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Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda For many years we have made a trip to New York City spring and fall, for visits to galleries and museums, and for general urban invigoration after months of small town life. We stay with friends in the East Village and each day I walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and back to Manhattan – good exercise and an exhilarating experience in itself. Once we took the metro all the way across to Coney Island in the late fall and walked along the beach and took photographs of the amusement park shuttered for the winter. Had a dreadful hot dog at the famous Nathan’s, and headed back into the city. We’ve walked along the promenade on the Brooklyn side of the East River and attended theatrical events at BAM.

These days Brooklyn is changing, as it has before, “the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses. The new bars cannibalizing the old ones. The skeletons of forgotten buildings – the sugar refinery and the dry dock – surviving among the concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living.”

Ivy Pochoda in her novel Visitation Street brings us Brooklyn on the cusp of this gentrification as some of the residents of Red Hook watch in wonder as their neighbourhood changes, and others just wait out the sweltering, stifling summer days and nights, passing time. Teenagers Val and June decide one evening to take a pink inflatable raft out onto the river. Never imagining that the river would be so powerful that they would float far out, and that when they capsize the consequences would be tragic.

Watching these girls are a couple of boys whose troubling stories are revealed as the novel progresses. One girl disappears and the other is found washed up on the shore by another troubled man, Jonathan, who is coincidentally her music teacher from the neigbourhood Catholic High School. Jonathan lives a much more alternative lifestyle than his employers could ever imagine. His discovery of the barely alive girl finds him both celebrated as a hero, and at the same time suspected of “interference” and a possible suspect in the disappearance of the second young girl.

The boys who are involved, a street kid new to the area, and Cree, a black boy about to graduate from high school are also suspected. Just because they are disenfranchised, or are there other more valid reasons to think they may know more about this situation than they admit? Cree is the kind of kid who in other circumstances could be a poster boy for “successful black kid from a tough neighbourhood” who succeeds in spite of all sorts of societal challenges. At times we fear that these challenges will overwhelm Cree and destroy any future he may have to overcome his past. We fear that we’ll see him sink into a future of drugs and desolation, as have so many of his peers.

This is inner city America – the desperate lives of some, the privilege of a few and the intersection of both, in a time and place that is rapidly changing. People in their 30s remember when gangs ruled the streets where kids now freely roam – not that every place is safe, but it is not all dangerous any more.

The secondary characters, the immigrant shopkeepers and the parents and other relatives of the young people, are all fully developed and add dimension to the story. This is a bit of Brooklyn that will forever be changed by the relatively affluent young people now living there – and one hopes that the changes they bring with them will benefit all the Junes and Vals and Crees who are also growing up there and watching in wonder, and not a little contempt, as middle America moves into their hood and Brooklyn becomes home to the hippest of the hipsters, their specialty shops, boutiques and designer babies.

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