January 08, 2007
New Rochelle, 10805
If you were to Google New Rochelle, New York, you'd find articles on Trump's downtown domination, pictures of the construction progress on 30-story Avalon high-rises, and showtime listings for the latest Ben Stiller showing on IMAX in the 18-screen megaplex at New Roc City.
You'd also find a brief, Hugenot-heavy history on the "Queen City of the Sound" that was also home to Thomas Paine, Richard "Shaft" Roundtree, and the Petries on the timeless Dick Van Dyke Show.
The New Rochelle I experienced as a child and fondly remember now was a much different place. Before the Bronx moved in, before Bally's tried to muscle its way into every couch potato's life, and before the K building was no longer the towering landmark of the cityscape, New Rochelle was (oxymoronically) that quaint city referenced in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, a destination just an afternoon drive away from Manhattan, that affluent 'burb where one could enjoy the autumn foliage and take in the view down by the waterfront.
A look back, then and now:
The Mall at New Rochelle was a cement-and-stone eyesore of a complex that stood in the downtown sector. Macy's, its only major department store, opened in the early 1970s, and soon shops opened up on its brick-layered promenade. Woolworth's opened on the sub-level, complete with a built-in soda shop for those who were suckers for 50s nostalgia. By 1990, the mall, in an attempt to catch up to its contemporary contemporaries, got its own food court, and the next generation was graced with the delicacies of Burger King, Sbarro, and Generic Chinese Fast Food. The Friar Tuck Bookshop brought literacy back to downtown dwellers. Coincidentally, my first R.L. Stine novel was purchased at this quaint retailer which lay the foundation for my impending bookwormdom (Christopher Pike and Caroline B. Cooney were other writers I subsequently discovered during late-night excursions to Lane Bryant with my mother).
By 1997, the whole damn thing was demolished.
From Maple Street to Centre Avenue, a group of old-fashioned cinema playhouses dotted Main Street: the RKO Proctor, the Loew's, and the Town Theater. I remember getting out of school, walking past Loew's, and staring at the Coming Soon poster forFriday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, intrigued by the concept behind the latest installment and wondering what slice-and-dice methods the hockey-masked maniac had in store for the newest batch of teenaged victims.
1997 saw an attempt to recapture those moviehouse heydays by reopening the Town theater. I was a senior in high school when I ventured out to see I Know What You Did Last Summer - only to find the seats to be in the same condition as they were in 1975, the sound to be tinny and muffled, and the film quality as grainy as a 70s porn flick. The restored Town Theater didn't last. It closed within a year and Wicker Paradise took over, selling patio furniture and fake plants at wholesale prices.
The late 90s also turned the RKO theater into a school for those with "special needs." The enormous venue was gutted, the marquee knocked down, and a parking garage was erected within the structure. To this day, no one seems to know what kind of classes are taught within those walls.
Then, at the turn of the new millennium, the Loew's theater was renovated, and Palladium was born, a Webster Hall-esque nightclub built to keep Westchester guidos and hoochies from communting to Grand Central and spending their cash on martinis in Manhattan. Teen nights were typically held on Fridays. However, all of the flashy lights, pulsating beats, and insane amounts of hair gel weren't enough to revitalize a depressed Main Street. Palladium went kaput sometime in '02.
And the train station was so close to home. By the time I was a senior in high school, when New Rochelle started to lose its luster, when I began to stretch myself beyond its borders, Manhattan started calling, and all I had to do was hop on the Metro North rail and cruise into Grand Central Station within 30 minutes.
Main Street housed other landmarks from my childhood as well. Meateria was the grocery store my grandmother frequented every week. I remember walking through its narrow aisles and stepping through wood shavings on the floor near the butcher's counter, steering our small shopping cart around cane-carrying senior citizens and stroller-pushing nannies who were on a hunt for some Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on sale.
Soo Chow was the Chinese restaurant owned by the Lius, parents of an elementary school friend of mine. A free coke and complimentary wonton soup could always be guaranteed during a visit on any given Friday night.
The New Rochelle Bookshop was where I purchased my first Goosebumps novel. Cramped, stuffy, and poorly lit, the shop was tucked in between a men's clothing store and the Starlite Diner, one of the very few relics that remains on the traffic-clogged, one-way artery.
Another one-way, Memorial Highway, on which the New Rochelle Public Library can be found in all its stark-white mod glory, hosted street carnivals every May. Fried dough stands and game booths ran along the sidewalks as kiddie rides and various dilapidated attractions filled up the remaining space on the three-laned boulevard. I was an excited 8-year-old seeing those carnival posters painted across Main Street - vibrant images of balloons, clowns and a large rollercoaster silouetted against the background. It was all a big tease. Eventually, I'd always be let down, either because Mother Nature always knew when to rain on the festivities or because the rides (and overall ambience of the fair) grew more ghetto each year.
However, not all of my memories of New Rochelle were limited to the vicinity of Main Street...
Five Islands Park - where splinters never met a finger they didn't like while frolicking in the cement-and-wood playground...and where a certain Hawaiian Punch vending machine never failed to consume countless quarters from thirsty kindergarteners and their parched playmates.
Beechmont Lake on Pinebrook Boulevard - where the shallow waters would freeze solid during the winters and tempt ice skaters to spin themselves into a frigid frenzy.
Glen Island Park - where barbeques by the beach were always family affairs typically threatened by a good thunderstorm...or indigestion.
O'Brien's on North Avenue - where undetected fake IDs got high schoolers and underage Iona College co-eds drunk on Budweisers and Heinekens (so I've been told).
Now, the 2007 New Rochelle is catering to the yuppies of New York City. Lofts have taken over the old Bloomingdale's building on Main Street. The Mall has become New Roc City, housing arcades, restaurants, and a Marriot hotel. Condos have been raised. And with all of the frickin' gentrification, there has yet to stand a single Starbucks to caffienate commuters and lure those old ladies at the library out of their lulls. For the love of scones, could someone within the Chamber of Commerce please work this out?
If you brew it, they will come.
To look back on my homecity is to understand that cliched small-town sentimentality; it's not what it used to be. The warmth has left, the faces no longer familiar (Where for art thou Main Street Mary, everyone's favorite town whore?). With every return trip I take, the less it feels like home.
It's a bittersweet inevitability.
So, if you're ever in the area and in the mood for a Sabrett's hot dog or a good cruise down Boston Post Road, hit me up, and I just might be able to guide you through the locals...Trump construction permitting.
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