Dan Szczesny returns to his old haunting grounds and finds hope amid the decay.
With a baby on the way, I’ve begun thinking about my own childhood as a way to explore how I might bring my soon-to-be daughter closer to the history of her family. My father is still with us, but he’s the last remaining immediate connection my daughter will have to her past. One of the challenges of being an older parent is that I’ll have to dig deeper to find connectivity.
So, on a recent trip to Buffalo, my home town, I decided to swing through the neighborhood where my father’s family came as immigrants, then I returned as a child. And it made me realize I have one further, daunting challenge.
Buffalo’s East Side is a wreck. When the majestic (and now abandoned) Buffalo Central Terminal was built in the 1920s, it tore the neighborhood apart and signaled the area’s slow decline from thriving ethnic neighborhood to neglected urban decay. Today, the neighborhood spills over onto the broken sidewalks and dirty streets like it’s been punctured, like the houses and yards and churches are all open, bleeding wounds.
That’s where the story of my father’s family began, in a small, two story house that now sits in the middle of Buffalo’s worst, most deteriorated neighborhood.
When my grandfather followed his two brothers to America at the turn of the 19th Century, he landed here, on Buffalo’s East Side, where the Poles and other Eastern Europeans began taking the neighborhood away from the Irish and other Western Europeans.
The neighborhood was near the main set of heavily used railroad tracks that first brought him to Buffalo. And just up the road – where the main Post Office now stands – Buffalo’s enormous stockyards bustled and thrived, the primary source of food, dry goods and supplies for the new immigrants. My grandfather worked on that railroad, and began to raise a family with my grandmother, two girls and two boys. My father was the baby of the brood.
When my father married my mother, they lived in that house at first, renovating the upstairs apartment. That house brought together my father and mother’s families. And as a child, my parents brought me back there so often, even now the thought of that old house triggers in me the smell of my grandfather’s old workshop or the feel of the old rusty fence that ran behind the chicken coop where we used to play as kids. I loved that house.
Now, as I pick my way through the crumbling streets lined with collapsing porches and feral cats, I feel hopeless. I can’t bring my daughter here. I drive down the street and pass right by the property. I miss it the first time through because I don’t recognize the house.
I stop the car in the middle of the abandoned street, roll down the window and stare. The house of my childhood is now an island of light and whimsy amid the squalor. The front porch is filled with bird houses, spectacularly beautiful and intricate in design. The front yard is landscaped with tiered flower beds. The porch railing and door iron work gleams in the morning sun. There is a Polish flag in the flower bed.
“Can I help you?” A kid is standing by my car, maybe 12 or 13 years old. “Do you want to buy something?”
So I pull over and we chat. He gets his dad, John, a contractor who bought the house a few years ago and has spent his days making it beautiful once again. He speaks in broken English and every so often his son needs to translate for him. John builds the birdhouses himself.
I ramble on about my family and my childhood, and to his very great credit John humors me, and his son translates a few things here or there. I mention my grandfather’s chicken coop, and that’s the one time John smiles wide.
“I think that’s going to be coming back,” he says, and we share a nod and I can barely contain my happiness there on the broken street of my childhood, speaking with the family that I now share history with.
I hope John succeeds. I hope his kids stay safe. I hope he does build a chicken coop. And I hope his efforts to create an island of calm and beauty in the middle of an ocean of decay serves as the first step toward saving that neighborhood.
Because when my baby is old enough, I plan on taking her to the house where her grandmother lived and buying my daughter a birdhouse.
Photo courtesy of author