Memory and Stability

I found myself making the sudden, sharp s-turn unto the Washington Crossing Bridge as a result of taking an opportunity to revisit scenes from my childhood. I have had a growing interest in returning to my first hometown partly to explore scenes the reflect concepts I encounter in my professional zoning life and partly due to the jealousy I felt when many of my friends were able to “go back home” in the early depths of the pandemic.

It’s been a quarter of a century since I had a place that I considered home in the sense of the homes that my friends found refuge in during the pandemic. While I’ve always had a roof over my head at a place where I lived and therefore a home, the deeper kind of home is a unique blend of people, place, memory, and stability. Pittsburgh is the closest substitute I have for a hometown, but one of my central themes when writing about Pittsburgh and the places within it is change. Last year’s Then and Now series focused on the changes to or around Pittsburgh’s bridges. The on-going Keeping an Eye On series is tracking major changes as they happen. And though I’ve researched lots, I’ve written less about the adaptive reuse of religious buildings in the city, a theme which also focuses on change.

There were changes when I went back to my first hometown. The house I grew up in has been painted, the backyard has been fenced in, and several important trees have been removed, including the one I crashed my bike into one summer.—They say once you learn, you never forget how to ride a bike. In my experience, once you crash into a tree because you forgot how to ride a bike, you never forget again.—Most of these changes I was already aware of from visiting a few years after we moved away. What struck me the most on this return visit was how much had stayed the same:

  • The chain link fence with slats that we used to love finding the gaps to peak through to see what was so secretly hidden.
  • The yellow safety rails were still there and still rusted.
  • All the houses on the block, except ours, were the same color with the same lack of fencing as I remembered, though one now has solar panels.
  • The year-round costume shop, the existence of which always fascinated me and that I still don’t understand how they survive 12 months in a row, let alone decades worth of 12 months in a row.
  • The bagel shop that made the best bagels, though apparently nobody orders just a bagel with nothing on it anymore and while the inside of the bagel tasted the same, it no longer had the smooth skin on the outside.
  • The local bank where I had my first savings account is still operating under the same bank name.
  • The ice cream shop with the best ice cream, though unfortunately its limited hours of operation did not coincide with the days I was in town.
  • The used bookstore, where I believe I bought my first Zane Grey novel and where I found several gems on this trip.

There is a narrow band of stability between stagnation and growth. This stability enables places like those listed above that are imbibed with memories to survive and provide a sense of the familiar, of comfort, and of home.

Washington Crossing Bridge

Last week, I unexpectedly found myself driving across the Washington Crossing Bridge. Once I got over the initial shock of finding myself driving on such a small bridge, I was struck by the parallels with other bridges I’ve encountered.

There was an immediate sense of deja vu having stumbled upon and walked across a similarly old and narrow bridge in 2017. The Market Street Bridge, Steubenville, bridges the Ohio River to connect Ohio and Pennsylvania; while the Washington Crossing Bridge bridges the Delaware River to connect New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Relying solely on my memory, I thought these two bridges were of the same design. However, looking back at my pictures, Market Street Bridge appears to be a hybrid suspension-truss bridge with the trusses painted yellow. The Washington Crossing Bridge is solely a truss bridge, with blue trusses. This leaves me with an unresolved sense of deja vu of having encountered a blue truss bridge of similar design somewhere once before.

The second parallel appeared when I stopped on the Pennsylvania side to figure out where I was and take more pictures of the bridge. A historic park made it easy to learn that this bridge and its surroundings were known as Washington Crossing. While I have a vague recollection of the story of Washington crossing the Delaware under the noses of the British Army, living in Pittsburgh, that crossing is eclipsed by his earlier crossing of the Allegheny River, when he fell in and had to spend the night on an island in the river before continuing on his mission on behalf of the British. The Allegheny River crossing is memorialized by the 40th Street Bridge‘s alternative name, Washington Crossing’s Bridge.