I have been posting for some time now and it seems as if a lot of the subject matter is political in nature. Today, I thought I would tell a story about growing up in Utica. On this, the national holiday to honor Dr. King, I thought this particular story would be appropriate.
When I was a child of about 6 or 7, our neighborhood was a robust mix of nationalities and people of such diverse backgrounds that it was a bit like the United Nations! We had Polish, Ukranian, and Hungarian refugees that were displaced after WW2. There was Tony the Barber, who was Italian, and also some German folks, Irish and even a woman from Argentina!
The one nationality we did not have on our street was African-American. And, if some of our neighbors had it their way, we never would.
Now, the house next door to us was owned by a Hungarian lady. She wore spikey high heels and lots of red lipstick. She also hated us, and reserved her special disdain for my grandfather.
Grandpa was a reserved guy who went to work everyday and came home to my grandmother. They did not have exciting lives, lived for the occasional picnic, and reveled in the fact that they had three grandchildren living upstairs in their little house.
That quiet life was to come to a screeching halt one day in 1967 when the "lady next door" announced she was selling her house. And the buyers were not just anybody. The were a middle aged couple, they had no children.
And they were black.
I had attended Egbert Bagg School on Mandeville St., so I knew plenty of black kids. The thing is, the streets of Utica were still segregated in the '60's. I did not understand it at the time, but there were certain blocks the were quietly "off limits" to black families. And Cottage Place was one of them.
Immediately, the neighborhood was up in arms. The phone calls began. "What do you plan to do about this?" they would ask. One lady down the street confronted my mother, who was president of the Bagg School PTA, at a meeting. "This is terrible, she said, "our lives will be ruined if we let THEM move in! We need to circulate a PETITION demanding that they not be allowed to buy that house!"
The "THEM" she refered to were Jim and Pauline Harvey. Mr. and Mrs. Harvey had lived all their lives in the traditionally accepted black neighborhood near the Aud. Jim was a foundry worker, Pauline had spent her career at G.E. on Broad St. They were a hard working, god-fearing couple. And they dreamt of a better life.
That life was to be found in a little house on Cottage Place. Right next door to us.
My family was in a tough spot. There was not anything that we could legally do to stop the sale. And, my parents and grandparents were not the kind of people who would try to stop them even if they could. They were realistic about the situation and accepted it as a part of the changing times sweeping our society. My mother told the lady at the PTA meeting that she would have no part of any petition. The neighbors who expected us to start the brigade against the Harvey's were outraged. So, we waited. And wondered. And hoped that things would not turn ugly.
My grandfather had lived in our house since he was born there in 1905. In fact, his family had bought the place in 1890, when the neighborhood was solidly white, mostly protestant, and very upper-middle class. The depression had taken it's toll on that world and so in the 1930's, the big old rambling Victorian era dwellings were divided up into 2 and 3 family apartments.
Then came the war, and the influx of refugees in the 1950's. The Hungarian lady with the lipstick moved in and began to take an immediate dislike to my grandparents. And, her revenge was to sell her house to a black couple named Harvey.
Moving day came. She moved out, the Harvey's moved in. The neighbors peeped from behind their curtains to watch the progress. They wanted to see this new couple, check out their furniture and possessions. We were kids running around, not really grasping the importance of what was happening right there on our street. The walls of segregation were being broken down right before our eyes. And, this was not happening in some strange city in the south, televised grainy images in black and white. This was real, it was here.
And it was exciting!
We got our first look at the Harvey's. He was a solidly built man who resembled Louis Armstrong. She was a pleasant looking woman who you could just tell would be nice. While the adults hid and whispered, the children of the street welcomed the new couple. We said hi, they said hi back. Suddenly, it did not seem so strange. The drama was forgotten, and we went about the business of childhood.
My grandparents and my mom and dad seemed relieved that this event went off without any problems. My grandfather said he didn't care who moved in, as long as miss high-heels was gone. My grandmother commented that she had lovely curtains. And, all was quiet on the street.
Now, the question arose-who is going to talk to the new neighbors? My family was expected to show them that they were not welcome. We were to ignore them at all cost, or risk being shunned by the neighborhood. For the first few weeks we did just that.
Then an event occured that was to forever change the dynamic of the street and pit neighbor against neighbor.
The Harvey's water shutoff burst one day. Located at the edge of our driveway, Mr. Harvey needed to dig a hole large enough to get into and repair the gusher. He asked for permission, and it was granted. Then a strange thing happened. My grandfather returned home from his job at Partlow, my dad from GE. They stood by the hole that Mr. Harvey was digging and, after a few minutes, with no words spoken, got two shovels and helped him dig the hole.
Then, my grandmother and my mom came out and, after a few minutes, began to talk to Mrs. Harvey.
All of a sudden, just like that, we were friends! This mysterious, exotic couple were just two normal, nice, friendly neighbors.They became close friends with my family. And, they would remain that way for almost 40 years.
Eventually, the entire neighborhood accepted Jim and Pauline. It took about 10 years, They became regulars at weddings, funerals, graduations and holiday parties. And, when they eventually passed away, my mom bought their house. We just could not risk just anyone buying the house that the Harvey's loved and lived in for so long!
The house that, in it's own small, quiet way helped to destroy the segregation that had divided our city.