I am certain that if you had asked my grandfather or anyone beyond 50 in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of 1956 if community life were more tight knit when they were young, the answer would have been “yes.” And some 55 years later, if you query now-older me, I’d have to give the same reply. Such is nostalgia and the sometimes convenient forgetfulness that happens as we look through rose-colored glasses.
Yet, as with all potential black and white situations, there is a gray area or two or three. In time, certain standards may well disappear, or traditions or quality of living. We may seize upon those to prove our argument that the old days were better despite evidence that always there have been problems, bad situations, difficulties. But, ah, the gray.
I have an example in mind. When I pass through my hometown village these days, the Spring Valley landscape has changed so very dramatically. A long downtown decline was brought on by failure -- here and elsewhere in the nation -- to meet the challenges of suburban sprawl, including the competition posed by shopping centers. Today in the Valley, expensive urban renewal is bringing some hope, though it is an incomplete approach that remakes the mistake of the 1960s-on. Then, downtowns should have been rebuilt by integrating them into new housing for all income levels so as to create walkable, desirable places in which to live and shop in a mixed economy. Today, while urban renewal brings affordable housing, a very good thing, no community can thrive just on government help. It must stand on its own at some point. So, there must also be non-subsidized homes and retail shops and businesses. That will have to come to Spring Valley if the village is to truly be “renewed.”
In 1956, when Gary Onderdonk III, then about 13, followed his Christmas season route of flipping telephone pole switches to turn on brightly colored lights, the Spring Valley economy was enough to support duplicates of hardware stores, bakeries, luncheonettes, stationeries, druggists, clothing stores and whatever else long marked American downtowns.
Garry’s father, Garry Jr., was a local electrician who installed the lights and kept the strings stored in his home. His own father, Garry Sr., was the head of the local draft board and was well-respected and, yes, feared. At one time, the Onderdonk forebears owned much of what would become Spring Valley as well as land in Piermont and Nyack.
The fact that Garry's grandson walked the downtown -- about 7 blocks from Maple Avenue to Route 59 -- as an early teen and flipped switches on perhaps 50 poles assured the 1956 community that it was still close-knit, that although post-war suburban growth was about to explode and break many ties to heritage, tradition continued. The lamplighter yet walked his route.
Even my grandfather and his over-50 friends would have admitted that, though they saw change they did not like. And now, in 2011, this writer, 69, also concedes that while Garry no longer walks the Spring Valley downtown, that while he isn’t there in just about any town you choose in America, the great changes to neighborhood society wrought by the Consumer Age, the Electronics Age, the Digital Age and the “Special Interest Age” that now disenfranchises the ordinary citizen are still not enough to make life simply white and black, good and not so good. There remains the gray.
In the Nyack, N.Y., area, including another old and small village with a downtown that also has undergone serious change, is a fellow I know well, joined by others who choose to live where there are old buildings, where there is history, where you walk to the library, to a memorial park, where neighbors are recognized in a mixed economic community. He and others are the lamplighters of today for they wish to keep old community tradition while also embracing great change. They may use LED lights, not incandescents, but they are mixing with the old and reinvesting. There is balance, without which no community can fully thrive.