HONG KONG — The image remains clear even after so many years: It is a late autumn afternoon and lights are on inside the house. Still too small to climb the porch steps unaided, I struggle up one by one. At the end of a long hallway is a kitchen. Bending forward in his chair and watching me is an angular man with white hair and a long nose.
This is the sole memory I have of my paternal grandfather. His wife died shortly after I was born. What little I know of her is through photographs and the anecdotes of others. She was petite and a poetry lover. Her husband was tall, stern and well known in the taverns of Morningside.
I write of this because it is also the earliest memory I have of a street, a neighborhood and a church that would shape the person I was to become. I recall my Morningside childhood with affection, mostly, but I view its future with concern.
Linked by jobs
The neighborhood offered safety, ball fields, a cinema, gardens, schools and neighbors who watched over us. The factory whistle told us when to stop play and go home. It was a blue-collar area and many parents were just a short walk from work. Today, the jobs are gone. So, too, the family owned clothing shops, shoe stores, tailors and pharmacies. As I look back at long ago from far away, I think: What we came from is troubled. How many of us who benefited then are minded to give anything back now.
Some speak of revitalization. The root of revitalize is "vita" – life. A community is a living organism; its concentric activities draw people together into commonalities. Absent mutual identity and caring, neighborhoods become prone to disinterest and disintegration. To bring neighbors together requires places to gather together. That's why churches and temples refer to congregations.
The house that I was visiting as a toddler was where my Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Harold lived on Upper Tyler Street. There is a photo of me in front; I am in a baby carriage, the General Electric factory across the street. Even though we were to move away from Morningside many times, it would always draw us back.
My mother was pregnant with my sister while we lived at 997 Tyler at my maternal grandmother's. My best friends from St. Mary's grammar school lived within two blocks' walk. But not one of us lives there today.
Aside from the GE factory, the most imposing structure was — and despite disuse, remains — St. Mary the Morningstar Church and its compound of rectory, convent, school and playground. I graduated from St. Mary's in 1960, when the school was still packed with students and nuns taught nearly every class. I assumed that the church was built in some distant past and its existence eternal — is, was, always shall be.
Not until I began this column did I learn that the school was built long before construction of the church, which opened only in 1943. Within four years, it would be the location of my parents' marriage, the funerals of my Irish grandparents and my baptism. A dozen years later, my sister would be christened there, and I would be confirmed.
Many decades on, when I needed a baptismal certificate for marriage, I had to seek it through St. Mary's. By then the school was closed, the convent shuttered, the rectory housed but a single priest who was shared with another parish. The effect these closures would have on the neighborhood was troubling, a sentiment reinforced each time I returned home from overseas and saw shop after shop disappear — unpleasant evidence of what GE had meant to the local economy. The legacy includes divisiveness, pollution and the decline of the neighborhoods adjacent to the plant.
That departure has been accompanied by the disappearance of parishes of different denominations and the collapse of the parochial school system. Education costs have shifted almost entirely to the government. Declining incomes mean homeowners defer repairs, housing stock declines and property tax revenues shrink; neighborhood stores shut; malls draw consumers (and identity) away from downtown, until the malls, too, fail. Commonplace services like tailors and repair shops disappear.
Repurposing St. Mary's church and, if possible, its additional structures, is an obvious response. But, again, the key root word is purpose. A revived religious purpose is not in the cards, but there can be purposes that serve similar unifying, communal functions
Finding a purpose
What's needed is a venue that attracts and excites, while going beyond touristic and class-based notions of what constitutes culture. It must be something that local people feel was missing from their lives; a place that enhances well being and self-worth, a gathering point where a person of any or no faith can appreciate the beauty of the stained-glass windows and carved griffons, the power of the pipe organ, the sense of aspiration to which the soaring columns and vaults bear witness.
If we can remake it as a place where people want to come for a purpose, Morningside can again be a place where people want to live.
Francis Moriarty is a journalist and broadcaster providing reports, commentary and analysis on Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia. A graduate of Williams College, he was a part-time sports writer and reporter for The Eagle in the 1960s.