Harvesting Ice and Organic Neighborhoods.

Young Amish men studying The

                                    Young Amish men studying thermodynamics

We hike or bike daily, and a favorite is in an Amish area where we recently witnessed about 10 young men harvesting ice which, as one explained, they would store insulated underground and use for keeping food cool in the summer. I dunno whether that’s practical since Amish use kerosene or natural gas for refrigeration, but these young fellows learned a lot of physics that day.

The blocks of ice taken from a small farm pond and loaded onto several wagons reminded me of the icebox in the hallway of the upstairs apartment where we lived. It was about 3 by 2 by 2 feet, oaken on the outside and had a galvanized box inside where the ice was deposited next to the milk and other groceries to prevent spoilage. My father would bring home a 50 lb block weekly from Rheinhard’s who ran both  the Icehouse and Coalyard about 2 blocks away. The box leaked at long last, and my parents got a Servelle gas refrigerator around 1950. It functioned until around 1973 when I took it apart with a sledgehammer because no one was strong enough to move it in one piece.

In any case, my childhood neighborhood Pine Hill had been built up during the 1920s before zoning and planning. There were mostly 2 story duplexes, crowded together, many with porches and single car garages in the back. The German-Americans owners had been trashed during the Great War and were chary about the pretensions of liberty and the rule of law then prevalent. The early settlers got into bootlegging and made money. Folks kept their affairs private and no one talked. The sons became township police to protect the trade. The end of prohibition ruined that business but WW2 featuring rationing and black markets in meat, sugar, tires, was nothing to sniff at and were in full swing when we moved in. The housing was cheap and in 1943 and my parents bought a beat up place without a basement for 2000 dollars, cash. The war was in full tilt, but my father got whatever it took and made whiskey; I got rid of the family still when we moved to Kentwood 11 years ago.

Pine Hill was about 4 blocks wide and 5 blocks long, centered around the axis of Genessee Street. I once counted 17 saloons (including the Big House, a brothel) in those 5 blocks. It was otherwise lined by small stores including 2 butchers, one baker, Loblaw the small supermarket, a five and dime, as well as the Nemmer Furniture store. The latter had a factory and 2 warehouses on the block opposite us. There were 2 funeral homes, a hardware and a soda shop, no restaurants in sight. The house where we lived was on a side street, away from commerce but had an abandoned store in which I played.

Women stayed at home and raised the kids. That family had 10 kids, another 7, and that one only 5. There were no freezers and so groceries had to be fresh, lasting only days in the icebox. Women shopped every 2-3 days, many using carts or baby carriages to cart the stuff home. I still  remember Hazel, the 50 year old check out “girl” at the Loblaw. A dairy-truck came around twice a week and left quarts of fresh milk in a box that was built next to the front door of each house. A “Landsman,” who had a source in NYC brought heavy rye bread to the door weekly. Guys and some ladies went to the saloon daily and staggered home. The public school and Catholic elementary schools, about equal in size, were a few blocks away and all of the kids had to walk. We came home for lunch; I always had bacon and 4 eggs. There were two public parks adjacent, one had a swimming pool where I lived during the summers except when I was gardening in our patch or was farmed out to my aunt who grew vegetables that I peddled from a roadside stand in front of her small farm north of Buffalo.

This was before television. Folks listened to radio and often sat out on porches to socialize. Sidewalks were used and everybody knew who belonged.

My father (and most families) had a car that he used to go to work (malting for beer)  and for major shopping. He would go to a real farmer’s market (not hucksters) on Clinton street to buy 10 bushels of grapes to make his (illegal) batch of wine or 3 bushels of cabbage for sauerkraut. A bus route ran along Genessee Street that could be used to get around Buffalo, and I used this public transportation when traveling to parochial high school and college, or to work. My mother never learned to drive.

All very romantic, but of what relevance to current problems?

Well, a lot. The New Urbanism has tried to resurrect this idyllic world as the way to cure all of America’s social ills, starting with global warming, college grads leaving Michigan, poverty, autism, anything else that bothers you, and ending with childhood obesity.

Problem is, we’re in a new era. Husbands and wives both work and the couple feel exhausted after they have even that one precious child. The kid is pampered, protected from germs or affront from offense, and guided to greatness. The sion is to be raised scientifically by dedicated professionals who will feed, discipline and mold him in daycare and public schools. His play will be supervised.

What cooking is done is often microwaved from something frozen, or, for festive occasions, fashioned from exotic spices and herbs found in small shops scattered around the city. Everyone needs at least one car to support job or hobby, and they need to be parked somewhere convenient where they can be easily driven away. No one walks or bikes to go shopping or to go to work; 60 years of Urban Planning have separated neighborhoods from stores or workplaces. A few of us (probably all college grads, but we’re oddballs) drive long distances to hike the virtually unused North Country trail or bike the Musketowa trail. Someone uses one of 2 or 3 cars to do the weekly shop and stock the fridge and wine cellar. If cooking can’t be done, why, it’s off to the Chipottle a few miles off!

Who has time to meet one’s neighbors, or to listen to radio when there are internet conversations to maintain or games to play? A pill will take care of obesity and whatever ails you, fewer folks drink beer which is considered down market in public and more use marijuana (quietly, inside,so at least the veneer of being law abiding is maintained.)

So the New Urbanism languishes but never gives up. They build a few experimental projects and are successful in fobbing the neighborhoods off on a few zealots. They then survey these investors, made enthusiastic because their life savings and reputations are at stake, and find great happiness among these captives which they can use to claim success for the swindle.

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