Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Old House

This old house is no more. It stood in the same location in the Bronx for close to a century and, it’s fair to say, witnessed innumerable and seismic changes. If this old house could only have spoken before it was demolished, it would have had a lot to say. The home’s original owner built the structure with his own two hands, which wasn’t unheard of in the Bronx of yesteryear. People who had the privilege of crossing its threshold reported that the rooms were small and the ceilings, low. It was a dwelling for a different time and place. Pat Mitchell, a renowned local grocer, rented a furnished room in the house’s attic after World War II. While an average-sized adult couldn’t stand up straight there, rooms were really hard to come by after the war.

I am old enough to remember the builder’s then-elderly daughter living in the house with her grown son, who was called “Buddy.” Buddy, who bore a striking resemblance to actor Jason Robards, had a faithful German shepherd. Buddy was not what you would call a conversationalist. Outside of walking his dog or silently lounging around in his windowed front porch with a can of beer in his hand, he was rather nondescript. Buddy most likely used his car, which was parked in a driveway next to the house, to do his grocery shopping and keep the refrigerator stocked with his preferred brew. The neighborhood’s nastier wagging tongues considered Buddy something of a slacker. He never appeared to be duly employed and was never without beer money—a deadly one-two punch as far as they were concerned. And, too, the family had a summer place in the Catskills, where Buddy and his mother vacationed and eventually moved to after selling this old house.

What was most fascinating about the house—a true original in every respect—was that its foundation was laid atop the recently covered-over Tibbetts Brook, which meandered through this area of the Bronx until the early part of the twentieth century. When it was first ready for occupancy, there were still vestiges of the stream at the surface. Initially, this old house’s builder had a swimming hole in his backyard—water in which he actually swam, or at least wallowed in. Its basement was quite often flooded.

When my grandparents moved to Kingsbridge in 1946, the old man's wife was still among the living. There were empty lots in neighborhood at that time and people planted what they called “victory gardens” in some of them, even after the war. My grandfather tilled a plot in close proximity of this old house. Approximately ten years later, he and fellow gardeners were asked to vacate the premises in the name of progress. The original developer of the property—directly behind this old house—went bankrupt after running into unforeseen water issues courtesy of the underground, but ever-tenacious Tibbetts Brook. Two tall buildings were subsequently erected, which were dubbed Tibbett Towers. And this old house now had a parking lot alongside it.

Happily, my grandfather and a few friends found a new site in which to indulge their penchant for gardening. It was not too far from their old garden space—walking distance in fact—and just to the north of this old house. A makeshift fence promptly enclosed the new garden and a well was dug that tapped into Tibbetts Brooks, which supplied the place with a regular source of water. It was this garden that I came to know during my youth, before it, too, was plowed under. I recently learned that the old man who built this old house planted a Sycamore tree in his backyard. It’s still there now and probably over eighty years old. No surprise: The developer is going to cut it down—in the name of progress, naturally.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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