Last night’s news shocked me: an iconic building in my Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill burnt and was demolished overnight. With this loss, the landscape of my childhood and adult world changed forever.
Now, changes to my new neighborhood threaten my mental map. Every time I walk in Washington Heights I take in the sights. Already in the 4 years I have been here the cityscape on the short blocks between 181st and 187th Streets on Broadway has changed: the Crystal Party Supplies store is gone, with its remarkable rainbow-colored awning; the Rammco gas station is now an Exxon; and Hobby Land next to that is closed. Two seemingly successful restaurants near the corner of 184th Street closed: Altus, and El Condé Steak House, although recently remodeled. The movie theater I never went to on 181st Street is long gone.
In my old neighborhood, I walk down the streets and remember what stores used to be there: a butcher, a bakery, a typewriter repair shop. When strolling the side streets, I recall landmarks by my childhood pals: Beverly’s family lived on such-and-such street; Frani’s old house’s trim is now painted blue; my friends have lived in Gail’s house longer than Gail’s family lived there. I note what landscaping has changed and which stores are new. Empty storefronts niggle me like loose teeth.
However, I lived in Pittsburgh most of 40 years and changes went more slowly than what I now perceive as a racing trend. So, too, do the empty storefronts and the changing landscapes in my new neighborhood tug at my sensibilities. If so much change has occurred over only four years, instead of the forty years in Squirrel Hill, what anchors will current residents have for their memories?
In Pittsburgh it’s common to give directions in terms of where something “use ta be.” “Ya know where that Gulf Station use ta be near where the Isaly’s was?” Or, “Go three red lights dahn past where the Foodland use ta be.” But if you haven’t seen the Gulf Station, Isaly’s deli, or the Foodland supermarkets as landmarks, how do you mentally map your space? Already I can’t remind myself that Social Security’s in the block just past the Party Store… because it’s gone.
It’s hard to feel settled, even after 4 years, when there’s not much distinguishing to anchor my mental map. I want a mental map as robust as that I have of Squirrel Hill and am finding flimsy material instead. But still, I persevere.