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Under my hat: Lamenting a glorious past

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    Large buildings remain, but the magnificent churches and schools of the 200 block of West Broad Street in Tamaqua are gone. One, seen at left, has been gutted by fire. All present an opportunity, but in the meantime, the future is uncertain. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published July 27. 2019 07:28AM

Accepting change can be difficult.

For me, it was hard to watch workers dig up remains of three long-buried priests just a few doors away from where I grew up.

It bothered me on many levels.

It wasn’t only the act of retrieving bodies of men buried in 1881 who likely believed they’d been put to rest forever. No, it was more. Somehow, it was symbolic of something greater.

It was a realization of how much my world has changed. Suddenly, everything is different in the neighborhood I knew so well.

The 200 block of West Broad Street was always a bastion of gentrification, a large residential block graced by elegant and stately homes from the Industrial Revolution.

They were built during the town’s boom years.

The block featured an intriguing mix of retail, small and cozy such as Herbie Dry’s Shoe Hospital and large and citylike, such as the home decorating emporium called Mitchell Furniture Galleries.

The 200 block was an iconic tribute to American life, from schools and churches to the philanthropic Tamaqua Elks Lodge and revered American Legion — all on one block.

If ever there was a Norman Rockwell place to grow up, it was there. We simply had everything.

In fact, if God exists, He obviously blessed the block with a distinct flavor of ecumenicalism.

We had public school, private school, catechism and Bible school. Residents converged on the block for Catholic Stations of the Cross, Episcopalian communion and Presbyterian strawberry socials.

We had rectories, a convent, even a Salvation Army.

I suppose one thing we didn’t have was a synagogue. But that’s not to say we lacked a prominent, daily Jewish presence. No, not at all.

We had energetic Eddie Paperman who taught CYO basketball at St. Jerome’s. Across the street, Ted Block operated one of the town’s oldest businesses, a busy-as-a-bee haberdashery.

But many things changed.

The Shoe Hospital is gone, along with proprietor Herbie Dry. People don’t fix shoes anymore; they toss them. End of an era.

The massive Catholic church building sits abandoned. So does old St. Jerome’s School. So does the rectory. The huge, dominating buildings are for sale. The former Presbyterian church building is empty, too, gutted by fire and possibly destined to come down.

Many of the impressive Victorian houses are empty. They’re costly to maintain as a single family dwelling. They were built to consume energy, not to conserve. And it requires a lot of investment to turn them into apartments. In a way, they’re victims of their own size and grandeur.

I hope the trend reverses. If not, what will replace all of these historic resources? Maybe macadam?

From the high church terrace I stared all of the way down the block. In so many ways, I no longer recognize it.

My attention turned back to the process at hand, that of remains being disinterred. An unusual experience, to say the least. I watched it unfold over three days. It was both an education and macabre.

I took photos to document what was going on. But mostly I stood there with brother Dennis and watched. Dennis still lives there on the block. He’s seen the changes, too.

“This is history in the making,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “It sure is.”

It reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s words, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

I looked across the street at the corner lot. There was once a large, brick public school there. I played chase tag and learned to ride a bicycle at that spot. But North Ward Elementary exists only in heart and memory. It vanished years ago. It was bought by the Catholic church and torn down, turned into macadam.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. And now the Catholic church itself sits empty.

I felt sad as I watched workers move bodies. There was much symbolism. We’re losing so much of ourselves, our architecture and our past.

Once neglected, our magnificent buildings turn into macadam and our identity fades.

I’m hoping new life is breathed into the block. There’s great potential and I believe the block can become a showpiece of adaptive reuse.

But today I mourn. This isn’t progress I’m seeing. And it’s not a happy day.

Email Donald R. Serfass at the Times News at dserfass@tnonline.com.

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