When I drive to my mother’s house, 3 miles away, I pass through a history of land use and development typologies in America. My own home, an 1870 townhouse was located just a block from an industrial district and two blocks from Main Street, the commercial center of the region.
As I travel towards my mom’s house I pass by and pass through what would have been Springfield’s “Riverside”, a sub-urb in the sense that the ultra wealthy who lived there were beyond, and quite literally above the streets where the masses toiled. This would have been the first post industrial arrangement.
These homes were mansions, no Mc-prefix necessary. Most people walked wherever they needed to go, and those who rode had the wherewithal to do so without making time payments on a gently used, late model, low mileage buggy.
Before reaching the “X” I cross paths with a pre-war streetcar suburban development. Further down, by the Olmsted group designed Forest Park are slightly less grand, though still opulent by modern standards, turn of the century suburban homes. Some of the one story commercial buildings remain every few blocks with one still standing at X itself, housing a few ethnic restaurants and groceries and a small pub. Just beyond, down Dickinson Street, the last of the streetcar retail centers sits, still amazingly vibrant commercially in spite of being architecturally castrated long ago.
This is where I first experienced urbanism, “walkabilty”, (though bike-ability would be more accurate), and the joys of independent mobility in a mixed use neighborhood. I paid my newspaper fee, ate sandwiches at Abe’s Kosher Deli, went back and forth between Cumberland Farms and Dairy Mart to buy baseball cards and comic books, and sometimes got a meatball grinder at whatever the pizza place was called that month. There was a drug store too, and a travel agency as well. Dad would stop on this stretch on the way home from running errands to buy milk and cigarettes. (Winston. He’s dead now. Lung cancer. Who could have seen that coming?) He’d buy me a slim jim or a pretzel.
Just beyond, on both sides of the road, were the last of the Pre-War houses. Smaller scale Tudors and Cotswold Cottages much smaller than the two preceding generations, more humble in their interior and exterior, but still made of the highest quality materials and put together by craftsmen. Perhaps 2,500 square feet instead of the 4,000 of homes in the Cozy Corner or along Sumner Avenue; and nothing like the land leviathans on Maple Street. Oh, and telephone poles pop up out of the landscape.
Take that left turn down Tiffany Street and an amazing thing happens. For the first time on this journey, a sidewalk disappears on one side of the street. “Blocks” disappear, at least on the right hand side, and some 300 yards down on the right it appears: the first Post War Levittown “house” complete with a driveway and an attached garage. The windows have fake shutters, there’s a stoop just high enough to trip on but not big enough for anything else.
This house stands at the gateway to the first cul de sac. This is the first time a planner could have continued a street through to connect with another street but chose not to in order to keep out “traffic”. Only many years later would I see how that effected my daily life in that I found the “Dickinson-Tiffany” bus preferable to the “Dickinson” because I either had to walk through the woods to get home, or had to sneak through the Temple Beth El parking lot and landscaping because there was no cut through. This in spite of the fact that the bus it self passed much closer to my house on the Dickinson Street side.
From that first post war house to my parents’ house things just get worse overall. Having delivered newspapers and wandered here for years and years I know that there are still 3 or 4 old farmhouses, literally farmhouses on or near this stretch of Tiffany Street. In what remains of the woods you can still find the remnants of orchards which I’m sure were once much prized. Most of what remains, especially on the right hand side beyond my mother’s street, is taken up by two enormous cul de sac developments. No sidewalks at all and no connectivity from development to development. On my paper route I followed pathways through the woods to avoid wasting time and retracing my steps. The siding is vinyl. When I was delivering newspapers in the 70’s it seemed every driveway had a Dodge Aspen, a Plymouth Volaré, or a Chrysler Cordoba (pronounced Cor-DO-ba, unlike the city in Spain which is COR-do-ba. How did Ricardo Montalban get that so WRONG?!)
Unlike when I was growing up only the last few hundred feet of Brentwood Street is still dirt road. My mom’s house sits at the end; well water, septic tank, poor cellphone reception, and mostly woods all around…and Temple Beth El to one side. An ugly fence sits on the berm separating the house from the temple. It’s probably there due to the box of hood ornaments still hidden in the basement somewhere. I never had the nerve to pop off the golden golfer that sat on the Rolls Royce. That was my great white whale. When my dad found that box hidden in my room he read me the riot act, but he didn’t hit me.
He loved his Mercury Montego MX (no hood ornament), and he loved to drive. I wish I could say I hated cars even back then, but the truth is I was in awe of them. The Trans Am Firebird with the gaudy decal of a Phoenix on its enormous hood was mankind’s single greatest achievement. At 6′ tall, 120 lbs I figured even I could get a girlfriend if I had one of those. At 16 I had to settle for borrowing my mom’s fire engine red Toyota Corolla Wagon. Somehow the wood panel decals didn’t capture the message of virile masculinity of the Firebird. And the rest, as they say, is history.