The Great Urban Renewal

134 West Main

I was born at the end of the season of lilacs, on the doorstep of that tumultuous summer when cities across America burned. In Prague the students still basked in the warmth of a false spring, and half a world away soldiers weathered the Tet Offensive, but to Batavia these events were just grainy images on the television like a rumble of far off thunder.

The nation lost Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, and somewhere deep within our hearts a seed of doubt took root, and began to grow, watered by the tears like rain. The skies above Batavia had already begun to darken. One by one the buildings of the old city began to fall as the wrecking balls cleared away the past for the great urban renewal. Piles of bricks lined Main Street , wooden beams poking out of them like crosses. In the parking lot of Star Market the women felt the first drops, reached into their purses, and took out their little plastic rain bonnets.

At Trojan Industries, the presses still thumped, and the weld sparks still scattered across the floor like diamonds. Business was strong in the factories that remained. At night the crowds at Dwyer Stadium, still cheered their ballplayers knowing that the game is never over until the final out. New plazas went up at both ends of the town, their asphalt lots sparkling with Detroit steel.

On July 4th the marching bands marched from City Hall down the length of Main Street to the burned out shell of old St. Joseph’s Church, whose charred rafters stuck out like the ribs on a rotting animal. Next door a windowless rectangular bunker arose to protect us from an enemy that we couldn’t see. Elm trees fell all over town, as the city worked to keep up with Dutch Elm disease. New trees were planted, and staked, the cracked bluestone sidewalks replaced with white cement. After the work crews left, kids scratched their names into them like stars on Hollywood Boulevard.

Ellicott Avenue

Year by year the empty lots and vacant buildings multiplied. In their place rose an image of the concrete future that only made the rain feel colder. In the weedy lots on Washington Avenue, the outlines of sidewalks, and basements remained like footprints left behind by a city that had moved on. Yet we stayed behind, the great bulk of the new Mall whispering promises of better things to come, promises that we are still waiting to be fulfilled.

This was why I clung to the past, and refused to surrender anything as I grew. Even at that young age I knew that something was slipping away from us, never to return. What else can explain the melancholy that haunts me still, and leads me to sift through the dust of memory like an archaeologist? Surely there is something left behind that we have forgotten, something that will show us the way back.

134 West Main – today

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