A Wonderful Urban Oasis

I HAVE now lived in New England long enough to love it without feeling the need to ennoble it by disparaging my origins.

New Jersey and Maine are not all that far apart: It's just a six hour drive from where I was raised to the Piscataqua River bridge, which looks out over an endless expanse of green. And then I am greeted by a sign that reads, ``Welcome to Maine - The Way Life Should Be.''

But Maine is a state about which people say, ``Someday we'll live in Maine; then everything will be all right.'' There is a sense of well-being connected with the place that New Jersey seems to lack. ``Someday we'll live in Jersey?''

It doesn't work.

Because, I think, people are looking for the wrong things in the wrong places.

I grew up in the heart of urban New Jersey - that northeast industrial corridor studded with flaming towers. The population, the money, the industry, the traffic, and the proximity to New York join to make little New Jersey feel much bigger than it is. Certainly too big for a 10-year-old to take in at a glance. But my life was made intimate by living in a wonderful neighborhood - a world small enough to make me feel large and important. And a world it was: On my block, seven languages were spoken. But on the adjoining block - the next world over - lived people I seldom saw and certainly had little hope of ever getting to know.

The tree-lined street of my working-class neighborhood was as quaint and livable as a prairie town. With New York to the left of us and Philadelphia to the right, there was still no perceived need to visit either of the two. And why should there be, when it seemed that the world was constantly coming to us? Fresh produce arrived daily on a flatbed truck bearing a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, over which our mothers would haggle with desperate abandon or feigned disinterest until an acceptable price was reached.

The Good Humor truck rolled in on hot summer evenings, along with a pizza truck and a man selling that ambrosia of the greater New York metropolitan area, the Italian ice. There were also a handful of irregulars, such as the umbrella man, who appeared out of nowhere, draped with tools and umbrella ribs. Who would have thought that this elderly bent figure could have made a living at such a specific itinerant trade? I can still recall neighbors running down their front stoops with broken umbrellas in hand, as if they had been waiting for him all their lives.

My New Jersey neighborhood was a world designed for walking. A car had little value in a place where everything one needed was within easy reach. If a ware or service didn't come to us, then it was but a short walk to the pharmacy, the delicatessen, or the corner bakery.

Having everything within walking distance made my neighborhood a world in slow motion. One does not usually think of a city in these terms; but when one is afoot one sees things, one meets people, and in so doing one confirms the existence and persistence of one's familiar boundaries, the landmarks of one's neighborhood world.

My neighborhood differed from any other I knew: It had an apple orchard right in the middle of the block, between the homes of two Italian families. It was as though my city had been built around this little piece of country, where the Cortland, McIntosh, and Transparent trees stood bent and gnarled like old men. Beyond them stood an arbor, covered with grapevines.

The caretaker of this oasis was an elderly Italian man who labored day in and day out to make this nook of our neighborhood bloom. His ministrations brought home an important point to me: In the city it is possible to live close to nature, but you can't stick a piece of city out in the country.

I RECENTLY returned to this neighborhood after 15 years. In almost every way imaginable, it is different: racially, ethnically, and spatially. The place that seemed so vast in my childhood is now small and navigable. The street where we fielded two stickball teams is really a narrow one-way ribbon of asphalt that I can cross in six paces. Since the mall was built, there are no more street vendors. But the most striking change is the loss of the orchard: The land is now fenced in and paved over.

And yet I felt powerfully at home here, as if it were still my place. Driving slowly under the canopy of sycamores and maples, I considered the wonder of growing up in an urban neighborhood.

As I eased up on the gas and slowed to a crawl, I felt as if I were repossessing something that was once firmly mine. Halfway down the block was a group of young boys tossing a basketball into a hoop that they had nailed to the sycamore I had once climbed. As I passed them, they paused and looked at me. My eyes met theirs, I nodded, and drove on. We - my family and friends of 20 years ago - had taken good care of the block for them. We had, in some way, enabled this game of basketball to take place. I realized that thoughts of repossessing my old neighborhood were nonsense. I had never lost it.

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