphanage’s playground. The number of children in the playground declined sharply. The percentage of lay teachers in the school increased markedly. They even got a male teacher a couple of years after I graduated from grammar school. The Youth Center opened with much enthusiasm but, except for its bowling alley, soon became an underused facility. Drug use among the teenagers became the norm. The most common drugs were pills and marijuana. Vietnam replaced Cuba as the most talked about country. The 1960s seemed to be a decade of decline for Brooklyn. While Brooklyn declined the people who lived there mostly did well. They simply moved. Many moved to Staten Island, which the Verrazano-Narrows bridge made a practical commute to and from Brooklyn. The Bridge gained worldwide attention from the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever”. The Bridge was renamed the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in October 2018. New York apparently figured if they name a structure to honor someone the name should be spelled correctly.
The strict discipline of the Catholic nuns in the long term was apparently counterproductive to their aim. The martinet nun is a popular comedic character on television and in the movies. “Dominique” was number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart throughout December 1963[i]. Sister Luc-Gabrielle left the convent in 1966 but her hit song inspired the idea of the “cool” nun. The “cool” nun is a popular comedic character in the movies and on television. She and her friend Annie Pécher committed suicide in 1985. On March 14, 2019 the Office of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Brooklyn sent out a letter to the alumni of the grammar school stating there were credible allegations against a priest who was ministering during the 1960s.
President Kennedy was seen as a young, dynamic, intelligent, and inspiring president. President Johnson was seen as old, in years and thinking, and boring. The 1960s ended with Richard M. Nixon, whom President Kennedy defeated in 1960, being elected president in a three-way race.[ii] The hope that came with President Kennedy’s election seemed to be all but lost. The fulfillment of President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon seemed dulled by many who believed the resources would be better spent on down to earth issues.
Was President Kennedy’s assassination the cause of the counterculture movement, the strife, and other troubles that marked the rest of the 1960s? Were the social changes and related upheaval inevitable regardless of who was president through 1968? These are interesting questions for alternate historians.
[i] Billboard Charts, https://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1963/hot-100, last accessed 11/4/2018.
[ii] While there is usually at least three people on the presidential ballot the 1968 election was the last time a third-party candidate, Governor George C. Wallace, won electoral votes.
What Might Have Been
If President Kennedy wasn't assassinated.
© 2018 Robert Sacchi