Village from childhood survives challenges, now a model city

Cabezas

I once lived in a lovely village on a hill. I moved away a long time ago, but that place returns to me like a never- ending movie of countless images.

The village stood on the top of a steep bluff and offered long views of the area below. At the summit, the Catholic church resembled a small cathedral and its services were devoutly well-attended. The school and the rectory boasted well-kept lawns and the schoolyard was happily noisy.

A short walk took us to the path leading down to the river, and a stately bridge, designed especially for pedestrian traffic, connected our village to a larger one with department stores and scurrying shoppers.

In the heat of summer, teenagers climbed on the girders of the bridge and jumped into the water. Swimming dangerously close to the oncoming ferries and other boats only added to the fun. The snowy weather transformed the streets into a winter wonderland as we skated and sledded the days away.

I moved to the village when I was 10. My father had gotten a new job there and assured us that we would soon meet new people and forget about the old place. He was right. Our new home welcomed us with a warm embrace.

We quickly acquainted ourselves with the main street, which led to the school and church. The street had a toy store, delicatessen, bakery, grocery store and candy store-which sold newspapers, cigarettes, soda and candy.

Two twin brothers, one a doctor and the other a dentist, had their offices nearby and made house calls for $5.

The stores along the main street dressed themselves up for Christmas, but the toy store had the best lights and big display window.

My mother’s aunt and her family hosted boisterous Sunday evening gatherings complete with sing-alongs and “special” guests.

Outside the church, there was a small triangular-shaped park. One day the village was abuzz with the news that a famous politician, one who might run for president-would have a rally there.

We couldn’t contain our excitement at being “up close and personal”with the candidate as he gave his impassioned speech from the back seat of his convertible.

Our favorite game was handball. We were serious players and spent countless hours in the courts. We used the larger pink ball and the older men wore gloves and played with the smaller hard black ball.

At exactly 6 p.m., the bells chimed in the tower on the other side of the river and we marched home dutifully for dinner with our families.

We usually avoided being out at night, but I can recall my friend Janice summoning me one evening to come hear a new record. At first, my mother said no but relented with my promise for a brief visit. I can still remember my “wild run” on that cold night, and my rewards for coming over: some food and an exotic wallet purchased abroad by Janice’s well-traveled father.

Harmony and peace reigned in our village for many years. Then an “ill wind”suddenly swept in as new arrivals clashed with the original residents, and many abandoned their homes for other pastures. The village became dangerous as drug dealers, robbers and arsonists almost destroyed it.

Only a few people were brave enough not to flee, including an elderly woman named Antonia and a young parish priest. They joined forces with others and a miracle occurred: The village survived and prospered again.

The schools are thriving, gardens are replacing the rubble of torn-down buildings and community activists of all creeds and colors are breathing new life into a place that refused to die.

My village on the hill is now a model for the city. Yes, this community is not in a bucolic, rural area but is the neighborhood of Highbridge, The Bronx, in the heart of New York City.

Mary Cabezas is a retired Spanish professor at The Citadel. She lives in Mount Pleasant.