Note: There is nothing worse than a saccharin retelling of one’s “idyllic youth,” unless it’s a repeated retelling of the tale. This is written merely to trace for the reader my path to urban/downtown revitalization. Mine was not a Norman Rockwell or “Leave it to Beaver” childhood, but my love affair with “place” is dear to me and I try to tell here how that began and nurtured.
When I was a child, I lived for a period of time in the lovely burgh of Lindenhurst on Long Island, New York’s South Shore. It was a predominantly blue-collar community that was home to many former New York City residents who sought a house and a piece of grass. The time was certainly more innocent than the iPhone/Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat era, as I walked to school and played stickball in the street for hours during the summer. My trips downtown were what I remember best – trips of a mere mile or so. I remember my bicycle serving as my transport to after school and weekend adventures in this small, but lively, downtown. A small downtown it was, but to me it might have well as been Manhattan.
I would stop for an Italian ice, go to one of the two grocery store chains and buy some Fizzies (for those under 40, this was a cross between Alka Seltzer and Kool Aid), go to the pet store and stare at a gibbon who never seemed to find a home, buy cheap toys at a variety store, look at boxing magazines at the newsstand by the railroad station and sit and watch the commuter trains as they whizzed by on their way to New York City. I laugh now when I think of the number of times I bought a Yoo Hoo with 25 pennies, absent complaint from the shop owner at a little meat market named George’s. The downtown housed a small museum with a signed Babe Ruth baseball, and I would stare at the ball until the museum manager would clear her throat twice, signaling that it was time for me to move on. The pet store owner never cleared his throat when I stared at the gibbon. As far as that goes, the gibbon never cleared his throat, either.
I can still feel the sawdust under my feet at the meat market, the smells of the grocery store and the sweet but tangy odor of tobacco at the newsstand. The malodorous confines of the pet store – need I say more – are hard to forget—but heck a gibbon has to go somewhere. Even the library became an adventure and cemented forever my love affair with public libraries. God bless Andrew Carnegie. I would head home the “long way,” passing women carrying brightly wrapped packages and men smoking cigars in front of some undefined club. On the days when I would make a meager deposit in my savings account at the downtown bank, I felt most mature, and was enthralled by the marble columns and what seemed like a 100-foot ceiling.
We lived not far from Manhattan, and my mother and father insisted that my siblings and I take full advantage of the city’s cornucopia of cultural offerings: the museums; the symphony (what child could resist Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts that climaxed with the William Tell Overture?); Mets games; the circus; the Statue of Liberty; Macy’s; Times Square; The Empire State Building; and several rides on the Staten Island Ferry. My father insisted we visit Chinatown, but it was really the Bowery that he wanted me to see – as a witness to the utter despair of men and women trapped, not just in poverty, but abject poverty. I had two mistresses to love – the delicate one minutes from home and the bawdy boisterous one a commuter train a ride away. The die was cast.
Then the fateful day came. My father returned from work, a bit more harried than usual. He announced that we were moving from Long Island to a suburb of Albany, NY – Delmar. I learned that the Albany television stations did not carry Mets games—I was crushed. Where was this outpost to which I was relegated? We moved in November and I experienced the “trauma” that so many youngsters experience when they have to meet new teachers, attempt to make new friends and get used to new environs. A year later when I entered Middle School I was able to walk the two blocks to school. Not bad. A walkable neighborhood with wide sidewalks(new urbanists take note).
My new neighborhood was tolerable, but I longed for the downtown and neighborhood I had left behind months earlier on Long Island. However, I discovered something delightful just around the corner from our new home. A small commercial district known as the “Four Corners” by locals (probably because four roads intersected—I am quick that way). It was populated by a meat market that seemed to have more soda, canned good and candy than meat (to my eye of course). I paid little attention to the blood-stained butcher—I was more interested in the confectioneries that dotted the counter. Then I found a newsstand chock full of sports magazines, comic books, candy (and perhaps some magazines that my 10-year-old eyes should not yet lay eyes on). It had the same odor as the newsstand I remembered from Lindenhurst.
Soon I discovered a pizza parlor, several barbershops (well, three), a luncheonette and an old-fashioned hardware store where I could procure bb's for my weapon of choice. Not long after, a bookstore – yes, a bookstore – opened in the commercial district. All this just a couple of blocks away.
I soon made friends and we played sports at the nearby Middle School and afterward would bike to the four corners for soda and other assorted sweets. I was beginning to not so much fall in love with this little commercial district --but rather embrace it as a relationship of convenience.
The school system was consistently ranked one of the best in the state and I was delighted by the commitment of the teachers at the high school once I entered ninth grade. There was something that became painfully obvious to me after a fashion. We were a lily-white community. There was little racial or ethnic diversity. It made for a boring experience.
I began to take the bus into Albany with some regularity where it was nice to mingle with different races, “hippies” and folks with a more urban perspective. I knew then and there that I would live in cities for the rest of my life. Sure, the Four Corners in my little suburb was a fine little district—but I liked the action in downtown Albany.
Albany as the State Capital was populated with a folks from New York City up for the legislative sessions. Often the downtown streets seemed a bit like a “mini-Manhattan” with downstate accents dominating during the work day. The City itself was run by a political machine that had been in power for decades. I was fascinated by the political comings and goings and by the power yielded by a Mayor who had served for nearly 40 years. For me it was something out of a book about Huey Long or James Michael Curley. I had read "The Last Hurrah" and "All the King's Men" and equated the political machine in Albany with the romance of those literary works. I knew illegalities abounded and that ethics were flouted – but it captured my imagination and I even found it a bit romantic in its owns right. Little did I know the City had razed entire neighborhoods to make way for a Rockefellerian ode to modernism—something called the Empire State Plaza. A sad chapter in the city's history.
Albany still remains one of my favorite cities. I visit when I can, accept it warts and all. Yes, the city bears the scars of the long-gone political machine and the “urban renewal” programs of the sixties, but it is architecturally significant and, yes, it is the State Capital. What cemented my relationship with Albany was taking a job at an inner city Grand Union grocery store. It served what we would now call a “transitional neighborhood.” Poor people lived there.
The clientele and employees were predominantly African American (just the diversity the whitest kid around needed desperately) and I loved that store. The employees and customers developed a camaraderie that I remember with fondness. It was urban, funky, tough (I was held up at gunpoint). But there were a number of surviving old-time establishments on our main commercial strip, and on my lunch hour, I would walk the boulevard and visit record stores, bakeries, newsstands, and even a drug store with a soda fountain (where I later worked for two weeks, until I learned that the owner paid less than minimum wage). I continued to work at Grand Union as I made the transition from high school to college.
I was hooked, for it was then that I knew that I wanted not just to be part of the fabric of cities – to live there, to play there, to be part of the action, but I had to be woven into the pattern of the fabric. The college I attended was a small liberal arts college nestled in an urban Albany neighborhood. The neighborhood was populated by two- and three-decker flats. My love affair with cities had moved from crush to engagement. From my small campus, my friends and I walked to the grocery store, the movies, the bookstore, restaurants and other amenities (a euphemism for bars). It was Smart Growth before Smart Growth was heard of. When I had a fellowship in the New York State Governor’s Office, I began to hear for the first time about land use issues and I was fascinated by the way a state could change an entire landscape in one fell swoop. Of course, the grossly ill-matched modern plaza perched next door to the Capitol was testament to the baneful side of that puissance.
On the weekends, with friends, I would visit my old mistress, New York City. I felt at home in New York, and thirstily drank in its gritty urbanity. But, like all mistresses, she had changed. It was the era of Studio 54, subway crime, Son of Sam, and the ’77 blackout where I sat in Shea Stadium looking at a surreally-shadowed New York. Years later, of course, my mistress would get a face lift, some psychotherapy and appear again as she once was. Until 2001. But she is a resilient gal, preening and strutting on the world’s walkway for yet another encore.
After graduation from college, and before grad school, I worked for CVS, the national health and beauty aid chain, helping to find and open new locations. Malls were hot and CVS coveted prime locations within them – but it was always the neighborhood stores that appealed to me. The stores where the same customers appeared every day sharing their tales of woe or serving up the latest neighborhood gossip or proudly providing an update on the grandkids. I particularly enjoyed it when we could place a store in a resuscitated historic building. A place that felt real – warts, leaky ceiling and all. I started to realize the fundamental value of neighborhood over contrivances such as malls.
I attended graduate school at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University and studied public relations and journalism. As luck would have it, the only internship available was with an historic preservation agency. I steeped myself in the language of historic preservation and worked with staff to save historic structures, locate like-minded developers and generate positive publicity for soon-to-be razed buildings. My love affair with cities continued, but now I was part of the action, and we were married.
Upon graduation, rather than take a job on Madison Avenue, I took one on Merrimack Street in the rapidly revitalizing hard scrabble mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts. I was the Main Street Manager. On the day of my interview, I was presented an array of main street shops that could have been Lindenhurst circa 1965. I belonged to Lowell. I was home – except, of course, for the Babe Ruth baseball and the gibbon. I still wonder what became of that gibbon.