The narrow three-story house, at least from outside, looks almost exactly as it did when it was built in the 1840s. It should always look the same, because the city declared the home and the three next to it as landmarks. Located only a block from where the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rises and wraps around Brooklyn Heights, the home was owned by my grandparents for 50 years. Today, it’s the last of four remaining cottage homes known as Cottage Row on Columbia Place. When the weather is nice, small groups gather in front, admiring the architecture, especially the shallow front porch where my great grandmother would smoke her hand-rolled cigars, leaving behind trails of ashes and brown spit. Before it became a landmark, before it became a stop on chic walking tours, it was our home.
Purchased in the 1920s by my grandfather, the home served as the second stop, after Ellis Island, for four generations of Puerto Ricans who sought the American Dream and dealt with poverty and discrimination, and alcoholism, along the way. It played host to parties, with mambo music and lots of laughter and domino-playing. The family survived hardships, such as cancers, miscarriages, failed marriages, the Great Depression, and a few wars, while some of its members became war heroes, police officers, educators, and musicians.
Though my father told me bits and pieces about his childhood—how he swam in the East River, how the outhouse was in the backyard—most of what I know about the home came from conversations with my older cousin, musician Tisziji Munoz.
Now in his seventies, Munoz is preparing to tour Europe and record another album with Paul Shaffer, the former pianist and musical director of The Late Show with David Letterman. Munoz today looks like a cross between a young Steven Seagal and an old Mark Twain, and he has recorded more than 70 albums, mostly on his personal label, Anami Music.
An astrologer and practicing yogi, Munoz has been playing in pain since the day he broke his hand through the pane of glass in the door leading to the backyard. Around his fifth birthday, he was playing “Frankenstein” with a cousin. He walked toward his playmate with arms outstretched, mimicking Boris Karloff’s stiff-gaited walk. Frightened, his cousin shoved him into the door. A shard of glass severed a few tendons and one of the arteries in his hand.
The neighbors heard the horrified shrieks coming from 13 Columbia Place and gathered outside just in time to see Munoz’s mother, clothes red with blood and face filled with anguish, carrying her injured son toward the hospital. Blood squirted from his hand onto spectators’ faces as she passed.
Munoz, who was beginning to pass out, remembers a war veteran pulling over and insisting that his mother get in the car. The veteran sped down a one-way street in the wrong direction and got him to the hospital just in time. The doctors performed surgery immediately and without anesthesia.
“I remember they used a water gun to rinse the blood from my wrist,” Munoz said.
The injury never completely healed. “We didn’t have money for physical therapy,” he explained. Despite being left with partial use of his hand and lifelong pain, Munoz felt he “had to play the guitar.”
He developed a playing style described by JazzTimes as “soaring, overdriven single-note lines—even single-string lines.” Each note he strummed was accompanied by a sharp pain that traveled from his fingers to his elbow. Because of that, he says, “Everything I play has to count.”
At thirteen, he joined The Arrogants, a South Brooklyn doo-wop group. “I didn’t have any nice clothes, so my mother sewed me a vest I could wear,” he said of their early performances. The group went from singing on street corners and at school dances to signing a record deal with Lute Records. In 1962, they recorded the hits “Mirror, Mirror” and “Canadian Sunset,” and later went on a West Coast tour and opened for the Beach Boys.
On his return, Munoz frequented The Palladium, fraternizing with mambo legends such as Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria. Munoz was on the verge of collaborating with Hilton Ruiz, the Latin Jazz pioneer, when a case of mistaken identity stalled his musical aspirations.
One morning, he stepped out to buy the morning paper for his stepfather. “That’s Jose,” he heard someone say in the distance. It wasn’t until the speaker’s group surrounded him that Munoz realized that they were gang members, and that the speaker was talking about him.
“Yes, you are,” the group insisted, after Munoz denied that he was “Jose.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re a Jose.”
Whatever “Jose” did, Munoz paid the price for it. Fists and possibly a switchblade were flying within seconds. The brutal attack ended only after Munoz stopped resisting. He struggled to his feet, one arm steadying himself on the brick wall, the other clutching what was left of the newspaper. He half-walked and half-stumbled home, where he collapsed near the entrance—the front page of the paper missing, page three covered in blood.
Contemporary reports back then put the number of New York City street gang members in the thousands. For protection, Munoz became a Black Diamond.
“It was just like the movie West Side Story. We were living that life,” he said.
Munoz does not speak much about his days as a Black Diamond except to say that they were brief and that he eventually became a leader. Unlike some of the characters in the film, Munoz left gang life before it became fatal.
“I fell in love,” he said. He was also influenced by his grandfather, Papa Carlos.
One of his earliest memories of his grandfather came from the day Munoz’s father died. “Papa Carlos placed a spoon in his mouth and carried him like that to the hospital. I felt so helpless, I didn’t know what was happening,” Munoz said. His father had suffered a fatal seizure right before his young eyes.
“Papa Carlos” was Carlos Corpas, our grandfather. A Merchant Marine and a member of a society for amateur inventors, he claimed to descend from “royal bastards”—a line born out of a Spanish duke’s affair. Many of Corpas’s ancestors stayed in Spain, where they went on variously to operate wineries, hold public office, and win Olympic medals. Others migrated to Puerto Rico.
In early Census reports, Papa Carlos, who inherited the lighter skin color of his Spanish ancestors, is listed as “Negro.” Perhaps it was because of his accented English, or because his darker-skinned mother. In later Census reports, he is listed as “Charlie” and “White.” No one in the family ever called him White Charlie. He was always Papa Carlos and despite a successful assimilation into New York life, his home always had arroz con gandules on the stove and pasteles for the holidays.
“The place was like a zoo,” Munoz said about living with Papa Carlos in a house with snakes, dogs, cats, and birds. If he found a bat hanging in the attic or basement, Papa Carlos fed it. A relentless prankster, he would duct tape a snake to his arm with its head resting in the palm of his hand. He’d then put on a shirt and shake people’s unsuspecting hands so tightly they could feel the slimy movements of the reptile’s head.
Papa Carlos was also known for his generosity. His home was the “family’s” home, and multiple generations lived there, including me. Though he died long before I was born, his practice of never closing a door to a family member in need stood for years after his death.
We did not live at Columbia Place for long—just a few months in the late 1970s. I remember wood paneling, mirrored walls, and dim lights. The outhouse in the yard from my father’s youthful days was long gone. Across the street was the Alfred T. White Riverside building, with its ornamented metal and spiral staircases; Ray Sharkey Sr., the actor’s father, used to live there. A few houses down lived a man they called “Superman” for his habit of diving head-first out of his second-floor window. Every few houses, I saw folding tables out front hosting card games or dominoes while radios played music or the Yankees’ game. Pedro Montanez, the 1930s boxer who once won 60 straight and sold out the Polo Grounds, was a frequent visitor, as was the prolific ballad singer Daniel “El Jefe” Santos.
Today, no one is playing in the streets or jumping out of windows. Most of the visitors are accompanied by a tour guide, like the small group gathered in front the last time I passed by. The guide informed the group that the row of cottage homes was built in the 1830s and that half of them were torn down to build businesses. He pointed out the porch and mentioned the square footage. While they took photos, he walked over to me. “I just want to take a photo,” I told him.
“These are the last of their kind in Brooklyn,” he replied.
“I know,” I told him. I could tell he was waiting for more. “My grandparents used to own it.”
He asked what I remembered most. I told him about the closet on the second floor that ran the entire length of the home and the first-floor toilet with the overhead tank. I told him there was an outhouse in the back and a beagle named Gumby watching over the premises. I did not mention the four generations of Puerto Ricans who walked in and out of the front door for nearly 60 years. The ones who started near the bottom, were called immigrants though they were citizens, and went on to become musicians, educators, lawyers, writers, and mayoral candidates.
“I love the porch,” he said, turning to leave. “You must have fond memories of it.”
Top photo courtesy of the author