I’m not entirely back from my late-July trip to the Midwest. It’s not an earthbound equivalent of jet lag, or the effects of the heat wave. It’s a generalized sinking feeling, the realization that things are bad all over, and not getting better.
The Buffalo News will explain for me. An 8/4/05 report, one of many lately on the decline of local public institutions, led with news about the Niagara Falls Library’s LaSalle branch. Earlier this summer city voters nixed a by-the-back-door measure that would have provided crucial funding. So the branch, which has so far survived because of a guarantee written into the city’s 1927 merger agreement with the Village of LaSalle, may soon close. This is a dual footnote to larger troubles: Even the main library in Niagara Falls has watched the angel of death pass by, and down in Buffalo/Erie County, two dozen library branches of a once-stellar system are on the budgetary chopping block.
The LaSalle Branch, housed in a historic village hall on Buffalo Avenue, sits on the route that took me home from school, first from the now defunct Cayuga Drive Elementary, later from the recently demolished LaSalle High. The library was a rest stop for me in more ways than one. After crossing the tracks (long since torn up and replaced with an expressway) where I probed ditches for frogs and snakes and heaved pieces of gravel at the passing freight trains, I could hit the books --- and I mean real ones, not the worn-out texts we got as hand-me-downs in school. At the library, despite the 1950s regime of censorship, there actually were books strong enough to hit back. How impoverished LaSalle will be if the branch shuts down.
Nostalgia is the gift that keeps on taking. Or so it seemed when I passed through Toledo, Ohio, on my trip. The bus let me off in downtown, and it wasn’t only because of the arrival time (Sunday evening) that the place was deserted. Toledo could pass for Rochester or Buffalo or Detroit in this respect. The physical center of the community is as barren as the psychological centeredness of the community is absent.
Oh, yes, there’s a fancy new development along the beautiful (no sarcasm intended) Maumee River, which cuts Toledo in two. The development sports a string of upscale restaurants and watering holes; mostly there are parking lots and other buffers from the surrounding neighborhoods. I was tempted by a pizza and pasta place, whose name I forget --- some local operation that, to judge by the generous servings of neon and fake brick, aspired to Olive Garden status. Then I checked my wallet and moved on.
Good thing, too, because instead of filling up on overpriced carbs, I stood at the smooth new railing by the river and took a long draught of the area’s commercial past. This was one of the Great Lakes’ busiest ports; still is, in fact, but the traffic is light all over these lakes. Toledo was once chock full of steel mills and other industries, too, and had the workforce to match. Now the money has gone west, barely, to the suburb of Sylvania, not so much a forest as a country club.
One feature of downtown Toledo tells the story. You know how every city’s Martin Luther King Boulevard or Avenue or whatever indicates the exact center of local poverty. (With a little luck and sweat, it can also be the focal point of a King-style poor people’s mobilization, even in Bush-league America.) Well, in Toledo they’ve got a Martin Luther King memorial bridge, which joins the East Side and West Side across the wide Maumee.
Thus the symbolism gains depth. The bridge and its name form a bond as well as a passage. But that probably means little to the people on both sides of the river, largely African-Americans and Latinos caught in a very modern form of bondage. Though it is a reminder that in the modern world, it’s always “they,” not “we” who are “all in this together.”