Social critics blame the decline of the American neighborhood on many factors: TV, working couples, increased mobility, the demise of the extended family, suburban sprawl, even air conditioning. If it was too warm inside the house on a summer evening, for instance, you sat outside on your front porch or stoop. Or you took a stroll around the neighborhood. And so did your neighbors. And you talked to them. And that's how a neighborhood was built and sustained.
But I suspect that the real reason is the demise of the good, old-fashioned luncheonette and ice cream parlor, the kind of place where you could take the kids for a special treat or share lunch and gossip with a friend. True, there are still some to be found, but like Mom-and-Pop grocery stores, they're a dying breed, a remnant of a time when "golden arches" were something you saw inside a church.
I was fortunate to have come of age when you could get a hamburger and a malted at a place called Ewe's, which was located for many years at the corner of 83rd St. and Bergeline Ave. in North Bergen, NJ, across from the park. No one seemed to know who Ewe was, because the place was owned by an elderly German named Herman Kuck.
Perhaps if Ewe's had not existed, I might not still be struggling with excess poundage left over from my youth. McDonald's burgers would pale in comparison to those slung by Richie, Ewe's short-order cook for many years. The soda fountain treats were the stuff of legend and dreams. Who could resist the lure of a Ewe's banana split or a classic black-and-white on a summer afternoon? Or a box of Ewe's homemade chocolates, wrapped in colorful cellophane, at Christmas or Easter?
It was a time-honored tradition to stop at Ewe's after the annual Macy's July 4th fireworks extravaganza, which at that time was held on the Hudson River. It was at one such post-fireworks ice cream bash that my friends and I, all devout school-haters to the last, decreed that for the rest of the summer, school was to be referred to only as "It." We even drew up elaborate plans for an "It-Haters" club. It (the club, not school) dissolved before we even held the first meeting.
Another July 4th, I saw my father slip a coin into the Wurlitzer jukebox. Wow, I thought, Dad's getting cool! Who's he gonna play -- Elvis? The Platters? The Everly Brothers? The Chipmunks? Imagine my mortification, then, when suddenly Judy Garland started to belt out "The Trolley Song." JUDY GARLAND!!! Practically everyone I knew from school was there and some of them were already snickering and looking around with puzzled expressions to see who was so hopelessly square to play a Judy Garland record. "Clang, clang, clang, went the bell," Judy sang, as I tried to hide my face behind a menu.
But time has its way with these things. Mr. Kuck closed Ewe's, sold its malted milk machines and ice cream soda glasses, and took a job supervising the kitchen at a nursing home. Macy's moved its fireworks to the East River, and the kids from Ewe's grew up and moved on to the rest of their lives. Today the site is occupied by a trendy hair salon.
But I suspect that maybe somewhere over the rainbow, Judy Garland is still serenading the patrons at Ewe's with "The Trolley Song" on a long ago July 4th evening...
Graphics courtesy of