‘Bronxland’ transports readers back to life in the 1960s

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What would you do if you wanted to write your memoir only to realize no one outside your family were likely to buy it? 

Paul Thaler was in that predicament. So he did the next best thing: He wrote “Bronxland,” based on growing up on West Tremont Avenue during the 1960s. The novel is a coming-of-age tale with all the angst of 13-year-old Paul Wolfenthal. 

“If I could blend my story with this fictional character, I could create the old Bronx as I saw it then,” Thaler said. “Not just in terms of the neighborhood, but also in terms of the historical events that were happening at the time, and how matters of race and politics played into those times.”

Wolfenthal not only is hitting adolescence, but he’s also coming up against the ‘60s, Thaler said of the decade, which included political assassinations and the struggle for civil rights. 

“As his coming-of-age,” Thaler said, “so is the decade itself.”

Vivid details are woven into the novel, like riding around the borough on a red Schwinn bike, watching a film at the nearly 4,000-seat Loew’s Paradise movie theater, and watching the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Additionally, with references to stoopball, stickball and the Stadium (Yankee, of course) — a part of life for many Bronx kids — Thaler makes one feel like they are living in the “old Bronx” with Wolfenthal.

One of Thaler’s childhood heroes includes Kennedy. Although decades apart in age, Thaler finds a great deal in common with the one-time Riverdale resident who lived on the other side of the borough. In one scene, Wolfenthal rides his bike to this part of the Bronx to see his hero’s home.

During part of his childhood, Kennedy lived at 5040 Independence Ave., and attended Riverdale Country School.

As the book progresses, the reader begins to see the innocence of Wolfenthal’s youth beginning to fade, especially with the assassination of Kennedy. 

Today, Thaler — who’s lived in Riverdale for more than 20 years — makes his home just a short distance away from the former president’s house. 

The red bike is the symbol of a sense of freedom where kids could be on their own, Thaler said. Teenagers back then could ride to places like Woodlawn Cemetery or just travel around in the vicinity unsupervised without their families having to worry. 

“Bronxland” was a labor of love, Thaler said, as working and promoting the novel gave him a chance for his family members and readers to discuss their own stories of the Bronx of yesteryear, embracing memories of their own childhoods. 

“There were times (in) the writing of this book where I felt I was inside the mind of this character” of Wolfenthal, Thaler said. “I felt I was back in that time.”

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