Google maps allow you to go back to the future in that they tell you what happened to places you once knew but are now way in the future of the time when you knew them. The experience is akin to that of a science fiction movie that shows what the world will be like with the hindsight that it is of a future that has already arrived, what with glimmers of the religion of the machine that is found in Metropolis or the galactic (i. e., global) empire that is in Star Wars. That is the experience I had when I went to the maps of my old neighborhood in the Bronx and the small village in the Catskills, Woodridge, where I spent a good deal of time during my childhood. It is more apt to say that this experience was not just any science fiction movie. It had nothing to do with Star Wars. It was a post-apocalyptic movie where, unlike in Terminator 3, it could not be foretold at the time when it was the present, which is the time when it was being lived through, that it would become a scene of destruction.
Woodridge, New York billed itself in the Forties and Fifties as “The Friendly Village”, perhaps because there was nothing more exciting to say about it. As I have suggested elsewhere (why the place is so important to me I still don’t know) it was built around a central plaza down near the railroad station, one road running up the side of a bowl to get to Route 17, which was the main road from the Catskills to New York City, and another road climbing more steeply from the other side of the plaza, past the giant laundry that provided jobs for many in the community. That road ran to South Fallsburg and other more important parts of the resort community of hotels and bungalow colonies that made up the Borscht Belt that during that time served the working class Jewish community of New York. That was before the Catskills extended its season so as to appeal to a winter crowd. The winter resort was Lakewood, New Jersey, where my father worked as a bell hop and chauffeur when he was not working in his own father’s bakery in Woodridge, even though he all the time retained his residence in New York where he worked most of the year except for his lengthy departures to the resort communities. This was also before both the Catskills and Lakewood made way for inexpensive trips to Miami and the Caribbean and, after that, to Europe.
The way I got to get out of elementary school two months early for a few years so that I could spend it in Woodridge with my parents--and even, one year, took a two month hiatus from school so I could go to Lakewood--was by way of a doctor’s excuse saying that I was a sickly child. Nobody, including me, believed the note provided by our family doctor, but it served as an excuse for the elementary school principal. I did not feel I had missed anything when I got back. I do not think that was because I was all that smart, although I thought so at the time, but because the pace of schoolwork was so slow for everyone. That made it possible for the slower students in any grade to make some progress over the course of the school year. I thought then and still think that many of the students I knew at the time could have moved much more quickly through mathematics or history if they had been given the chance. I learned a lot of history because my sixth grade teacher pretty much left the class alone to do for the course of the day the homework he assigned at the beginning of the day (assignments which I graded). That left me the time to delve into the American Frontier and the Harlem Renaissance.
No science was taught at my Central Bronx elementary school—and this was, at the time, one of the better elementary schools: it was well disciplined, there was very high attendance, there was a carefully articulated and cumulative curriculum, and it was full of the ambitious children of recent immigrants and of teachers who at least carried with them, under their arms, The New York Times on their way to and back from lunch. Maybe that is when I learned that educated people read the Times. Indeed, there was no lab science to speak of in the biology, physics and chemistry classes I attended at Bronx Science when I got there. Only the senior level courses had those, though the budding scientists at the Bronx Science of the time hardly needed them. So much for the scandal today of insufficiently laboratoried high schools, though a point could be made that it is the weaker students who will never help us compete with the Chinese that are the ones who can profit from hands on experience.
The Google map of Woodridge shows just how much the place has changed in the course of fifty or sixty years. That is to be expected. Woodridge went into decline when the Borscht Belt ended. But the surprise is that it never recovered, it never readjusted, and so just become part of the southernmost extension of the blight that has afflicted New York State from Buffalo and Rochester down to the New York City suburbs, which now reach to the outskirts of the Catskills.
Woodridge looks like a desolated place. The train station is gone, the train bed replaced by a highway, from which other roads shoot off. The roads are better graded than was the case fifty years ago, but a lot of what was once the plaza space is filled with parking places whose edges are overgrown with weeds. Not much parking goes on there any more. Maybe this was parking for a mall now gone. The luncheonette across the Plaza and on the corner of the intersection of the road to Route 17 and Highland Avenue, further down which was my grandfather’s house, is a supermarket but many of the lots near it are empty, as was not the case in my day. This is the remnant of a community, not a bustling one.
I looked for other structures that betokened a community that could provide at least some of the activities that make a place self sufficient except for those marketing trips to Monticello for fancy goods or the trips to New York to see relatives. The movie theatre was gone; so was the bank; so was the high school that had also housed the Woodridge Elementary School when my father and his brothers and sisters went there. Everybody knows the reason these losses of institutional life took place: unified school districts provide a better education than a school that can provide too few classes and too few people with which to mingle or choose between; a multiplex is probably not too far away, as would also be the case for a small branch of a major bank. But as Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman predicted many years ago in Small Town in Mass Society, the community is over. It was replaced by the suburbs, which are residential developments beyond the reach of subways, and then by mall sprawl, and then, after that, by the age of foreclosures. Woodridge has been left behind for many iterations now as a concept as well as a reality. It is just the name of the geographical place in which you happen to live.
I guess I could go up there to see it for myself; it is not too far. But, why? I prefer to think of the place as it was when young people wanted to leave there, to shed small village life for the big city, and so were engaged in the conflict between community and cosmopolitan life than what they are engaged in now, which is what? Maybe there are jobs in the area, but you don’t see them in the architecture of the village that would provide such jobs with their lot of daily services. The real Woodridge resides in my memory and in the memories of some other old geezers.
The Central Bronx that I lived in is more accessible, and that is because cities are more resilient than villages. Contrary to Durkheim, villages are not a cross section of the people of a nation or an examplar of the nature of those people. Rather, they are concerned to get one thing right, which is peasant based farming, as that is serviced by a church and a manor house, or else it can be the hospitality industry, which had become the case with Woodridge, whose laundry served the Catskill hotels just as my grandfather’s bakery serviced some of the smaller hotels. Or else a small town can be a suburban bedroom community whose range of services are there to aid those who are off to work elsewhere and who might have to wait some years to get all the amenities of supermarkets and movie theatres installed, the Chinese restaurants arriving first, and so like frontier communities, there to sell cattle and provide feed for livestock and entertain cowboys on Saturday nights, and only gradually gathering a sheriff, a school marm and maybe a not totally corrupt town council.
Cities are different. They renew themselves because they can turn to doing things that are different from the things they once did while supplying a comparable style of life to the one that was there when people went off to different sorts of jobs and the children went off to different lives than would, perhaps, the children of the new residents. The apartment buildings along Fulton Avenue were mostly not very old when I lived there. They had wonderful views across Crotona Park and contained many very sun filled apartments, including the one I lived in. The buildings, when I lived there, were ten or fifteen years old, even when some others on the street and certainly many of them down the hill, facing the Third Avenue El, dated from the turn into the Twentieth Century. Many of the buildings on Fulton Avenue and elsewhere had elevators (mine was a walkup) and some even had the sunken living rooms (that meant there was a step down from the entrance foyer into the living room) that graced the very fashionable buildings on the Grand Concourse, where I thought that the fancy people lived, though when I met fellow students at Bronx Science who lived there, I was surprised to find that their parents were no more sophisticated than my own and spoke English even more of a European accent than my mother did. As Stephan Brumberg would put it, you don’t know your childhood neighborhood is new because it was there when you got there, and so when it changes, you think that a surprise when the surprise would be if it didn’t change every generation or so.
My public school was three blocks down Fulton Avenue; the main food center was two blocks away, just one block past the El, and the movies and other, fancier retail establishments, were on Tremont Avenue, some five blocks away, which meant two blocks past the local branch library to which I carried a shopping bag full of books every Friday so I could fill up the bag with my next week’s reading. I remember standing on line to wait my next at the bakery on Bathgate or at the Daitch dairy store, which sold herring and cheeses and lox, the Zabar’s of its day (That chain became the basis of Daitch Shopwell and then the Food Emporium.) I remember going to Tremont to buy my school supplies at a fancy stationary story even though the candy store owner on my corner was angry that I did not patronize him with that yearly business even though I was in there every day for an ice cream or an egg cream. So the neighborhood did work as a community. You did not have to go downtown unless you wanted to see a first run movie, which was very rare, or walk the thirty blocks to get to Yankee Stadium, which is not that big a deal when you are a teenager.
Google reports how little this has changed. As you “walk” up tree lined Fulton Avenue from the Cross Bronx Expressway, Crotona park to your left, apartment buildings to your right, it is clear that the Central Bronx has very well weathered the upheavals of the Seventies when the borough was said to be burning. Many of the buildings that were on my block are still there, some tenements replaced by new buildings that fit into the style of the neighborhood in height and in being flush with the sidewalk and with redstone facades that make them look like they had been there for many a year, though they are a much nicer version of the Old Law tenements they replaced. My own building is still there, its court yard remodeled, and the apartments inside no doubt renovated, but still with the sunny open view on a tree lined street that made this a nice place to live if the people and not just the surroundings were nice.
The benches opposite the facades of the apartment buildings were where the young matrons sat with their babies to greet the children who came home from school and who played behind them in the park with a break for the Bungalow Bar ice cream truck. They are no longer there, nor are the slight cliffs that provided climbing for elementary school age children; those have been softened. There is a baseball field and then some lawns and those continue on till the playground is reached that stood opposite my elementary school and where I would spend many a summer afternoon in obsessive knock hockey. Also, farther on, there still remains the large Robert Moses era community pool and behind those, deeper into the park, the tennis courts, and handball courts and bocce courts where people of all ages mingled. There is a new elementary school and the corner that held my egg cream candy store has a small supermarket there now. The library is still where it was. I could go home again. But the schools in this area are now among the worst in the city. Some combinations of institution and ethnic culture provide only some generations of children with a way to enter a different life. Bathgate Avenue and Third Avenue, where the El ran, is an industrial park rather than a commercial center. And so, I hazard, the place is less of a place to encourage the cosmopolitan, which is always the purview of business, in that every chicken plucker on Bathgate Avenue knew that prices went up and down seasonally and so was subject to forces beyond individual control. Or so a study of the sociology of cities might tell you.
That is the way it is with neighborhoods, which are just as much subject to general principle to economics or the laws of stratification and ethnicity as are bakeries and live chicken stores. But the history of neighborhoods seem much diminished if treated in that manner because they are also about personal biography and the felt experiences of comradeship and antagonism worked out in leafy as well as concrete circumstances. Neighborhoods seem to live and die rather than just exemplify something else; they are the intersection of a whole concatenation of forces whose particularity is what makes a difference. There is a “new” Harlem which is much more prosperous than was the Harlem of ten years ago, and it feels that way as you walk its streets. The streets of the West Side, now shadowed for a hundred years by tall apartment buildings, seems continuous with the West Side of brownstones that preceded it. Both are residential communities inside the city for comfortable people. Every neighborhood has its own story to tell, and I cannot say if the story of my Fulton Avenue is over or if it continues.
More important than the distinctiveness of neighborhood history for establishing the significance of neighborhoods is that the neighborhood exists as a personal memory rather than as a law learned from experience, textbooks, or as the result of generalizations one has made for oneself. Psyche and structure are intertwined. It is eerie to see a place transformed yet having the same geographical elements, the same slope of streets down from the park, the same width to the avenue, the same distance to the school and the pool and the library, the same pattern of tree plantings, and yet without, as I say, the benches, or the two tiered courtyard that has been retrofitted into being a triply tiered one. It is as my mind had done dream work to reconstruct a memory to make it somewhat more appealing and, more important, in ways that penetrated more deeply into the nature of the place, whatever that might be, when, obviously, it is only what it is, a geographical site, just as vacation bungalow colonies or old dorm rooms are sites for reveries and reminiscences and reconstructions of what one was like back then and how that relates to what one is now.