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Late October, 1933: For weeks hundreds of blackbirds have been returning each evening to one block – the high ground of Olive between 35th and 36th streets. They roost nights in trees, clacking and squawking and irritating residents to the point of action. One, a streetcar driver by day, has been losing sleep at night.
“One shot with a small-gauge shotgun at random into the dark brought three out of a tree,” he says. “The others flew, but returned.”
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Streetcars run on Brooklyn, two blocks west of the blackbirds. That’s the Brooklyn-Sunset Hill line, the city’s most democratic. It links east-side working-class neighborhoods to captains-of-industry Ward Parkwayvia what’s known as “the colored district” around 18th and Vine.
One day a Brooklyn-Sunset car stops at 36th and Broadway. Passengers board and a dog jumps in. A male German shepherd, gray with black markings. The operator lets him stay, but on the return trip, when no one has claimed him, the dog is put off where he got on.
During his ride the dog picks a newspaper off the floor and drops it in a man’s lap.
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The newspapers carry ads for nightclubs. The Paramount Club (Kansas City’s Smart Night Club). The Pla-Mor (Tables for 1,000). The Silver Slipper (Spectacular Fan Dance!). The Hey-Hay Club (Hot-cha Negro Band). The Beetle (The Party’s On Till Dawn). The Harlem Nite Club (Exclusively White Patronage. Spend Your Halloween at the Harlem).
There are ads for Halloween party favors and costumes: Clowns and pirates and devils and bats. Puritans and Mexicans. Daniel Boone and Felix the Cat and Popeye.
There’s an article about someone on Olive Street, lighting Roman candles and shooting them at blackbirds in trees.
And a story about a man who lives in Midtown, a short walk from the Brooklyn-Sunset line, with a sick relative who’s lost her companion – a dog named Duke. The man has been delivering hand-bills all over town. Three thousand hand-bills describing Duke: Male police dog, dark-gray streaked with black. Black face. Front legs scarred from surgery. Missing some teeth. Small in stature. Carries head high. Playful. Reward: $10.
And stories about pre-Halloween vandalism. Gangs of boys soaping car windows, tipping garbage cans, cutting clothes lines, setting fires, slashing tires, throwing rocks and eggs, shooting out streetlights with .22-caliber rifles. About a man answering his doorbell, finding two small boys who offer to get their gang to quit bothering him if he will give them some candy. The man says he thinks he’ll call the police instead.
|Halloween costumes, 1933. |
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
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Down at police headquarters the mail brings a handwritten letter. “Dear chief of police,” it begins. “I promise you I will not soap any cars or windows. I will tell the other children not to do it too.”
The letter is from an 8-year-old boy whose parents have told him the Spirit of Halloween doesn’t approve of vandalism. Only harmless pranks. Knocking on windows, ringing doorbells. That sort of thing. The return address on the letter is the Emerson Apartment Hotelon Linwood Boulevard, a 10-minute walk from the chattering trees of Olive Street.
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The day after Halloween, the 8-year-old says he and his group of friends tapped on a few windows and rang some doorbells. Says he convinced some other boys they shouldn’t set fire to some leaves in a yard, and stopped some older girls from soaping car windows.
The police name him an unofficial assistant chief-of-police. They’ve had another busy night, answering 75 reports of vandalism, from the east-side working-class neighborhoods to the well-to-do blocks of the Country Club District. Almost citywide. Almost. The Kansas City Call reports “not a single such call was received in the colored district.”
One family in that district – they live near 16th and Troost, a few blocks from the Harlem Nite Club and its all-white patronage – is now $10 richer, having dialed a midtown telephone number to report a gray-and-black German shepherd at their home.
Duke, 15 pounds thinner, is headed back to his sick companion.
And out on Olive Street, the fire department has answered a call and aimed a high-pressure stream of water into the densely populated trees there. Finally, the blackbirds have flown. One firefighter is not convinced.
“We’ll be getting a call from some place about six blocks away,” he says.
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This is a slightly different version of a post from October 2009.
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