As a callow youth in the glorious 1970s, planet Earth was an incredibly warm and reassuring orb—pure as the driven snow—and the old neighborhood I grew up in a veritable Shangri-La. Wasn’t it? Regarding the latter at least, that’s the recurring sentiment I encounter on an Internet site devoted to sharing one’s memories of the good old days in the good old stomping grounds. In fact, one former resident of this paradise lost posts what he considers “Exhibit A” photos of this formerly pristine neighborhood of ours turned completely rotten and downright scary in its maturer incarnation. A snapshot features a familiar homeless man hanging around a familiar bank. There were never, ever any unfortunate—and in some cases very unsavory—souls on the streets back in the day. Hey, wait just a second here—I believe there were. I could even identify a few by their neighborhood handles, but I won't just now. Further accounts from the 2011 dark side—of visible drug-use and its associated crime—abound in these virtual tête-à-têtes that often paint a portrait of growing up thirty and forty years ago in the Bronx equivalent of Walnut Grove.
I’ll happily concede to fondly remembering the old place in the old days—it was a simpler time, lost forever, on numerous fronts—but both the 1970s neighborhood milieu and life in the big city were anything but clean, safe, and orderly. For starters, the subways were none of the above. They were covered in an unsightly fusion of grime and graffiti back then, much more dangerous, and considerably more unreliable than they are today.
While venturing downtown with an older sister to see the film Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, in the summer of 1978, a woman was robbed at gunpoint—on the Number 1 train, in the middle of the afternoon, at the rather busy Lincoln Center station. And there wasn't a police officer in eyeshot or earshot to come to her aid. A fiscal crisis had seen to that. Please forgive my cowardice in this instance, but being at once unarmed and fifteen-years-old, I just couldn’t summon the courage to chase after a guy brandishing both a handgun and a lady’s handbag. That very same summer, a neighbor was shot at through his car windshield in the front of his house in the wee small hours of the morning. He ducked in the nick of time in what was, very fortunately, a failed robbery attempt. A few months later, the family next door was ransacked of all their valuable jewelry. Apartments and garages were regularly robbed, too, of their TVs, toasters, and bicycles. Oh, and the area’s parks were in visible decay and pretty seedy.
While I revere the good old days, frequently traffic in nostalgia, and pine for the simpler days every time I cross paths with some oblivious, rude, and silly fool yakking on a cell phone (which is daily), I fully appreciate that you can’t go home again—even if you still live in the same geographical locale. So why bother trying? As Billy Joel sang so eloquently once upon a time: "The good old day weren't always good, and tomorrow's not as bad as it seems."
(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)