Nickel City is what they called it years ago, when the image of the buffalo distinguished the coin. It was an image the city proudly embraced. For decades a shaggy, stuffed bison was on display in the city’s New York Central railroad terminal, once a grand place but long since boarded up, like so many other famous landmarks in Buffalo.
As I drove through the old neighborhood, the apartments in the low-income housing project in which I was raised seemed much smaller, so alien to me now. I looked for the familiar old markers: the A&P store where we shopped, the meat market that once provided sliced liverwurst, the Freddy’s Donuts store—all gone now. With a touch of nostalgia, I slowly drove along the route I had once walked to our parochial school. The streets, lined with two-story houses, hadn’t changed much; the trimmed shrubs suggested that the property was still well cared for. Yet the signs advertising each street’s “Block Club” seemed less a proud proclamation of social identity than a warning to would-be trouble-makers not to mess with the residents because they are watching one another’s back.
As I drove toward downtown, I passed the detritus of a Catholic city I had known in its glory days. Most of the Catholic high schools, which once numbered two dozen, have long since been closed, their buildings converted into health care centers. Those magnificent ethnic churches, their splendid pipe organs silenced, had become either evangelical churches or just another piece of blight in the city. The few that remained open seemed a shadow of what they had been. The Sunday congregation might number 60 or 70, many of the people as old as I.
My drive was intended to recapture the spirit of the past, but at the end I felt cheated. Where were the familiar features of my childhood? The streets were still there and some of the buildings—the skeleton of the past—but not the warm features that I would have liked to revisit. Everywhere I looked there was decay and loss. I should have known that there is no going home, despite the emotional tug to recapture our past and comfort ourselves in it. A sentimental journey like mine may be natural, but it is doomed to frustration.
I remember meeting, years ago, a woman then in her late 30s who had been raised a Catholic but had strayed too far to win a reputation for saintliness. She said that when she eventually returned she hoped to find the same church that she had left. Her eyes moistened when she spoke of the Latin Mass, the bells rung at the consecration and the smell of incense. She was looking for the sights and sounds and smells of the old church, just as I was looking for the features of my old neighborhood. If she ever returned to the church, she may have felt cheated by what she found there even as I had in returning to my home.
There are many of us who would gladly freeze time, if we could only enjoy the warmth and security of the past. The Latin prayers, benediction, the exposition of the sacrament were all part of our comforting ecclesial neighborhood once upon a time. Many grumble, as I did, that everything has changed so much that it no longer even reminds us of the home we once knew.
I caught myself contemplating an urban renewal program, when I might better have simply cherished those fond memories of childhood without trying to recreate the past. Those who have remained in Buffalo, less than half of its population 50 years ago, hold on to the hope that their city, for all the loss and blight, is in a constant state of rebirth. I’d like to believe the same about the church, even if the Latin prayers and incense remain no more than fond memories.