The 1950's in Buffalo, N.Y.
“ A Piece of the Banner”
The 1950’s in Buffalo
Within the bounds of our ethnic communities in Buffalo lay the further distinctions of working-class neighborhoods like the one I grew up in South Buffalo. In the small neighborhood around Seneca and Cazenovia Streets, we lived in two-story frame houses with lots of childhood friends to run with every day and night. Nearby Cazenovia Park was our meeting ground for all manner of activities.
On the residential streets during the daytime, the coal trucks would back gingerly into our narrow city driveways. They had a clearance of only a few inches on either side. The coal chute would be lowered through the open basement window so that it came to rest inside of the wooden coal bin. With a roar of rock on metal, and a cloud of black dust, the monthly fuel for the furnace was delivered. The chute was retracted and the coal truck pulled carefully out into the dead end street. Scatterings of small children dodged in and out of the alley, curious at anything out of the ordinary.
Next, we had to shovel the coal back into the bin from where it lay strewn about the floor. Then, a quick application of the broom tidied up the black dust. Later, Dad would come down and feed the ebony nuggets into the waiting maw of the old cast iron furnace. The metal door to the hungry monster was streaked with rust. It had raised letter castings on it, depicting the now forgotten name of the manufacturer. Large, hollow, cylindrical arms, like branches of a mighty tree, fed hot air into the open registers in the floors above. The open grates in the floors seemed to swallow objects large and small. Every evening, the fire would be carefully banked so that it would last until morning. The ashes from the grate below the fire had to be cleaned out weekly. We put them out at the curb in metal baskets, awaiting the open, fan-tailed trucks that hauled the powdery white residue away to the dump on Squaw Island. It only seems cumbersome in retrospect, now that we have modern gas furnaces. Technology freed us from the drudgery of feeding and caring for the glowing iron monster. No more coal bins and no more coal dust. It seems so long ago.
The “rag man,” the “fruit & vegetable man,” the “ice man,” the “milk man,”and other assorted peddlers, were weekly visitors to Seneca Parkside, our small dead-end street in South Buffalo. Some of the wagons were still drawn by horses, others by lumbering, box-shaped trucks. “Mister Softy” ice cream is the only one who comes by now. The red Niagara Frontier and yellow Buffalo Transit Corporation buses ran regularly by the corner of Seneca and Cazenovia, carrying people “downtown” and back. The radio jingle, of a Sattler’s Department Store ad, seemed to crowd the airwaves. Who did not know Sattler’s address at 998 Broadway?
It is a bygone era. Shea’s Seneca Theater, at the corner of Seneca and Cazenovia, offered two features on Saturdays for the $.25 admission. Another dime was allotted for popcorn or candy. We were then ready for an afternoon of adventure. My mother gave my younger sister Maureen and I $.35 each, every Saturday. Although she was a year younger than me, Maureen usually handled the money. On one Saturday afternoon, after we had paid the admission and walked into the theater, Maureen turned to me and said with a straight face,
“I lost your dime for candy. I only have mine left.”
After some degree of squawking on my part she agreed to share her dime’s worth of candy and we settled in to watch the afternoon features.
The Lone Ranger, Supermanand a whole posse of western heroes, rode across that magic screen. The occasional “Hoola Hoop” contest, drawing, or promotional event, was greeted with hoots of noisy laughter from the crowds of neighborhood urchins who populated the many rows of red fabric seats. It was a magical place that elaborate palace built by Mike Shea in an era before us. Monster movies and 3-D glasses to watch the 13 Ghostswere standard fare. We cried, in the dark of course, when Old Yellerwas shot. We cringed when the Creature from the Black Lagoonswam eerily through the dark waters, after the unsuspecting heroine. Rodanand Godzillaweekly terrorized all of Japan and the Blobscared most of us silly.
Outside, Chevies, with big engines and noisy mufflers, were the teenage chariots of choice. Boys had funny hair styles modeled after a “duck's behind” and girls wore checkered skirts, with bobby socks and saddle shoes. The music, something called rock and roll, was alien to our parents. Some outraged seniors saw it as morally degenerate. It was thought as salacious as the “B” movies posted in the rear of the church by the Bishop.
Quiz shows and live theater dominated the new-fangled television set. We saw the occasional Flash Gordonand Supermanshows. Milton Berle,Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welkwere the adults’ shows of choice. I Remember Mamawas something that we all watched. Mr. Wizard, The Mouseketeersand Captain Kangaroowere also favorites. Navy Logand The Silent Servicewere Saturday night fixtures.
James Dean was whiny and troublesome, and motorcycles became the emblem of a rebellious generation. Nothing as outlandish and bizarre as the coming 60’s was in anyone’s imagination.
Malt shops and soda fountains were all the rage. Cherry cokes and Soldier Boyor Johnny Angelplayingon the jukebox, were something that everybody understood. Weekly dances at Bishop Timon High School insured that boys and girls would stand on opposite sides of the gym. We were all a little jealous of those few boys who could actually dance.
The Space Age was starting, with something called “Sputnik.” A minor league baseball player named Fidel Castro surprised everyone in Cuba. Who would have thought that baseball players read up on dialectical materialism? Eisenhower and an era of good feeling permeated the decade. People were beginning to move to someplace called “suburbia.” Dick Van Dyke introduced us to it on television, with Rob and Laura Petrie.
It was an original decade, a transitional bridge from a rural, bucolic America, to the crowded urban centers that we now populate. The innocence of Andy of Mayberry and Gomer Pyle would not long survive.
At the national level, the country was being steered on its course by a famous and well-respected general of World War II, Dwight David Eisenhower. He was the overall commander of the European theater during the last world war, and managed the country’s affairs with a calm presence. His immediate predecessor, Harry S. Truman, was a feisty and outspoken Missouri senator who assumed the high command after FDR died in 1945. Truman was blunt spoken and strong willed. His continuing battle, with the storied General Douglas McArthur during the Korean War, was the stuff of legend until Truman fired the insubordinate son of a bitch, as some claimed he called the godlike McArthur. The Korean War staggered on for a few years with horrendous loss of life by both sides. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives during that awful conflict. It ended in an uneasy stalemate dividing the Korean Peninsula at the 38thparallel into the Republics of North and South Korea.
By contrast, Eisenhower was the consummate company man. A career military officer with a talent for staff work and logistics, Eisenhower had commanded the D-Day Invasion of France and then saw the European war to its successful conclusion, managing a fractious alliance of many countries.
Little known of his many accomplishments is Eisenhower’s mapping out and planning our interstate highways system in the 1920’s. “Ike” as he was called, played golf and kept a low profile presence in the White House. Too quiet some would say. He failed to even try to stifle the nasty little Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his evil House on Un-American Activities Committee that wrought such havoc on the American principles of free speech and thought.
The country was booming economically and people were getting on with the business of their lives after the horrific interruptions of WWII and Korea. Communities called suburbs were springing up around the peripheries of our cities and being populated by newly minted families seeking the good life.
Across the seas in French Indochina, the French Foreign Legion had been overrun at Dien Bien Phu and surrendered to the forces of Ho Chi Min. Few in America had ever heard of this remote jungle republic of Viet Nam in Southeast Asia. Its presence would explode into our consciousness in a few short years.
Joseph Xavier Martin