I grew up in a wooden townhouse on a Brooklyn street that included about eight more similar homes, a big apartment house, a playground up by the corner, auto body shops, two gas stations and lots of factories. It was concrete, surrounded by asphalt, shaken by rumbling trucks and bordered by more of the same.
On the streets in and around my block were the hallmarks of inner-city life: bars and funeral parlors that catered to specific ethnicities, candy stores, German delis and bodegas. There were churches, again with ethnic congregations, barbershops and—well—the occasional Italian “social club.” There were also halls for the Knights of Columbus, VFW, American Legion, Elks and so forth.
God I loved it there.
And so it was that I felt right at home in our fair city’s west end. It is now largely Hispanic, but still shows signs of its Italian past, including many of the old guard who still live there. Like my old town, there are plenty of row and unattached wooden and brick homes—many, if not most, about 100 years old. They serve, now, as my old neighborhood did, to welcome our newest immigrants. All those years ago, Ellis Island served as the depot for transatlantic voyagers, seeking a better life. Now they take airplanes or trundle across the southwest desert. Means of transportation aside, the only difference is where they are from.
Just like my home town, a walk through the streets shows storefronts and other businesses, their old names painted over in many instances, or replaced outright by new signs written in Spanish. There are, of course, still some old landmark businesses that will probably be there forever. That’s the way it is when neighborhoods change. You get a lot of the new and a good dose of the old. You also get change, yet again.
As the new immigrants assimilate and their surrounding neighbors get over the “strangeness” of another culture, they begin to appreciate the “old town” all over again. The housing is more reasonable, the commute is better, the immigrant businesses begin to prosper and the area becomes, once again, more mixed and diverse.
One of the young women at the radio station—smart as whip, ambitious, works two jobs and is thoughtful—just bought a house in the west end. She put a fortune into it and fully expects to make every cent back in equity. Plus she can almost walk to work and has a driveway if she decides to drive. She also has all those stores and churches at her disposal.
She also has some headaches. Our favorite gas company told her she is on her own to fix the 90-year-old gas line into her house. The quotes vary from god awful to just plain bad. Maybe one day we will figure out a way to make it less costly to return to these older neighborhoods by more thoughtful infrastructure renewal. Nonetheless, these areas will fully improve as the immigrant population and other transplants live out what is a demographic certainty.
The other day I attended the wake and funeral for Ines Candria, a lifelong west end resident. She was a real friend of the radio station and loved her hometown even more. It was, for me, a bitter sweet experience. It is always sad when one of us moves on, even at the age of 80. And yet, the streetscape, the Italian funeral director and the people who attended—mostly Italians and other local folks, many of whom had moved away—reminded me of home.
The west end will be what it will be. But for me, it felt like home.