As a former ESL teacher, immigrant stories are near and dear to my heart. OSCAR’S AMERICAN DREAM by Barry Wittenstein caught me eye, and, as I turned each page, I was amazed at how Barry embedded heart and so much more in a story about a building. As you’ll see in this post, the heart that drives the telling came from the author’s life experiences. Thanks, Barry, for sharing!
And thank you also for offering a giveaway for a copy of the book. For a chance to win a copy of OSCAR’S AMERICAN DREAM, leave a comment below.
“Heart of a Building” by Barry Wittenstein
I grew up in the sameness of tract housing in the suburbs of New York City. After college and marriage, I moved in with my wife in Manhattan where we stayed for almost thirty years. I always loved New York for both its energy and its walkability.
In our neighborhood on the Upper West Side, there stood a classic, old school barbershop with a barber’s pole outside. Big chairs inside. Mirrored walls. The barber wore a white smock. I was curious about the store’s history. I went in. Not to get a haircut, but to talk. The barber told me he was retiring, and that he had been at this location for four decades. The interior had even been used for various Hollywood movies.
In the late 1990s, after he left, taking the barber’s pole with him, a picture framing store opened. He was a more recent immigrant than the barber. After 20 years, that store became an eyebrow salon.
Change is constant. When I wrote Oscar’s American Dream in 2017, I had seen the demise of the mom-and-pop stores increase from the 2008 Great Recession. Stores and restaurants that you thought would never close did just that. Sometimes the store owners would post a letter on their front door, thanking the neighborhood for its devotion, and saying goodbye to all the friends they had made.
Sometimes locations stood empty for years. Decades. Other times banks, pharmacies and urgent care clinics took over the space. Sometimes entire blocks were demolished.
Let me back up.
I have always had a romantic longing for buildings that once were beloved, alive, adored. For me it’s baseball stadiums. Like the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, the former homes of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. And even Shea Stadium that I witnessed being taken apart section by section when Citi Field was built next door. Those structures still tug at my heart. I know I am not alone. But not only baseball stadiums, of course.
The destruction of the old Penn Station in the 1960s still elicits outrage from those who were alive to witness and protested it, and those commuters who today experience the chaos of what replaced it. Historian Vincent Scully once remarked on the old station’s Beau Arts majesty, its destruction and aftermath, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
If I may, I’d like to back up again.
There was a large Starbucks on the corner of Broadway and 103rd Street. I would sit there for hours writing. You’d see mothers and their strollers, real estate agents meeting prospective clients, post-soccer-game rendezvous of young players, senior citizens sipping on tea and reading the paper. It was an important part — a centerpiece — of the community. But not a sustainable business model when the landlord raised the rent. Better not to have customers nurse their one coffee for hours. Fewer seats meant as many sales, maybe more, and less overhead. But when it moved across the street to a space one-third the size, it upset the community. So much so, that when HSBC moved in, they gave $5 Starbucks cards to those who used their ATMs. As if to say, We apologize. Don’t hate us. Business is business. (Note: HSBC moved out a few years later. The space has been now empty for almost 20 years.)
But architecture is more than just business. I have read a lot about how New York grew in the 20th century. How some structures of the past came down; how some withstood the wrecker’s ball.
The New York City Landmarks Law, passed in 1965, came too late to save Penn Station, but helped save other structures. Jackie Kennedy helped save Grand Central Station.
Architecture connects people through time. It reminds us of who we were, to our childhoods, to our history. Not only the magnificent structures in New York like Penn Station and baseball stadiums, but the mom-and-pop stores that are getting erased. It saddens me. It makes me angry. That’s why I wrote, “History ended” when the fictional Acme Construction in Oscar’s American Dream began building apartments that kissed the clouds. Their slogan was, “Out with the old.” It is a statement of pride from the faceless company. And also was the name of Yettie and Nettie’s fictional clothing store in the 1920s.
New is not always better. Progress often is a mirage. The corner store in Oscar’s American Dream cared for its neighbors. Helped it through the best of times, the worst of times. It was a survivor, a proud member of the community, until one day all that remained were the memories of lemon drops.
Time to back up one last time.
My grandparents were immigrants. New York is a city of immigrants. Each new wave contributes to making this a better country. But each new wave is met with barriers, restrictions, hatred, forced to fight for their place. That’s the sickness and the tragedy of this country’s history.
I needed to say my piece. To counter Trump’s venom. The Muslim ban. The caravans coming from Mexico, the damn “wall,” the caging of children. Every author hopes his/her work, somehow, in some small way, helps make the world a more loving, accepting place.
It is my sincere hope that teachers and librarians will continue to help students see their special, unique place in society, and celebrate it by adding their “store” to the timeline of the past and the present.
Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of OSCAR’S AMERICAN DREAM. (Continental US addresses only, please)
For Storytime Activities for Oscar’s American Dream, click HERE.
And from last week’s post – Congratulations to Patricia Tilton! —You’ve won a copy of Jolene Guitierrez’s BIONIC BEASTS!