Monday, April 4, 2016

In the Windy Old Weather

It was cold and windy in these parts yesterday. And I can honestly say that excessive wind speeds make walking with a prosthetic knee a little dicey. Nevertheless, I needed the exercise and concluded by early afternoon the worst of the winds had come and gone. The furious rainstorm of the night before—featuring thunderclaps and a symphony of overturned garbage cans—was replaced by incredibly bright blue skies and that ultra-sharp sunlight unique to springtime.

So, I hit the road with every intention of turning back if the wind beneath my wings proved more than I could handle. There were occasional gusts of import along the way, but I opted to soldier on and venture to Van Cortlandt Park about a half-mile away. While in the park, I rested for a spell on a bench—one that furnished me with a bird’s eye view of the elevated W242nd Street subway station. This is the first or last stop—depending on which direction you are headed—of the Number 1 “Broadway Local” line. Day and night, the trains come and go—and come and go again—patiently waiting their turns to dock. There’s lots of loud horn blowing and nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching, too, as the trains slow up and switch tracks. What goes around comes around, I guess, because I enjoyed viewing this same spectacle as a boy. But that was then, this is now, and the verb “enjoy” is relative.

Sitting on a park bench with a trusty cane at my side—and concerned that I might get blown down on my return trip—was not, it's fair to say, on my youthful radar. In fact, the exact spot where I sat at the southern tail of the sprawling park was—in my younger days—an asphalt softball field. Like so much of the park and indeed the city at large in the 1970s, it was not properly maintained. The asphalt was a sorry mess with weeds sprouting up from home plate to centerfield; first base to third base. It was not a wise idea to attempt a Ron Swoboda-in-the-1969-World Series diving catch there—let’s put it that way. The combination of cracked asphalt and broken glass beer and soda bottles were a certain ticket to the emergency room.

The Internet is rife with images of New York City in the dirty and dangerous 1970s. The stainless steel subway cars that I cast my eyes upon yesterday were sans graffiti and underground tunnel grime. Emblematic of the city’s precipitous decline, they were covered in the stuff forty years ago, not to mention inefficient and crime laden. I witnessed an armed robbery on the Number 1 train in 1978. And in the old neighborhood, home burglaries and street muggings were more commonplace than today.

It would seem then the logical conclusion to draw is that things are a whole lot better today when compared with the awful 1970s. Yes, I’m happy to ride clean, generally safer, and definitely more efficient subway trains. The park I visited yesterday is without question a visually more appealing place in 2016 than it was in, say, 1976. But what individuals who didn’t grow up in New York in the 1970s can’t possibly understand is that—for all its well-documented problems and assorted blight—it was for the most part a great place to be a teenager. Some neighborhoods were bona fide war zones, but most were alive—believe it or not—with neighbors whom you actually knew. That sense of community is largely lost in this sterile age of gentrification—everything is so damn expensive—and obeisance to devices. I was among the last generation to play the old city street games like box ball and stoop ball. People bought homes in the old neighborhood as foremost places to live—often for their extended families—and only secondly as investments. There are countless absentee owners now who look upon their properties as ATM machines in perpetuity. They rent out apartments to a revolving door of tenants who pay top dollar for the honor and don’t care a whit where they call home. And it shows! The 1970s in New York had character and characters—lots of them—and is sorely missed. Cleaning the city up was a necessity, but apparently we threw out the baby with the bath water.

(Photos two and three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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