Home Town Continuity and Home Town Change

PETER A. JAY

December 13, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- It was probably in the early 1930s when the group, a little sheepishly, assembled in front of the billiard parlor to be photographed.

The clothes have the baggy look of that period. Most of the 20 or so gentlemen in the picture are wearing ties, and each has on a hat. The hats are fedoras in most cases, but there are several racetracky cloth caps. These, and something about the facial expressions, give a faintly raffish cast to the assemblage. It could be a collection of Hollywood extras from "The Sting" or "The Untouchables." It is also distinctively Havre de Grace.

The photo hangs now on the wall of Charles McLhinney's news stand. Charles can identify most of the people, who were his father's contemporaries. Only one, he's pretty sure, is still alive. The billiard parlor, the White Chapel, is gone as well. It lives on in local legend, but legends are mortal, too, and this one is fading.

"Change and decay in all around I see," went one lugubrious hymn I remember from my childhood. One of the charms of Havre de Grace is that it seems so resistant to change, though not necessarily to decay. But the 1930s moment preserved on Charles' wall is a reminder that what seems changeless is only an illusion, like a photo.

In Allen Fair's office, downstairs from mine, there is a panoramic photo of Washington Street, the heart of Havre de Grace's downtown, taken in 1979. It looked then much as it does now. Many of the small businesses here today were here in 1979, but many others are new, and each of those replaced another that has closed or gone away.

In some respects the street, or even the entire town, is like a forest. It may look the same from year to year, but each year some trees fall and others take their places. The changes are only apparent to the closest observers, and after a while even they can't be sure what's different and what's the same.

Recently, my wife Irna has been doing some photographs in Havre de Grace of people who, for us, have personified certain aspects of the town. She has photographed Charles McLhinney at the news stand, Bobby Goll in his bakery, Eli Silverstein at Joseph's Department Store, Jim Lyon at the pharmacy, Rita Tarquini at Vigna's restaurant. The pictures are wonderful. Collectively, in their way, they hold the town just as we've known it and loved it for years, as we'd like to keep it. But this permanence, too, is illusory.

Consider Vigna's. I've been eating there since I was in my early 20s, when it was the only place in Harford County where you could buy a carafe of Chianti with your spaghetti and feel sophisticated -- the way up-to-date folk do nowadays when they order chardonnay and blackened redfish.

Irna and I brought the kids to Vigna's as infants, parking them in their baby seats in the middle of the table. We ordered the vegetable soup and meatball sandwiches then, and still do, most of the time. Vigna's seems unchanged. But will Rita keep it open another 30 years? I don't think I want to know the answer.

Permanence may be an illusion, but stability isn't. And stability, in a town and in a nation, comes not from individuals but from families. Individuals are gone in the wink of an eye, but families, one generation following another, can defy mortality.

In Havre de Grace and other traditional communities, the people who hold things together, who give the pudding its theme, are more often than not continuing the work of a previous generation.

Thus, Charles McLhinney took over the news stand from his father, Walter, who was once the mayor. Goll's is a family bakery. Rita took over the restaurant from her parents. Jim Lyon's father had the pharmacy before him. When his father died, Eli Silverstein stopped practicing law outside of Washington and came home to Havre de Grace to take over the store.

This sort of thing provides a kind of continuity that is ebbing from American life. Family businesses, like family farms, are becoming anachronisms. As a society, we consider them nice in a homely, theoretical way, but not really relevant -- sort of like patchwork quilts in the age of the electric blanket. Government tax policy actively discourages them.

It may well be that family businesses, and towns such as this one in which they play such an important part, are on the way out. In another generation they may be gone entirely, into the oblivion where have vanished cars you can fix yourself, friendly telephone operators and public places where you can enjoy a good cigar.

This is not another diatribe against what Walter Lippmann called "the acids of modernity." In many respects, modern life has improved Havre de Grace. The city doesn't pump its sewage directly into the river any more. Handsome old buildings that were rotting away are being restored. There are not one but two 7-Eleven stores. This is all progress, and not to be disparaged.

There's no point lamenting that the 1930s Havre de Grace where you could place an illegal bet at the White Chapel is gone forever, or that the Washington Street of 1979 has gone too, or that the names and faces of 1992 will soon follow. But for a while longer we'll have the memories, and the photographs.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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