Saturday, January 14, 2012

When Everything Was Neighborhood

Muriel is a customer of mine at the Magic Bean Café who was 2 ½ when the family moved to 711 Cherry Street from 5th street. Muriel’s parents (Clotilda and James A. Ellis) and two siblings, both older, shared the house on Cherry Street. (“Used to be 111 when we moved there. Then they changed it. I remember it so well. Back about 1928, somewhere in there.”) I am lucky enough to chat with Muriel almost every morning and one morning I asked a few questions (in parentheses below) which were rewarded with a glimpse into the past of the neighborhood in which she grew up and where I now live.

“My folks lived there until 1970, I’d say. Then moved out to Carrollton. Four bedrooms and when we first moved there it had that humongous furnace. Coal. There was a coal bin they shoveled into. And when we first moved there, there was a cistern and dad took it out. I remember it scared me because I was small.

Dad had it all painted and remodeled. It had French doors between the living room and the dining room. The chandelier in the dining room was just gorgeous; it looked a lot like the one at the Temple Theater – all prisms – and I hated cleaning it. The living room went clear across the front of the house. With a fireplace, and there were two chandeliers in the living room, two of them, smaller than the dining room. Behind the dining room was a little breakfast nook. There was an open stairway. Both the living room and the dining room had framed in panels of rough plaster and both rooms had purple velvet drapes. I hated those things – they were hard to clean.

My dad had all this decorating done, and then the Crash came, so there was no decorating done for years and years. They ran out of money, I guess.”

(Did you have your own room?)
“When I was young it was in the back, later in the front. We had boarders, two men, who stayed the front bedroom. We took boarders in the hard times. The boys (siblings) had the other back room and my folks had the middle bedroom.

(What was it like living in the neighborhood at that time?)
“It was gorgeous. It was a prosperous neighborhood. It wasn’t like Washington Street, or anything, with all those big houses, but it was a nice, nice neighborhood. It was close to three schools; I think that was why my dad chose it. And it was close to a restaurant he had.

My dad’s restaurant was called Jim’s Lunch. It was on the corner of Federal and Weadock Streets.”

(What do you remember about it?)
“Well. I hated it. I had to work in it. They closed it in 1943, the year I graduated. But it had good food. We always had food. Just ordinary home-made food: roast chicken, roast pork, meatloaf, those kinds of things. A whole plate full of food for twenty-five cents – no tax – I remember taking the cash. My father was Greek (my mother was not Greek), so he was with all the Greek restaurant owners, they were buddies. We had a lot of Greek restaurants. I think almost all the restaurants downtown were Greek somehow at that time.

I remember when they were working on that Post Office (remodeled and rededicated in 1937), and when they were taking up the trolley tracks out of Genesee Street. We had all those workers in for lunch.”

(What was Christmas like?)
“Oh, the stores were all beautifully decorated and once a week the stores all changed their window displays. Once a week – the stores closed at 5 or 6 o’clock – my mother and I would walk and window shop. Morley Brothers had the most beautiful window displays. Saturdays everyone would go downtown to do their shopping. The busses would be running. We had a thriving community, such a beautiful downtown.”

(When did you leave the neighborhood?)
“In the ‘50’s, probably, when I got my own place.”

(What do you miss about that kind of neighborhood?)
“I miss the type of neighbors you had back then. They were all nice people. Baums were on the one side of us, I guess he was a mayor years and years ago. Perry’s Grocery store was right next to Baums’. It was a convenient area to live in because it was close to everything there was. We had everything close by: schools, libraries, drugstores, busses. Everything was “neighborhood” at that time. Neighborhood stores, neighborhood everything.”

It is sad to think that so much that was wonderful has vanished through short-sighted efforts to curb what is called urban blight, but it is a delight to report to Muriel and others like her that a strong sense of community and neighborhood still survive and that we who live near St. Mary’s Cathedral hope to keep this kind of neighborhood alive in the structures and streets and people that remain of the place they once called home. It is still the most wonderful place in which to live. I hope it always will be.

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