Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Lost Planet of Syracuse

My hiatus, unannounced and unheralded, is as quietly ended. Miguel has returned from a visit to Syracuse, that bourne from which no traveller returns in one piece. I do not visit Syracuse because its comeliness or benign climate beckon, nor does its melieu bewitch nor its brio ignite the moribund Pictish soul in me. In fine, I have a grandson whose parents were born there and insist on remaining in situ

I lived there myself, even after I finally struggled through its university none the wiser for having been educated. But inertia is one of its principal products, so I anticipate that this was not my last journey to the shores of Onondaga, a once-deep glacial lake whose shallow bottom is a century-old bequest of Allied Chemical.

I found myself with a rental car and some spare time, so I undertook a sentimental journey through some of the old North Side neighborhoods I used to haunt, German and Italian enclaves once boasting family restaurants, social clubs like the Sons of Italy, the Knights of Pythias and of Columbus, the Liederkranz Society, and all the ethnic provisioners - Greek groceries, Italian and German delis, bakeries with names like Steigerwald's, Columbus, and Di Lauro. I used to walk to Lombardis Italian Imports to buy little dried logs of salami and bright medallions of candied Sicilian orange slices. That, a loaf of sesame semolina, a bottle of barbera, some bel paese, was lunch. The old grocery, broken but unbowed, is still there.

Beyond where you attended mass (Italians at St. John the Evangelist or at Immaculate Conception; Germans at Holy Trinity), the more localized loyalties depended on whether your family dined at, say, Danzer's or Weber's.

Weber's Restaurant and Hofbrauhaus 

One lazy afternoon, 40 years ago in my graduate school days, drinking beer with the old neighborhood Germans in the sundrenched bar in Danzer's, I watched a small fellow seated a little way down the bar, cloth shopping bag slumped next to his summertime wine-and-selzer. He would stop each familiar who walked by him, open the bag eagerly, and show off the ponderous hardbound volume of "Goethe's Collected Works" he had just purchased at the public library's annual book purge. I have never since seen a man as pleased with himself and with the world as that fellow was. Everyone seemed delighted for him and, perhaps more significantly, knew what he was showing them. The Germans brought culture to Syracuse along with lots of breweries, all of them defunct by the middle of the twentieth century, many of the old precincts still standing forlorn, the names of empire fading on their bricks.

The city also boasted a broad green park at the top of each of its significant hills. The German neighborhoods surrounded Schiller Park, named for the same poet who wrote the "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven set into the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony. Exactly a century ago, in 1911, the German citizens of the city dedicated a bronze statue on a green knoll in the park. It depicts a noble-browed Goethe handing on the poet's laurels to a muscular young Schiller, the latter demurring by a modest check of Goethe's proffering arm, both of them gazing eternally from the park's lawns over the neighboring residences. I'm guessing that most of the neighbors have no clue who the gentlemen may have been nor why they're so oddly attired.

Now Weber's Restaurant is a derelict, festooned with fraying particle board at the doors and windows, the neon sign dead. Lorenzo's has become a Vietnamese establishment; the old deco black-glass tiles along the top of the building, "Lorenzo's Family Restaurant" once picked out in white glass, reads (after a bad scrubbing) "XXXXXXXX Family Restaurant." 

Even forty years ago, Syracuse was a tired and shabby place, though still mostly intact. Now the downtown has been regentrified; the warehouse and packing district is an "eclectic" mix of high end shops, nifty restaurants, brewpubs and maybe just a few too many Irish pubs. (Or do "eclectic" and "a few too many" fit uneasily into the same sentence?)

But the old neighborhoods, the places where people lived and died and left their cultural legacies, have surpassed even their accustomed shabbiness. The city looks as though it took an overdose of DDT -  you expect shoals of dead alewives piled in the street drains. 

The more things change, the more they change.

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