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Flying Over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boyby Thomas L. Webber
Synopses & Reviews
Tommy Webber is nine years old when his father, a founding minister of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, moves the family of six from a spacious apartment in an ivy-covered Gothic-style seminary on New York City's Upper West Side to a small one in a massive public- housing project on East 102nd Street. But it isn't the size of the apartment, the architecture of the building, or the unfamiliar streets that make the new surroundings feel so strange. While Tommy's old neighborhood was overwhelmingly middle class and white, El Barrio is poor and predominantly black and Puerto Rican. In Washington Houses, a complex of over 1,500 apartments, the Webbers are now one of only a small handful of white familes.
Set during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy is the story of one boy's struggle with race, poverty, and identity in a city — and a country — grappling with the same issues. Tommy's classmates at the exclusive Collegiate School for Boys, which he attends on scholarship, dare not venture above the city's Mason-Dixon Line of 96th Street into the unknown territory of muggers, gangs, and junkies. Tommy, however, slowly makes new friends on the local basketball courts and at church, and discovers a different East Harlem, one where an exuberant human spirit hides within the oppressive projects and drab tenements, fighting to break through the cracked sidewalks. Webber interweaves the nation's growing Civil Rights movement — from watching on television the forced integration of Little Rock's Central High School to participating in the famous 1963 March on Washington — with the subtler, more immediate changes he observes in the lives of his friends and neighbors.
In simple yet compelling prose, lit by the candor and innocence of childhood, Webber brings to life his East Harlem: children playing under gushing fire hydrants; the piraguas man and his pushcart of rainbow-colored icies; Fourth of July barbecues on rooftops; heated games of 5-2 on the public school courts; streets teeming with ugliness, anger, and despair, but also alive with color, community, and hope.
"[A]n exemplary coming-of-age memoir....
"Earnest recollection of an unorthodox upbringing in hardscrabble, polyglot East Harlem....Well rendered and evocative: subdued in tone, but striking in detail." Kirkus Reviews
"Webber's numerous bouts with reverse discrimination lend piquancy to what might otherwise have been a rather predictable chronicling....What satisfies here is less the fresh sociological perspective...than the author's palpable evocation of life in el Barrio..." Booklist
"This childhood memoir is beautifully evocative of its time and place....[A] satisfying conclusion to an uplifting story. Recommended." Library Journal
"It takes just the right mix of hard-boiled professionalism, holy boldness, and tender loving care to finally arrive at what we call humanity when dealing with the lives of other people. This book is the story of one dedicated man's inspired attempt to make the journey." Ossie Davis, actor, writer, producer, and director
"Tom Webber had the most interesting childhood of any white person I know. This is the fascinating, wonderfully observed story of his experiences growing up in East Harlem." Dave Barry, author and humor columnist for The Miami Herald
"Bravo to Tom Webber for such a beautifully written and sensitive reflection on his boyhood as a white kid growing up in black and brown Spanish Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s. His unique vantage point helps debunk commonly held stereotypes about Spanish Harlem, its people, youth, and race relations in general, and strengthens our connections to one another through an understanding of our shared history. Webber has created a blend of heartfelt innocence, historical document, and social commentary in this warm and multitextured memoir. Webber's sincerity, optimism, and honest insights are refreshingly uplifting." Piri Thomas, author of Down These Mean Streets
"Flying Over 96th Street is not the usual story of dreary slum life, but a tough, riveting, and honest account of a white minister's son who grew up in East Harlem. A story that grips you and keeps you reading to the last page, it is a classic memoir in the mold of Angela's Ashes and Notes of a Native Son." Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties
"Diversity may be the hardest thing for society to live with, and the most dangerous thing to be without. Slowly but surely Tommy Webber approaches the goal that should be ours as well — to celebrate rather than to fear our differences. This is a wonderful, poignant, funny, and most readable book. I loved it." William Sloane Coffin, author of Credo and The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality
"In this delightful book, Thomas L. Webber returns the memoir to its sacred and foundational purpose: to witness. As Webber narrates his coming-of-age in a style that is emotionally fluent and intellectually perceptive, we learn firsthand what it was like to grow up a young white boy above 96th Street in 1960s New York as the country was being rocked by the Civil Rights movement. A song of innocence and experience, Flying Over 96th Street informs as it entertains — as all great memoirs do." Katy Lederer, author of Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers
"A powerful and compelling story. A young boy lives, learns, and grows — almost against his will — into a wonderful adult, devoting his life to making the world a little bit better. Beautifully written. Hard to put down." Roger Fisher, Professor emeritus, Harvard Law School, and co-author of Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
Thomas L. Webber's engaging and lyrical memoir of growing up white in New York City's East Harlem public housing projects in the late 1950s and 1960s explores racial identity and community at the height of the civil rights movement.
About the Author
Thomas L. Webber is the founder and Superintendent/Executive Director of Edwin Gould Academy, a coeducational, residential treatment school for adolescents in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. He is considered an expert on the needs of so-called troubled youth and on the future of education in inner cities. A graduate of Harvard College with a Ph.D. in education from Columbia University, Webber is the author of Deep Like the Rivers, the acclaimed book on how African-Americans preserved and nurtured their values under slavery. Webber served for seven years as an elected member of Community School Board 4 in East Harlem, the neighborhood where he and his wife raised their family, the neighborhood they continue to call home.
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