Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
“All of my life I have lived in the same house, on the same street, in the same town.” This was the opening statement and fact of my first essay for my English professor, Bill Cherniak, in my freshman year at Jamestown Community College located on the Goodwill campus at the southwest corner of Foote and Allen in September of 1958. I had no idea the impact it would make on him, almost something close to envy, because of the very lack of “sameness” that he experienced as a boy growing up in Canada. Indeed, I think I said to him that I thought living in the same place was rather boring! That was 63 years ago, and now, having published three books about the Lost Neighborhood and Brooklyn Square and having plumbed my memory over several decades, I realize how much the people I lived among and the Italian American culture of my old neighborhood on Derby Street shaped my future.
Derby Street formed the southern boundary of Brooklyn Square, and it was the first completely residential block that one came upon as South Main and Allen Streets converged just opposite Fenton Park. I spent my first 21 years on Derby Street, but when I came home for Thanksgiving break during the fall semester of my senior year at Harpur College in 1961, I came home to 223 Prospect Street where my parents had moved when the Derby Street home had been sold in October. In a sense, my parents’ move foreshadowed the impending relocation of all of the families that made Derby Street their home because of the ambitious urban renewal project that was undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s on the south side of the city. Homes were destroyed, and on Derby Street alone at least one hundred predominantly Italian American families were displaced. Bulldozers finished the job, and Derby Street completely disappeared. It is no longer on the map of Jamestown and has become known as the Lost Neighborhood.
By that time, I had married and moved from Jamestown, but my father kept me apprised of the changes that were occurring where our home and others had once stood. It was during a mid-1970s visit to Jamestown that I had to rely on my memory and sense of place to envision how our old neighborhood once looked. Was I standing on the site of my old home as I walked the aisles of Gray’s Drug Store? Would this have been where the back steps were, flanked by seasonal flowers, among them pink, white, and red hollyhocks? Was this the front of the house where peonies once grew and was the dense, green bed of lily of the valley close by? And where exactly had my father’s small but immaculately kept garden been planted with leaf lettuce, bell peppers, plum tomatoes, basil, parsley, scallions, and sweet corn?
Still the placement of homes went on in my memory. Where was the substantial brick and clapboard Crasti home separated from ours by a narrow drive way? It had wide front and back porches, and grapes, sweet and voluptuous, hung in bunches from a makeshift arbor—one of many in that Mediterranean neighborhood. I can’t recall how many times Mrs. Crasti would call to me and say, “Giovanna, get a dish from your Mama, and I’ll give you some grapes.” Practically all of the families in that neighborhood had one or more fruit trees growing in their backyards. Peach, plum, and cherry trees, short and laden with fruit, filled a corner of a yard. But apple trees, left unpruned, grew tall and dense to fill the upper spaces of backyards. They crowded against houses, heavy with fruit that often grew within picking distance of second-floor back porches: red and yellow streaked Northern Spies that were dimpled and ugly but wonderful for baking, and an apple that we used to call “rusty-coat” whose firm flesh, mellow and sweet, belied its uninviting appearance.
As I walked, my memory took me deeper and deeper into the old neighborhood. Am I looking in the direction of the spacious duplex home at 10 and 12 Derby where my girl friend Carol and I spent many summer afternoons on her front porch talking, embroidering, or listening to the radio? And how far into the interior of this renewal project had Ciancio’s grocery stood which, from its well-stocked one room, had supplied this Italian blue-collar neighborhood with all of the essentials: box upon box of pasta, tins of olive oil, Italian cold cuts, Provolone that was cut by hand, its fragrance as sharp as its taste, and during the holidays, wooden bushels filled with baccala stuck outside in the snow, and crates of holiday fruits—prickly pears, pomegranates, kumquats, strings of dried figs, and, of course, Italian chestnuts. Directly across the street was Jo Palermo’s beauty parlor where I often had my hair cut and set, seated under a dryer reading the most recent copy of Photoplay, a movie magazine that was mine to keep when the new monthly issue came out.
There was a closeness to that neighborhood that spelled security. Perhaps the words of Jim Auria, a former resident of Derby Street who shares the cover credits of my books, said it best in his Introduction to The Lost Neighborhood Collection (2010): “It is a Lost Neighborhood that was once loved by all who lived there and greatly missed by all of us who fondly remember our good friends who were our neighbors. Everyone had a front porch and used it. No fences were used to isolate you from your neighbor, and you knew all the names of everyone on your street as well as their children’s.”
What time diminishes, memory recovers. We grew up in each other’s houses in that neighborhood, sharing joys and sorrows, safe in the knowledge that if we needed help, it was generously given. There was stability in our lives that I still feel to this day, and probably it was that very surety of life, that comfort of familiarity living among people who cared about their neighbors and who shared so much, that made such an impact on my teacher. For all these years later, I can say that it shaped me and makes me content.