Monday, April 26, 2010

A DOWNTOWN, ONCE


     April 26, 2010


    SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – In the 1940s-1950s, I grew up in this village just northwest of New York City yet a world apart from urbanity. My father was a youngster here in the 1930s. Over the years I have been asked by people raised in much more populated areas how so many ex-Valleyites like myself can have such deep attachment to the community. We do because it was a small, close town, and its businesses and professions were stocked with people we all knew. Everyone was family, including the grouches, the characters, the guiding folk.

    In the early 1920s, Spring Valley became the "Hub of Rockland County" because two major state roads had been built, Routes 59 and 45, leading to and from Suffern, Nyack, Pomona and New Jersey. This put the village at a crossroads, and as a result business grew.

    Soon, there were hardware stores like K&A, DeBaun, Scharf’s and Call Me Dave. There was the Widmann commercial bakery behind the famous Henry Kulle tire and battery dealer. There was Mellion’s Market, the Plaza Restaurant, Rakow’s, Shapiro’s and Nat Kaplan clothing stores, Burns’ Florist, Stevens’ Florist, the original Spring Valley Theatre, Arvanites’ luncheonette, the Ramapo Trust Co., The Second National Bank, the 5&10, the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe factory where my grandparents, father and mother worked, Consolidated Stamp, Schack’s Glass, Ro-Field Appliances, Brown’s soda shop, Perruna’s and Bartero’s and Cullen restaurants, various barbershops, including Mayor John Balogh’s, and car dealer Driscoll Chevrolet, then located downtown.

    Many of these businesses began in the Great Depression, and the fact that they succeeded in the hub of Spring Valley was because they offered valuable services by trusted merchants and others close by for villagers and other Rocklanders. Many business and professional people also lived and toiled above the stores as doctors, dentists and lawyers.

    If any of you readers were privileged to grow up in a small community, even you urbanites who lived in neighborhood areas, you can easily sub out the names of the stores and people I’ve mentioned for your own. You get the picture.

    These downtown people were dairymen, bakers, lawyers, factory owners, undertakers, grocers, etc., who had such a symbiotic working relationship with each other that they succeeded, In the process, they supported many who could not easily get by. This was America in the tough, a going enterprise.

    Today, highway shopping strips and malls have replaced our downtowns, and the closer-knit residential housing is gone, too, in favor of easily anonymous suburban developments and isolated “McMansions” that drive wedges against the opportunity for neighborliness.

     In time, with the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Thruway and Palisades Interstate Parkway, the Rockland suburb grew around Spring Valley and other downtowns, and the old closeness began to disappear as stores were shuttered and the outward population grew so large that it was difficult to link names with the past, with long-time families.

    In its age, Spring Valley and Anytown, USA, too, defined people particularly determined to succeed, who sought better lives for their children, who enjoyed the company of friends and neighbors, who reaffirmed and articulated both their gratefulness for a land and village of opportunity and their determination that the children should do even better.

    If there can be an American “back to the future,” it might be a return to the downtown.




Monday, April 19, 2010

CHASING THE QUIET



     ROCKLAND LAKE, N.Y. – The once thriving hamlet where much of New York City’s ice was carved and shipped down the Hudson River until people bought refrigerators was, in the 1960s, obliterated through eminent domain to forge a state public park – blunt bulldozing for “progress” that could not easily happen today, even if Albany could pay for it. Now, almost 50 years later, years of under-funding and near bankruptcy have made parts of this park look more than sad.

Yet, yesterday there was hope, if not for Rockland Lake State Park, then for humankind as the 21st annual George Wodicka Hook Mountain Half Marathon and Hope 5K Run/Walk were held in March-like weather. 

It was the sort of chilled sky and brisk air that old-time Rockland Lakers would have recognized: The cold water that provided local employment in winter was still lowering temperatures as if to delay its season’s end. Summer boaters and fishermen were next, then the buildup in fall to new income.

But that was then, now so long ago. The community was destroyed, its people, descendants of generations, relocated. Some still return, as walkers on a meandering path around the lake, or in burial at the Gethsemane Cemetery.

Yesterday, hundreds of others came on a charity-inspired day, chasing hope to battle the prostate cancer which had claimed Rockland Road Runners member Wodicka. So poor is New York State that the local Clarkstown Police Department had to provide supervision, and runners had to begin their races in a parking lot crumbling so badly that some complained of nearly twisted ankles.

That makes one wonder at the wisdom of wiping out a community of property taxed homes and businesses to construct a park which now cannot be funded. A park that on balance was not necessary given the many then in place in the Rockland and Bergen counties area so close to Gotham. A balance was required as early as 1965 between urban needs and suburban availability to meet them without giving up so much history and identity. 

Simple people, some complex in particular nature as many of us are, led simple lives in two centuries in the hamlet of Rockland Lake, and the great quiet that is found and cherished in this area atop the cliffs leading to the Hudson and adjacent Hook Mountain was once theirs alone. Progress could not relocate that feeling, though, and it has been left to those able to visit the park in less-busy moments.

My son Arthur 4th, who captured the win in the 5K, long ago tapped into the quiet of Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain, nearby Talman Mountain, Clausland Mountain and, of course, Bear Mountain, where he romped as a child, as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. And now his son Sam, too.

The building of New York State’s parks, most of them early in the 20th century, was a gift for urbanites in particular whose own geography was built upon to fuel this nation’s growth, success and opportunity. But progress pushes quiet aside, and some place must be found to relocate it if civilization is not to be overwhelming. For city dwellers, there is relative quiet in busy-on-weekends state parks. 

Some lucky people find the quiet in their soul, in their walks or running or hobbies. Or on a March-like day in April when motivated participants chase quiet in the once hamlet of Rockland Lake.

Monday, April 12, 2010

LACK OF ACCELERATION


A good long time ago, I owned a 1960 VW “Beetle,” which was cherry red and which broke down often, perhaps because my hard driving was not matched well with the 40 horsepower engine. Yet it was so simple a car, with technology borrowed from Henry Ford, that, like the Model T, it could often be repaired on the road, on the run.

It was not unusual for me, then a 21-year-old, to pull off the road and change the VW’s four sparkplugs or take the carburetor apart and then get moving again. Once, when coming off the Palisades Interstate Parkway in Bardonia, N.Y., I had to coast to a stop onto West Clarkstown Road after I realized I had no accelerator pedal.

Now, this was in 1963, 47 years before Toyota, then not even a pronounceable name in the United States, had its celebrated accelerator problems. Unlike Toyota’s gas pedals, which are electronic, the old VW’s was fastened to a long wire than ran 10 feet or so back to the rear engine. The cable had rusted and snapped, and so I had no way to control acceleration.

Or did I? I said this was an easy vehicle to repair. The German “people’s car,” ordered by Adolph Hitler and owing its design to Ferdinand Porsche, was built with some components based on Ford’s ideas, after German engineers visited his factories.

While Hitler’s thoughts and application were madman-oriented, the VW spawned during the 1930s and adapted for military use during World War II actually proved good for people all over the world following rejuvenation by the British, who took over the factory.

So little changed in the car over the decades. And so it was that when the accelerator cable broke on my Beetle in 1963 I was able to come up with a commonsense solution, just like so many did with the Model T. It wasn’t my brain working so much as it was the American genius Ford.

I found a piece of wood on the side of the road and wedged it into the carburetor linkage, which made the engine race. I then let out the clutch in gear three of four and went up the one-mile hill toward my Hillcrest home, pushing in the clutch when I had to stop and lurching forward when I wanted to move.

Once home, I borrowed neighbor Isaac Pfeffer’s big Buick, went to VW and bought a new accelerator cable for $7.95, soldered the old one to the new one and threaded it back to the carburetor, where I made a connection. All was well again – until the next simple-to-fix breakdown.

No simple fixes for the Toyota pedals, however. No $7.95 repairs. Also, no comparison between the ancient VW Beetle and today’s safer, smoother, more comfortable cars.

Yet somehow, lost in the transition of “progress,” is the Henry Ford idea that the car ought to be fixable by the user. Or maybe we should start taking mechanics with us, as Ford did in his race cars, riding “shotgun.”



Sunday, April 4, 2010

A HAT STORY




NYACK, N.Y. – Nearing Memorial Park, an acre of recreational ground inimitable to almost any American village, is an old sidewalk along Piermont Avenue, trod for perhaps 80 years now. On that walk, on a recent nascent spring day, when hope that the odd winter of quick and heavy snow and furious nor’easter had finally passed was a woman who looked to be 85 or so, wearing a grandma’s hat, a wool cap that could be drawn over the ears if the promising sun gave way to an April chill. Behind this lady was a child, probably 5, conceivably the same age the woman was when she first stepped on the avenue’s sidewalk.

“Mommy, that lady looks funny in her old hat,” said the child as she jumped from walk to street and back again. “I don’t have a hat on because it’s not winter – it’s spring and the birds are chirping, and they don’t have hats, either.”

The mom, obviously hearing this as question number five of maybe 25 on one day alone, answered in patience. “She’s cold. That lady doesn’t run all over and climb jungle gyms and chase her brother like you do. She’s just taking a nice walk in the warming sun.”

“Well, I still think her hat is funny,” replied the five-year-old as the mother and daughter walked past the lady. The woman heard the remark, smiled in reflection of acquired knowledge, and told the child, “This is not my hat. I borrowed it.”

“Mommy, maybe we can buy the lady a new hat since she had to borrow this old, funny one,” said the child. “No, I’m just fine,” answered the woman. “I’ll tell you a story. When I was little, probably your age, and playing in this park near the Hudson River, my grandmother would come by to watch. She would make sure I did not go more than a few steps into the river, that I didn’t play on the slippery rocks, that I kept my coat on. But one thing I would not do is wear my hat. Other kids wore hats, but I thought they were silly. I would make sure I left mine at home, or I would take it off as soon as I left the house.

“I had a lot of fun playing in this park then. We didn’t have swings and a jungle gym like you do now, but the hills, the stream, the waterfront are much the same except that the wonderful old dock is gone.

“My grandma would tell me over and over to put my hat on. Once, she took hers off and pushed it over my head. I got mad and threw it on the ground, and that made my grandmother sad. She didn’t speak all the way home.

“The years passed, and I grew up, leaving Nyack to get married and then came back after raising our children. I inherited my grandma’s house and began walking to this park as I did as a child. I don’t play on the slippery rocks anymore, and I don’t run, but I see my young self in children your age. And I now wear a hat because I’m cold.

“Do you know who I borrowed this very hat from? When I went into my grandma’s attic, I found many old things, including her old wool hat. I gave it a good wash, added a stitch or two of repair and now I wear it to Memorial Park. I can still hear my grandmother telling me to put on my own childhood cap, and I can feel her slipping this hat over my ears. Only now I don’t take it off and throw it on the ground. And I don’t think my grandma’s sad any more.”

“Cool story, mommy,” said the five-year-old as she said goodbye to the lady and ran to the slippery rocks.