I hope this letter finds you. It was difficult to track you down. In fact, it was practically impossible. The directories listed you as “Catherine”—with a ‘C’—so I can only assume that this is you. … This is you, right? The Katherine at the corner of Brookside and Olney? The brick building across from the park? The one that’s all … well … the one that’s all … um, let me just back up.
I write articles, you see. Features that talk about historic buildings. Buildings in need of rehabilitation, funding and love. Sometimes the buildings are residential homes. Sometimes they’re grander constructions, such as the Rivoli Theatre. And sometimes they’re commercial properties, such as the old post office in Irvington. Some of the buildings are without roofs, windows or doors. Sometimes they so far vandalized that one is physically unable to recognize the inside, the original woodwork. Sometimes they’re just left to rot by their owners, who are dissatisfied with historic preservation committees. (Or who are against taxes, for that matter.) My little heart breaks when I see plywood covering a home, any home. But despite my discouragement, despite the fact that my spirit aches with each new article, I still have a piece of my heart for you, Katherine.
Because I care about you. And because I care about your past.
That said, I don’t know much about your beginnings. Is there anything you can tell me? You weren’t present on any of the Sanborn or Baist Maps. It was odd, and I was stumped. Furthermore, your records—your parcel information—doesn’t even list the year of your construction. Do you know when you were built? My guess is that it was in the 1920s. At the time, I had only two city directories at my disposal—one from 1920, and one from 1930. You were absent from the former, included in the latter. “3501 Brookside Parkway,” it said. “Mrs. Florence Hearn, confr.” I also saw that there were six apartments, two with the address of “3501 ½” and four with “3507 ½.” Is this correct? I had heard that Mrs. Florence Hearn, the confectioner, had lived in one of the units. Do you remember any of your first residents?
I obviously don’t remember them, but I did look them up. Warner Roberts was another one of your residents, and I saw his name in the 1940 directory. I think he had a restaurant on the first floor, with the entrance being the corner door on the northwest side of the building. Roberts, I guess, lived in one the apartments. He was not the first—or the last—person to both live and work with you, Katherine. For example, in the 1960s, there was Howard Jenkins, who owned a gun shop on the first floor and lived in 3507 ½, above his shop.
You’ve been so much more than a gun shop and a restaurant and a confectionary, though, Katherine. So much more. You had novelties. Pharmaceuticals. And in 1980, you were a flower shop, a food store and an insurance office. You were a barber shop, too. Actually, for decades and decades, your middle storefront was a barber shop. (Did it ever have a barber’s pole? You know, one of those helixes of red and blue and white, like what Red’s Classic Barber Shop has? Just spinning and spinning and spinning and telling everyone—passerby, those on the street, those in the park—that there was a trade?) Just tell me what it was like, Katherine. Please. Do you remember?
Do you remember—before rocks were thrown through your windows—what the displays looked like? Fresh flowers or discount advertisements or new models or products? Do you remember the apartments—before the upstairs windows were torn out, before the ivy crept into them and grew on the ceilings? How were they decorated? Rugs? Wood floors? Carpet? White walls? Pictures of family members on the walls? A vanity on the north wall, a dresser on the west? I want to know. I need to know. I need to know, before your walls rip themselves from your foundation, before you crumble to the ground.
You’re in so many pieces, Katherine. What happened? Who did this to you? Why have they left you, abandoned you, torn you and beaten you and discarded you? You’re not disposable, Katherine. Stop telling yourself you are. I know there are people out there would prefer to see you torn down, to prefer you be made into a vacant lot. “It just invites vandals and thugs and criminals,” they say. “It’s good for nothing.” But if they could’ve seen you then, Katherine, ooooohh, they’d disagree. Providing the community with goods? With services? Offering small business owners a place to live and work and develop connections and friendships in the city?
I can do nothing but shake my head.
Because a vacant lot, one overgrown with weeds and trash, doesn’t provide opportunities, either.
So I guess the real reason I wrote this letter was to ask you a question: what do you want me to do for you, Katherine? What is it that you want? What can I do to help you? And I’ll even just listen to your story, if that’s all you want, because I think you’ve been unheard and ignored for so long.
I look forward to your response,