Downtown NYC “Fun Schools”

by Richard Kostelanetz (May 2014)


Dina Hampton’s Little Red: Three Passionate Lives through the Sixties and Beyond (Public Affairs) focuses upon three people slightly younger than myself (b. 1940). They supposedly went to the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Since the LRS was the West Village companion to another school in the East Village that I attended from 1947 to 1951, Downtown Community School (DCS), this book reminded me of experience I’d not written about before.

First of all I’m surprised that Hampton doesn’t mention DCS, not at all, even though both elementary/middle schools channeled their students into Elisabeth Irwin High School (EI), which is the actual (if less sexy) common thread of this book. Though DCS and LRS were said to resemble each other, they probably differed, though I can’t tell how, because I’ve never known anyone who went to LRS around the same time that I was at DCS (and can’t figure why not) and no one queried by me remembers. Certainly, when I, as an adult in 1966, moved several blocks south of DCS, I felt that the East Village at that time differed from the West Village. As it still does, I suspect that these two elementary schools sixty years ago reflected certain identifiable cultural differences.

Of the “Three Passionate Lives” featured here, only one actually went to Little Red before EI—the activist cinematographer Tony Hurwitz, whose parents were the choreographer Jane Dudley and the filmmaker Leo Hurwitz. A second “passionate” liver, the Republican factotum Elliott Abrams, entered only EI in 9th grade, while Hampton’s third star, Angela Davis, went through EI just for 11th and 12thgrades. Only the first person I would classify as representative of LRS, celebrities of sorts though the others might be. In other ways this book is sloppy. Consider that “Nelly” on page 220 is “Nellie” across the gutter on page 221!

To be precise, Elizabeth Irwin, then as now on Charlton Street south of Houston Street, is physically separate from the LRS. The latter, now as then, is a few blocks up Sixth Avenue on Bleecker Street north of Houston, which remains a cultural divide in lower Manhattan.

Until 1970, when it closed after an internecine fight, DCS was perhaps one mile east of the LRS at 235 East Eleventh Street, just west of Second Avenue. Its building now houses the Third Street Music School, which moved several blocks north some decades ago, after the Hell’s Angels (yes, those scary bikers) purchased on East Third Street some buildings they still own (reportedly with money from the painter Willem de Kooning, whose illegit daughter was dating a chief biker). Remember that, in lower Manhattan especially, streets only a few blocks away can house different cultures.

By now I can speak of DCS jocularly as a “Commie school,” and indeed among our teachers were several fired from the public schools for their political affiliations. Among my classmates was Eugene Dennis, Jr., whose father, Eugene, Sr., was then unnecessarily imprisoned. (Jr. once claimed in a television documentary that FBI men monitored DCS, which I doubt, because even kids would have noticed glum adults who didn’t look appropriate.) I remember my classmates as predominantly Jewish, though I didn’t know enough then to distinguish old Germans from Eastern Europeans, to recall a distinction at the time so divisive at uptown schools and then elsewhere in the Jewish-American community. Two other DCS kids were the children of the African-American singer Josh White.

DCS I now remember as something else—a downtown funschool. “Progressive education” at that time meant that learning should be agreeable. That had a converse—if something was too difficult, forget about it. I had (and still have) more difficulties than most educated people with spelling, which would have later classified me as “learning disabled”; but the DCS staff apparently accepted such aberrations. So many of us loved DCS that it has a Facebook webpage that makes some of us cry. The most visible DCS alumni are artists and writers.

In my judgment, DCS epitomized the downtown private schools were so different from those uptown. As the latter weren’t fun schools, we couldn’t easily transfer from one world to the other. This is still true. A successful sculptor’s daughter recently transferred from EI to Brearley (way uptown at 84th and the East River) for tenth grade. Uncomfortable there, she came back to EI for her senior year.

I remember DCS less for any interest in Soviet Communism per se than for so much enthusiasm for Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign that I was at the time surprised that he didn’t win. I recall a class trip (or perhaps a school trip) to the Wallace chicken farm in northern Westchester, where we may have met HW himself. The folksinger Pete Seeger, blacklisted from touring, joined others adults at DCS in disseminating “Popular Front culture,” some of which still captivates me.

As an anti-Communist lefty, Dwight Macdonald pulled his kids out of DCS toward the end of WWII, even though his family lived on the next block. In a letter printed in a book of his letters, A Moral Temper (2001), he cited the purportedly pernicious influence of Richard Lauterbach (1914-1950), who had been Time magazine’s bureau chief in Moscow. (I knew about him first as the father of Jennifer Lauterbach, a DCS classmate whom I met again in Columbia U.’s graduate school in American history and the poet Ann Lauterbach, who was two years behind us at DCS.)

Nearly all our parents were professionals of some kind—artists, writers, lawyers, doctors. One exception among my classmates had a father who made classy glass ceiling fixtures. Invited to his factory, we all came home with a sample, I guess certifying to our parents that this businessman should be considered one of them. As we grew up in homes where cultural enthusiasms were prized, we came eagerly to school. We became culturally respectful and “high-minded.”

The director of DCS was Norman Studer (1902-1978), who had come there from teaching at LRS. He also founded Camp Woodland where I went in the summer of 1951. Among my fellow campers was Robert M. Schuchman, who a decade later became, surprise, national chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom, a William Buckley creation, before dying too young (1965). Perhaps Commie schools were no more successful than Catholic institutions at producing faithful apparatchiks. This reminds me to note again that the principal advocate of “compassionate conservatism,” Jack Kemp, went to an LA high school (Fairfax) favored by the kids of holocaust survivors and, yes, Communists.

EI has probably changed over the years. Once outside its building on a warm night around 1994, I saw in the EI garbage the classic 1930s anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935), which I now own. My assumption is that it was “deaccessioned,” since no one recently at EI had read this Communist classic so visible a half-century before. It now sits on my shelves.

One truth Hampton misses is that only the very brightest DCS kids (and LRS kids probably) could go to an academically challenging high school. One fellow I remember as brightest of us all went to the toughest New York City school of them all--Bronx Science. After taking a doctorate in computer science at Harvard, Bobby Fenichel earned an M.D., becoming an emergency room physician and later a drug-evaluator at the FDA. For those wanting a selective public high school certain identifiable, if subtle, cultural differences, the favorite was Music and Art, now called La Guardia, where enthusiasm alone could get them through.

I would have rather read a book about the downtown Manhattan fun schools, which were liberating and fundamentally libertarian (though we didn’t know that word then), incidentally producing minds more original, if less visible, than either Elliott Abrams or Angela Davis. I doubt if I would have pursued my rather free-loving art and writing career based so much upon enthusiasm had I not gone to DCS.

 

_______________________

 

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

 

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