Extra Blue & White: Hometown Nostalgia
Written by Bwog Staff
The February/March issue of the Blue and White has hit newsstands, benches, and tables near you. In addition to the reports on hometowns from the issue, here are trips down memory lane from Jersey City, Hickory Hills, and the East Village.
Jersey City, NJ
Most Jersey City residents are in it for the cheap. Compared to New York City, the Duane Reade is cheaper, condos are cheaper, food is cheaper, and parking is cheaper. To be fair, the two cities share a river, and Jersey City has a waterfront district packed with (ugly) new skyscrapers. There’s public transportation, too: the PATH train—Port Authority Trans-Hudson—takes budget-conscious yuppies where they wish they lived in under ten minutes. There are dreaming real-estate agents who call Jersey City the “sixth borough” of New York. Yet we remain New Jersey. The proof is in the Hudson County accent.
If you limited your investigation to the waterfront, with its safe neighborhoods of quaint brownstones, it would seem that people choose Jersey City solely for the ease of commuting away from it. But move away from the Manhattan-reaching edge and you will penetrate a sort of “inner city,” where Jersey City comes into its own. Read more after the jump.
Here, everything is still cheap, but the products are indigenous, making the area feel less like a bootleg New York. In the space of a few blocks, there is the Philippine Bread House, where you can get six pieces of still-warm pan de sal for a dollar; there is Larry and Joe’s, where you can get a $2 slice of eggplant pizza; there is the whole neighborhood of Little India, full of inexpensive and authentic restaurants.
These are reminders of an older generation, now unfortunately left to complain about the new condos and higher taxes. The yuppies defend themselves by pointing out how much safer the city has gotten. There is no easy resolution to this bind.
When I was little, there was a cluster of spindly bushes next to the playground by my house that my mom strictly forbade me from playing in because the area was littered with needles. Now, the neighborhood I grew up in hosts three hoity-toity cafes and an organic grocery in two blocks. The bushes in the park are more robust, and there’s no need to worry about finding needles in the thicket. At least for the next generation, Jersey City is an even better place to play house.
Hickory Hills, IL
The name “Hickory Hills, Illinois” conjures sprawling corn fields and big red barns, planted among a small number of people on a first-name basis with one another. The reality is infinitely more complicated, mostly because of the town’s proximity to Chicago—it’s only a twenty-minute drive to downtown, and an intrepid person can walk to the formal city lines. It can’t properly be called a suburb, since it has no planned subdivisions. The distance between houses makes it feel like country, but the blocks are numbered, as in downtown Chicago, instead of named as in most suburbs. In fact, most Hillians consider themselves Chicagoans rather than small town dwellers—they’re “from the southwest side” more than from Hickory.
This big city identity isn’t totally unwarranted. Hickory Hills is home to a surprising number of immigrants from Eastern Europe (especially Poland), Greece, Ireland, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, though, in Hickory Hills as in Chicago, immigrant communities react to one another with sometimes-fierce rivalry. Accidentally offering a Lithuanian person a greeting in Polish (my mistake, as an employee of the local Great American Bagel) will elicit a complaint to the manager. A woman wearing anything but traditional Islamic garb cannot expect to be seated at the town hookah bars. Walking into the Irish immigrant bar without an accent is a very, very bad idea.
But some of the town’s idiosyncrasies are more charming. On Sunday mornings, Hickory Hills has an enthusiastic population of worshipers. But in spite of our apparent piety, the most frequented establishment on Saturday nights is PoleKatz, the town strip club. Still, everyone knows that the clientele hopping between bars on Saturday is settling into pews the next morning.
Nowhere are Hickory Hills’ contradictions more apparent than in the halls of the local high school. The school educates the children of both multi-millionaire Chicago stock traders and blue-collar corn-processing plant workers; the hallways are jammed with drug dealers, marching band members, and the very few who fall between these two extremes. I graduated in the class of 2005, which was simultaneously the highest-achieving class in school history (call me the case in point; I was the very first alum admitted to Columbia), and one of the worst behaved. One of my classmates was accidentally shot and killed at a party before graduation; another of my classmates set fire to one of the school’s bathrooms; yet another assaulted a fellow student during science class with sulfuric acid.
Since I hail from Hickory Hills, I can pass as a naive farmer’s daughter-type or as a jaded urbanite. Going to Mass every Sunday has alotted me some classic Midwestern American charm; navigating among so many different ethnic enclaves has bestowed me with city-smarts. In just three square miles, little Hickory Hills accommodates a lot.
The East Village
I don’t know what visitors see when they come to my neighborhood. I might dress like the average NYU kid out on her first East Village adventure, but I remember a very different East Village, where drug dealers were arrested on my stoop and addicts slept in the park.
Sometimes I even feel like I remember what the neighborhood was like long before that. But what I really remember are the long walks my father and I took through the neighborhood, even before I understood most of his lively historic commentary. Both my parents remember the neighborhood as it was when they arrived in the ’70s, my father fleeing a Masters program at Yale, my mother hoping to paint. My father started working in small factories, got a job selling ladies’ underwear, and eventually joined the subway to become a union organizer. They organized a rent strike in their building when the landlord refused to do repairs, and soon were leading rent strikes throughout the neighborhood.
Often my father’s narration went beyond the history that he himself remembers. In the same breath he points out a building teeming with anarchists in the 1980’s, a one hundred year old Jewish knishery, and buildings that stood on Lafayette during the race riots of the 1860’s. Even with no visual aids, he narrates the history of the subway workers’ union back to its heyday in the 30’s, as if he personally remembers it all.
After years of his guidance, my eyes now find their own way to distinct visual signs of a once larger Hispanic population, of the days before the Jews and Italians vacated the slums, of the presence of squatters before gentrification. There is a one-block, diagonal road left where Peter Stuyvesant’s driveway once ran into his property. I begin to feel as though I remember it all. I’ve been lucky enough to have access to two of the many human relics–most of whom cling to their rent-controlled apartments and share their memories only with college-aged daughters and fellows in nostalgia. But the history of the East Village, my hometown, can be visible and vibrant to anyone–if you take time to look.