By Arthur H. Gunther III
In the youth that was mine and so many others in 1950s not-yet-suburbia in Rockland County, N.Y., there would be occasional trips to New York City, about 24 miles southeast. That could be an experience.
In those days, many Rocklanders had never been to Gotham and quite a few cared not to go, the urban-rural divide that is this nation’s history still strong. The usual rationale, fed by a bit of prejudice but also a growing need for survival against “progress,” was that city folk were brash, noisy, nosy and rough. Well, yes, in generalization. How can you survive in on the streets without armor? True is, was, still is, that such lumping of all fades when you meet the individual, and quite a few fine city people have helped improve Rockland.
Yet more than enough new residents have also required bulldozing farms, apple orchards and green space; necessitated numerous highway shopping strips that are often neglected; brought traffic, noise and astronomically higher taxes; and built a vast suburbia that is now graying as more age into seniors and not enough young people choose or can afford to buy into what was the “American Dream.” How suburbia, which today is more urban that not, will morph is anyone’s guess. It was all built too quickly without regard for the old — too much of the new — and yet the new also lost its identity.
The loss of countryside and spouting of suburbia also changed old Gotham, all the gothams in the United States. Once, despite some poverty and challenge, they were clearly defined, cherished ethnic neighborhoods where apartment house residents were parents to all the kids on the block; where mom & pop stores went from generation to generation and built reputations of fine food, goods, service. Now the challenges of gentrification and of society itself mean redefinition, often without roots, so often without support. If suburbia is constantly trying to define itself, so is Gotham.
For a long time, though, which included the youth of my father and me as well as my grandfather, there was a certainty in the rhythm of New York City.
So, when we took the rare trip there in the 1950s and went on the subway, it was an amazing experience for rural kids who that morning had climbed a 200-year-old oak in the middle of an apple orchard and could see nothing but land in any direction. The underground train, with its noise, rattan seats, slow-moving ceiling fans, blinking incandescent lights and screeching as the cars made tight turns — it all made your head spin.
On the subway platform, hand in grandfather’s so as not to be swallowed into the ever-present crowd, relief was to be had: Chiclets, in four or five flavors, dispensed for one cent per two-gum package from a shiny vending machine attached to each post on the subway platform, sometimes alternating with peanut machines. What taste this gum offered, if only for a moment.
Once back on the “farm” as it were, you could take a few packs of Chiclets from your pocket, and if you were prescient enough, which no one was, you could understand that you, too, were bringing “progress” to the countryside.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org