Peeling paint on Oliver Street
Photo from the remarkable Jacob Kedzierski -- check out his
North Tonawanda collection at
The customers are restless. Most people who wander into this site do so by accident, which is fine (howdy, Mister Clinton!). The few who actually come here by design tend to be, shall we say, demanding readers.
"Where's the family history?" I was asked today. "You're way behind schedule on this 3,000 dead relatives thing." The general consensus is, less Obama talk, fewer song lyrics, and more names of dead folk.
One of the most admirable aspects of practical Mormonism is its constant awareness that we are part of a large family, and that the living have an obligation to bind themselves to the dead, to learn from the past, to remember the past, to knit together generations. One of the most repulsive aspects of practical Mormonism is the one-dimensionality that that binding usually takes. We log onto the websites and contact the town clerks and visit the country cemeteries, feverishly collecting names, piling up the pink and blue Family File slips like so many baseball cards, with no thought to the people, the breathing, living, bleeding, laughing, loving people, the remarkable people and the reprehensible people, our people, that all those slips of paper represent.
More stories are in the offing. It takes hours of research and not a little effort to put those things together. And right now, for whatever reason, I am thinking a lot about my grandfather, so he is the ancestor I'm writing about.
With that, a brief exegesis of "Oliver Street":
The Third Ward of North Tonawanda is dominated by a neighborhood known as "The Avenues". From the turn of the century until the late 1970's, this was a predominantly Polish, working-class neighborhood. Major employers included Buffalo Bolt Company, International Paper, and later, The Wurlitzer Company, home of the legendary juke box:
I would love to own one of these some day...
Running through the Avenues like a central nervous system is Oliver Street, a two-lane collection of small businesses and factories and bars and presiding over it all, the great spire of OLC Church. Oliver was the spine, the avenues branching off it like a ribcage of two bedroom, one bathroom slate singled houses. The streets in the Avenues, as in most of North Tonawanda, were asphalt, which is no match for the brutal winter. Even at its peak, the streets in the Avenues were a mess of cracks and fissures and potholes.
There were hundreds of bars, literally hundreds of them, on Oliver Street, a staggering number of bars, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Guiness Book of Records number of bars. These were less places to get drunk -- though there was certainly plenty of that -- than miniature community centers. Political careers were launched from these places. Families gathered to eat Friday fish fry. Tired working men stopped to socialize at the end of their shifts. Litwin's Bar and Grill was founded by great-grandfather, Peter Litwin, and managed by my great-uncle, "Jumbo" Litwin. My grandfather was a bartender on the weekends. He poured drinks and told stories and played his fiddle, accordion and mandolin to entertain the patrons.
There was always music, mostly polkas and other "ancient melodies" with their roots in eastern Europe. The "accordion in the upstairs room" is a tribute to my friend and second cousin, Steve Litwin, concertina player extraordinaire, who back in the Sixties started learning the traditional songs, taught, in part, by my grandfather. Steve has made the preservation of traditional Polish music a lifelong pursuit, and God bless him for his efforts!
My grandfather and great-grandfather worked at RT Jones Lumber Yard, a vestige of the once-thriving North Tonawanda lumber industry, an industry that had been decimated by two massive fires around the turn of the century. Later, Grand-Pa took a job at Wurlitzer, and worked there until his forced retirement. Wurlitzer shut the plant, in part because of a lousy economy, in part because they ruined the business by changing the design of the juke box from something iconic and beautiful, to something that looked a lot like a commercial washing machine:
All of the plants shut down. Buffalo Bolt, Roblin Steel, American Standard Iron Works, International Paper: they're all gone. And all of this happened as my grandfather's generation reached retirement age. OLC remained (and remains still), but where Roman Catholicism had been for a century the one and only faith in the Avenues, the Baptists and the Assemblies of God and the Jehovah's Witnesses and even those pesky Mormons began to drain away the faithful. In the song, the lyrics move from "factory whistles" and "church bell" to "factory whistle" and "church bells" to describe that shift. "Walking down Oliver with a black rosary in my pocket" is a symbol of my grandfather's determined commitment to his Roman Catholic faith. The rosary is black to evoke mourning: the old life is dying; the old neighborhood is disappearing.
The amazing thing about this massive change is that most people didn't really see it happening. A plant would close, a family would move away, but it was still the neighborhood, still the Avenues, "the same old thing." It was only at the end, after everything closed and everyone left, that it became clear something wonderful was forever gone.
The neighborhood, which had been home to Poles (and to a lesser extent, Russians, Czechs, Bohemians, and Hungarians) for three generations turned into a ghost, a forgotten place. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of them, live in the suburbs, or they live in Charlotte or Orlando or Houston. What's left, including Litwin's, our once thriving family establishment, is mostly boarded, mostly sagging, mostly abandoned.
There's a lot in that little song.
I'm working on another one, called "Blue Room", about my grandfather's efforts to turn the Litwin's dining room into a jazz club.