Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MY HOMETOWN: HOW HISTORY SAVED A HOUSE (FINALLY)



(Photo reprinted with the permission of Lou Azzollini)

I have learned through the years that there is a fundamental truth to being human—we are creatures of memory and compassion. We feel longing, and regret. My own memories are so meticulously situated inside of me as to be nothing more than a gigantic flip book of visual stories I find myself re-visiting more and more as I age. Perhaps because the past is that one protected place where possibility never dies, relationships remain intact, and there lives the fantasy of the ‘do-over.”       
          Like my parents and grandparents before me, I grew up in Fort Lee. A Fort Lee that looks nothing like it did when I was younger, and it saddens me that so many of the landmarks of my youth have been razed and replaced by oversized duplexes, townhouse developments, strip malls, and apartment buildings that appear like scars on the horizon of my memory. I learned how to walk on the streets of a Fort Lee that still had dirt roads, farmhouses, saloons in houses where children were welcomed after school to buy soda, a local five and dime, a local department store, and acres and acres of pristine woods that lured us with wind-whispered sighs of awaiting adventures.
Then it happened. Subtly at first. The houses that lined the side roads of Main Street came down one by one, leveling the land and silencing the voices that once made those streets so vibrant. Hudson Street, Hoyt Avenue, Central Road. I remember walking those empty streets thinking how they looked hauntingly desolate like the pictures I had seen of war-torn cities in far-away countries on the evening news.
Like an infectious disease, barren lots spread north, south, east and west silencing neighborhoods and erasing history. Trees were indiscriminately felled and skyscrapers grew out from the earth casting shadows upon the capes that petulantly stood anchored beside them, refusing to move out of the way. Variances were given and zoning laws revised with seemingly little regard to preserving the character of the neighborhood until, finally, very few people remembered that there was even a character to preserve.
One by one, the houses of my friends came down; houses that were as familiar to me as my own. Houses whose histories could be traced back a hundred years or more--gone. The Coyte house, the Abbott house, the Barrymore house, the Ortlip house, the Castle on the hill, each replaced by a townhouse development, a bank, oversized duplexes, and skyscrapers. As the ‘70’s turned into the ‘80’s, and the ‘80’s turned into the ‘90’s, my small hometown was all but unrecognizable.
My life moved on, but some­where in the mix of days that have followed the memories of my hometown, and the time that I spent there with my friends, have creviced themselves into a signifi­cant place in my own history. That’s why when I heard that the Ford House, one of the oldest residences in Fort Lee that sits on a large tract of land, was being bought by a local violin shop, Main Violin Shop, to be used and preserved, I was very interested in the outcome. It went before the zoning board this week seeking to have a variance change from residential to commercial. Here’s the glitch—if the commercial variance was approved the house would be preserved. If it wasn’t approved and remained residential then any developer could potentially come in, knock it down, and replace it with a townhouse development or duplexes.
I sat in the audience listening intently to the concerns of all involved.  Lou Azzollini, Vice President of the Fort Lee Historical Society, spoke so movingly when he said, “The neighborhood (as it appears now) grew up around this house. This house is the neighborhood.” The board voted unanimously to grant the variance, thereby preserving the house and all the memories it holds, not only for the Ford family, but for all of us for whom that house represents all that Fort Lee used to be.
          It may seem like a small victory in a battle long lost, but I commend the board for their unanimous decision to preserve the Ford House. Landmarks are important because they define the stories that we tell, and those stories are what bridge the distance between the truth about ourselves and the legends we hold close. 

3 comments:

  1. Great column ... as usual Ann :)

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  2. I always pass this house and always admire it. Thanks for sharing the story!

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  3. Gideon G. Panter, M.D.October 11, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    You mourn the changes in the neighborhood. How do you think the Indians felt, when they could talk about thousands of years with no changes. One either rationalizes that we should accept the march of modernization, or we move to a place that is zoned and controlled to our liking.
    By the way, the skyscrapers did not "plunge" from the earth, they "erupted" from the earth. "Plunge" implies a movement into or down.
    While we're at it, "creviced" is an adjective, not a verb, and when a sentence is conditional, as your "if the commercial variance was approved" the case of the verb changes so that it should have been "were approved". So I wonder who was teaching English at Ft. Lee High School when you attended, and shouldn't you craft a letter of either anger or appology to that teacher?

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