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Thursday, June 23, 2005 12:25 pm

Northern exposure

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Some of the children who grew up in the North End in the early 1950s. In the front row (left to right) are Stewart Buecker, Jimmy Seiz, Maureen, Kevin McAnarney, and Steve Buecker; in the back are Vicky, Larry Selinger, Terry McAnarney, and Mary Jo Seiz.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY JO SEIZ

When the family and friends of Olga McAnarney gathered during Christmas week last year to mourn her death, the traditional repast after the burial was an occasion that reunited many current and former residents of the old North 22nd Street neighborhood near St. Aloysius Church on Springfield’s North End.

The mourners, many of them now aging baby boomers, sought to soften their grief by breaking bread and sharing memories of Mrs. McAnarney, whose passing, to many of them, represented the end of a long chapter in the neighborhood’s history and gave them pause to consider their own mortality. As the tears and laughter flowed, the nostalgic sentiment had such a cathartic effect on so many that a few — Mary McKibben, Julie Shields, Vicki Selinger, and Judy McAnarney — decided to gather again under happier circumstances. And so they are inviting anyone with an attachment to the old neighborhood to the Fieldhouse Pizza and Pub on Saturday evening.

The neighborhood burgeoned in the aftermath of World War II, when the veterans returned from service, got government-backed housing loans, and settled down to the peacetime business of raising families — for most, a prolific undertaking. It was a decidedly blue-collar neighborhood with nearly similar houses that featured a downstairs bathroom and an upstairs dormer. Fathers, in the days before women entered the workforce en masse, were largely union workers — police officers, firefighters, postal workers, or employees of such long-gone concerns as Sangamo Electric and Pillsbury Mills.

According to retired educator Jim Berberet, whose family moved there in 1954, large families were the norm in those days: “Everybody, it seems, had a large family. Six, seven, eight kids — it was just not unusual. The Redpaths, for instance, had 10 kids. Getting two full sides for baseball was never a problem.”

His assertion is echoed by Mike Aiello, now of Troxell Financial Advisors, who says, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that in that three- or four-block stretch of 22nd Street, there had to be at least a hundred kids, or more. We played sports and rode bikes all the time, at Fairview School or Fairview Park. Nobody wanted to stay inside — there was no air conditioning.”

Berberet recalls when the Selingers became the first family on the block to get a television. The picture quality, he says, was a lot like his memory is now: “real, real fuzzy.”

According to McKibben, during her childhood, “There was no Northgate, Indian Hills, Twin Lakes or Devereaux Heights. Twenty-second Street was a tar-oil road lined by ditches, and there was nothing between us and 31st Street [now Dirksen Parkway]. I mean nothing — even 23rd Street was a later addition.

“It was a different time,” she says. “All the kids were welcome at every house, and every house was a community house, ours especially. It was just a good neighborhood.”

Barry McAnarney, now the executive director of the Central Laborers Pension Fund, has similarly fond memories of 22nd Street. He shared the dormer room with his three brothers and remembers an incident in the early 1960s that speaks volumes about the strong ties of so many people to 22nd Street:

“The neighborhood was expanding, and my father bought a lot on 23rd Street with the intention of building a house and moving all of one block over. He came to us with his proposal and put it to a democratic vote. He said he’d made the decision to move us and just wanted to see if we’d ratify his decision. We voted it down, unanimously and emphatically. Mom, in true fashion, voted it down as well,” he says, laughing. “She wanted whatever her boys wanted. Dad ended up selling the lot, and, I think, making a little money on the deal.

“It was a real Ozzie and Harriet-type neighborhood. Everybody walked to school, walked home for lunch, and then raced back to the schoolyard to play. All the moms were stay-at-home moms, and we respected their authority. Whoever’s yard you were in, well, that mom was your mom, too. No matter who it was, she looked out for us, and we played by her rules. You did as she said. It was a real close-knit, family neighborhood — very stable. People didn’t seem to move around so much.

“Of course, it wasn’t always idyllic. We had our rivalries, even with the kids from 21st Street or 23rd Street. We did some things for which we got our butts whipped, and, believe me, we deserved it. But I think that we were so fortunate to grow up there during that time: A lot of us have had good success in the business and professional world, and much of the credit for that goes to the neighborhood and the upbringing we had there. Nobody felt better than anybody else, there was a real sense of community property, and there was a real generous community spirit.”

The North End reunion will be held at the Fieldhouse Pizza and Pub, 3211 Sangamon Ave., starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 25. Regular menu and cash bar.

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