Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Brooklyn's Finntown has Officially Died

Back in the 1970's, my aunt enrolled in a Brooklyn driving school.

A New York City native, and living fairly close to a subway stop, she technically didn't need to drive, but being an independent woman, she figured having a drivers license provides a measure of independence.

Half-way through her first drive with an instructor, she was so exasperated by the experience, she pulled the car over, in the middle of Brooklyn traffic, put it in park, got out, and stalked home - on foot.

I'm sure the instructor was as relieved about my aunt's decision as she was.

Helena Laitinen, in 1986
My aunt, Helena, passed away yesterday at a memory care facility in Florida, never having gotten a driver's license.

My aunt never married, never had children, never earned a lot of money, and never was what I would call "happy."  Contentedness proved elusive for her.  Yet she had many friends, could be extremely generous, and was loyal to the point of obsession.

A century ago, her childhood neighborhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, was America's center of Finnish culture.  It was called Finntown, but the number of Finns in Sunset Park was never more than 10,000, which isn't large by New York City's ethnic standards.  New York's Finns tended to be clannish, living within several blocks of the picturesque city park with stunning views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. 

There were at least three Finnish churches; Lutheran, Congregational, and Pentecostal.  They had a large social hall called Imatra, built in 1908; a rambling, rickety wood structure notable for being the first public building in the neighborhood with its own electricity, provided by an on-site generator.  At first Imatra did not allow liquor, but by the time I visited it in the late 80's, about the only thing people frequented in it was its bar.  Yeah, Finns are known for their prodigious consumption of alcohol, and they had several bars in the neighborhood.  And a newspaper, New Yorkin Uutiset, for which Helena's father often wrote short stories.  In Finnish, of course.

My grandfather was one of those Finns who loved his liquor.  In fact, he was one of Finntown's biggest boozers, squandering on alcohol whatever money he and my grandmother, a cleaning lady, earned.  Family life for Helena and my father was utter misery.  The horror of having that kind of person as a father and male figurehead in her family deeply scarred my aunt against the male gender, and I heard her comment frequently about how much she generally disdained men.  That's one reason why she never married.  She was going to prove with her life that she could be happy without a husband.

And she found some solace in hard work, for which even that purportedly egalitarian bastion of capitalism, cosmopolitan Manhattan, was supposed to reward employees regardless of gender.  Yet Helena constantly fought the economic stigma of being the clerk, the secretary, the editor, the legal assistant.  Even when she worked for a powerful female attorney at a prestigious Midtown law firm, just off Park Avenue, both the female attorney and my aunt would commiserate about how both of them didn't receive the same pay for their efforts as men in the same positions.  And Helena's boss would know - her husband was also an attorney, and she knew how much more he earned than she did.

(At least Helena's boss and her husband could mourn how much less female attorneys earn in Manhattan while enjoying their sprawling Central Park West apartment, Pennsylvania country house, and live-in nanny.)

Despite being good at the jobs she held over the years, however much she was paid, Helena's main identity came from her native Finntown, even while the neighborhood changed completely during her lifetime.  As white flight surged through New York after World War II, Helena and her mother, my grandmother, remained committed to Finntown.  When they pooled their money to purchase a better home than what they'd endured during the worst of my grandfather's inebriation, they didn't move out to the suburbs like their Finnish friends were doing.  No, they moved to a bigger apartment one block up the street - the same street on which Helena ended up living about 98% of her 88 years.

My grandfather died before my parents ever met.  An apparent heart attack killed him in the foyer of their new apartment.  My grandmother got home from work first, then Helena.  Then my Dad, who said he literally had to step over his father's corpse to get inside the apartment and close the door.  For quite a while, the three of them stood, silent, looking at the lifeless body of one of Finntown's most incorrigible boozers.  They were relieved, mostly.  Finally, my Dad said aloud, "I guess we need to call somebody to take him away?"

For my aunt, my grandfather's death provided a sort of freedom, but she couldn't escape the shadows and demons with which he'd tortured his family in that neighborhood.  Some people would flee the place where so much pain had been inflicted upon them.  But not Helena.  As much as she loved Finntown culturally, I think the main reason she stayed was so she could somehow try to redeem her awful childhood as the tall, angst-ridden daughter of a hardened alcoholic.

A few years later, my parents got married and set up housekeeping in a much better Brooklyn neighborhood until I was born. Then Dad was transferred Upstate, and we left the city. Mom and Dad spent years trying to cajole Helena and my grandmother to at least move to a better neighborhood, especially since the thought of suburbia made them blanch. 

Mom came to believe that my grandmother was willing to move, but she didn't want to leave Helena.  And Helena was adamant about staying, even as the neighborhood was disintegrating before their very eyes.  Crime became rampant, buildings became vacant, hoodlums moved in, stores on the avenues closed.  Vandalism exploded, and graffiti was everywhere.  The streets were dangerous, even in broad daylight.

One of Helena's single girlfriends moved to Virginia and raved about how beautiful and safe it was.  "Come to Virginia," her friend nagged Helena.  Others were nagging from New Jersey, Long Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Florida.  Even Staten Island.  But no, Helena and my grandmother would insist:  All the Finns can't abandon Finntown.  Things would improve any day in Sunset Park.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse.

I remember one afternoon when we were visiting Helena and my grandmother, and other friends were also in their third-floor apartment, when suddenly, shots rang out down the block.  We all fell to the floor, except my elderly grandmother, who after years of scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, could no longer get down on her hands and knees.  The gunshots kept coming, and police car sirens screamed and whooped.  Before long, the entire block was full of cop cars, people shouting; pandemonium.  My grandmother sat in her chair, looking at all of us on the floor, listening to the shoot-out outside, her face in her hands, laughing with embarrassment at the absurdity of it all.

Then the church which Helena had faithfully attended since she was born closed. Its pastor and his wife, dear friends of Helena and our family, moved to Florida to minister to the legions of Brooklyn Finns who'd resettled down in the Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, and Boynton Beach area.  It seemed as if all of my family's friends were encouraging Helena and my grandmother to escape Sunset Park while they still could.  But they didn't.

One day, while at her job in Manhattan, my aunt received a call from the police back in Brooklyn.  Apparently a gunshot had gone through the living room window of their apartment, and would she come home to let the cops inside, so they could retrieve the bullet for their investigation?

I remember Helena found particular encouragement in the fact that, while the city was going to you-know-what-in-a-handbasket, the police still wanted to follow up on that one bullet.  See?  Things can't be all that bad, right?

Up the block, in Sunset Park itself, thugs literally bombed the Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the cash-starved city left it in shambles for years, unable to fix it.  Mass transit, upon which my aunt and grandmother relied almost exclusively, since Helena refused to get a drivers license, became ridiculously dangerous, dirty, and unreliable.  Yet they stayed put.

Things got so bad, when my grandmother had an aneurysm and fell backwards down a flight of stairs in their apartment building, it took Helena about half an hour, frantically scanning the yellow pages, to find an ambulance company willing to enter their neighborhood after dark, before the days of 9-1-1.

After my grandmother's death, we again tried to convince Helena to at least move to a better neighborhood in the city, if she didn't want to leave it entirely.  Yet she refused.  She had plenty of excuses:  Sunset Park was so crime-ridden, she couldn't get anything if she tried to sell her apartment.  If she left Finntown, who'd be left to carry on the Finnishness of the place?  Anyplace else, she'd have to learn to drive, and she didn't want to try that again.  Things had to get better; how much worse could they get? 

But it wasn't optimism that fueled her determination to say.  I believe it was an overwhelming urge to somehow redeem her awful childhood.

Thankfully, Helena was never mugged, raped, or even physically threatened.  Her apartment was never burglarized.  As one of the few white women left in the neighborhood, and an exceptionally tall one at that, I think Helena came to relish her distinguishing presence on the sidewalks, the bus, and at the subway station.  She came to represent resistance, and tenacity despite the neighborhood's stunning decline.  She had grit, she was strong, and she wasn't going to let a bunch of punks and welfare cheats drive her from her home.

And it certainly seemed like there were a lot of welfare cheats.  Young men sat on brownstone stoops all day long, ogling their personal luxury cars parked at the curb, obtained through no legal means.  When Helena went shopping at the only grocery store left in the neighborhood - a filthy den of rotting produce and past-sell-by-date staples - she was often the only customer not paying with food stamps.  Or purchasing copious amounts of beer and cigarettes.

She'd yell at the neighbors on her block who were doing and selling drugs.  She wasn't scared of the dealers; she was indignant towards them.  She'd scream out her third-floor windows at Latinos playing their salsa music too loudly.  She'd walk up to parents on the sidewalk whose kids were using foul language, and she'd angrily critique their lax parenting.  Sure, some of the newbies in the 'hood who grew accustomed to Helena's rants would curse her to her face, but it only fueled her defiance.

And plenty more people pretty much left her alone.

Indeed, except for some chatty neighbors in her apartment building, my aunt was soon very alone in her neighborhood.  She'd visit dear friends who'd moved elsewhere in Brooklyn, and she had her work in Manhattan, but on her block, she was the last holdout.  The last Finn.  A few elderly Finns remained scattered around the old Finntown, but the good old days when Finns didn't need to speak or write any English to flourish in the neighborhood were long gone.

As best as I know, today, there are approximately five - maybe eight - Finns left in Sunset Park and the original Finntown.  Down from 10,000 at their peak.  The handful who remain keep to themselves, and were never as involved in New York's Finnish cultural community as Helena was.  They live on 41st Street, between 7th and 8th avenues, across the street from a revitalized Sunset Park, and amidst a boom of Chinese immigrants that has driven housing prices through the roof.  Indeed, Helena enjoyed a bit of validation for her years of holding out, as the Chinese practically invaded the crumbling shell of her neighborhood, beginning in the 1990's.  Storefronts that had been empty for decades were re-opened.  Restaurants moved in.  Decrepit vacant buildings were torn down and shiny, modernistic, ugly new ones - tall ones! - were erected in their place. 

On Helena's block, the Chinese crammed into every house, even living in illegal basement apartments.  Helena would stand at her third-floor windows every morning, marveling at the swarms of Chinese who would emerge from every doorway and march towards the subway station.  That many people hadn't gone to work on her block in a generation.  She was pleased to see such industriousness, even though she knew that many of those poor souls were in Brooklyn illegally, having sold themselves to human traffickers who were literally holding each of them for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom.  Money Helena's new neighbors faced years of repaying, many working long hours in virtually sweatshop conditions.

When she began to develop dementia several years ago, my family finally convinced her to move to a retirement center in Florida.  She sold her 700-square-foot apartment for $300,000, a staggering sum for her, but still a pittance compared with similar apartments in far better neighborhoods in trendier parts of the city (and not quite half what similar apartments are selling for today, just a few years later).

Her death yesterday represents dementia's continued toll on my family, after my Dad's passing from Alzheimer's last fall.  Thinking back on all of the friendships both Dad and Helena maintained from their childhood days, growing up in Brooklyn, nearly all of those friends have died from some sort of memory-related illness as well.

One of the responsibilities Helena assumed for herself back in the old Finntown was being a nurse for older Finns who had remained, like her.  And in Florida, as her mind was taken from her, Helena was visited by younger friends who'd long ago moved from Finntown to Florida.  It wasn't the most ideal set-up; we'd asked Helena if she wanted to relocate closer to family in Michigan or Texas, but she chose Florida, because that's where most of her Finntown friends were now.

Throughout her entire life, Helena obsessed over her Finnish roots far more than the rest of us in her small family have.  But it wasn't just her Finnish roots that gave Helena her identity.  She seemed driven by a desire to re-craft for herself a life that could suffocate all of those painful childhood years as the daughter of a Finnish alcoholic.

Sunset Park's dismal decay during the worst years of New York City's urban blight couldn't shift Helena's focus.  The crime, the graffiti, the stolen, stripped cars junked on the avenues, the empty stores, the vandalized subway stations couldn't force her to abandon an intention I doubt she herself fully understood.  It was as if she'd already become hardened to the hardness of life in a ghetto.  She saw what was happening, but instead of making her flee, it made her more fierce in her resolve to fight.

Was it foolishness on her part?  Some would say it was.  Was it unrealistic?  Without knowing if Helena really knew why she refused to move away, it's hard to tell if she found any measure of peace by staying.  It certainly never looked to the rest of us like she did.

Of one thing we can be certain, however:  My aunt hated giving up.  Yes, she gave up on driving - car, instructor, and all.  But that was about it.

Yesterday evening, as her caregivers were putting her to bed, she stopped breathing, and one of them gently jostled her.  "Helena!"  She called out in alarm, "You've stopped breathing!"

Reportedly, Helena's eyes briefly opened, and she shot the caregiver one of her trademark cold, hard glares.  And then she closed her eyes, and softly took one final breath.

She always did like having the last word.


  1. Very interesting... I enjoyed the stories and vivid imagery. What a character!

    1. Perhaps it would help if I clarify that the people who replaced the Finns were Hispanics, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. There were almost no blacks, up until recently, and even now, there are few. Many Hispanics remain in Sunset Park, but the overwhelming majority of residents are now of Chinese descent.

  2. A well written article. Helena knew how to connect with her Sunday school students at Golgotha church and made a valuable contribution to the community. Her dedication was from the heart.

    1. Yes, Helena enjoyed her Sunday School classes. After Golgotha closed, she taught for years at the 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church.


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