What brings you back are the very small details. You remember the texture of the cement stairs and the wrought iron decorative vines on a railing.
Last weekend, Dianne and I traveled to South Bend, Indiana where I gave a talk on how to make it a great biking city. It was one of several sessions at GreenTown, a conference focusing on sustainable development in the Michiana region spanning southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana.
While we were there, we went to find Cieselewicz family historic sites. My father grew up there and my grandfather owned a pharmacy in town, but he died in 1968 and I hadn't been back since my grandmother's funeral twelve years ago.
When we got to the house on Camden Street, I took a seat on the stairs leading up to the house. I instantly remembered the coarse stones visible in the pavement and the elaborate decorations on the white railings. As a kid, you're closer to the ground. You study details in things that adults never even notice.
I remember sitting on those stairs in, I don't know, maybe 1963 or something. The entire Cieslewicz/Beier clan -- I think there were about 12 of us kids at the time -- was arrayed on these stairs, with my grandparents beaming in the shadows of the deep porch behind us for an iconic all-family photo. My cousin Robert and I, all of about four years old at the time, are being restrained by an older sibling for the picture.
The details that come back so instantly fifty years later are the small things close to the ground. What you don't get right as a kid are the proportions of the larger place. The house itself seemed so much bigger, the block so much longer. The neighborhood parish, St. Adalbert's, seemed miles away.
But as we toured the old neighborhood this weekend, it turned out that the church was only four blocks from the house. My grandfather's Huron Pharmacy was vaguely out beyond the stars in kid cartography, but it turned out to be only a block and a half further down Huron Street from the church. My grandparents' world was about six blocks long.
Today the house is still almost exactly as it was, but the pharmacy is long gone, having been converted to an apartment decades ago. Now it is part of an abandoned, down-on-its-luck old building. An old curtain waved in the breeze through a broken window on the second floor above where the store had been. All that was left to remind anyone of the pharmacy was a black and white terrazzo threshold. I took a picture of that.
My grandparents' neighborhood is an example of a lot of places in urban America. Downtown South Bend actually looks and feels very healthy. New buildings have come along and old ones have been restored and reused. We had a really fine dinner in a nicely restored classic bank building. That central neighborhood is clean and safe, and it has the feeling of more to come.
Outside of the downtown, the neighborhoods around Notre Dame and along the St. Joe River look good. But out there on Western Avenue, things feel tired and frayed.
Somewhere in our family archives there's a picture of my father -- I think he was in college at the time -- in a suit and wearing what would today be considered very cool tortoise shell glasses and riding an undersized tricycle in front of the windows of his dad's thriving business. It was some sort of lighthearted moment captured for posterity. Remembering that picture, it was heartbreaking to look at the same building on Saturday.
Let's hope that someday we figure out how to return lighthearted moments -- and locally owned businesses -- back to Huron Street in South Bend, and to a lot of other neighborhood places just like it.