Memories of Candy Lane

New Paltz, N.Y. - FOR me, all that's left of moving day 1951 is the memory the actual photograph is long gone -- of a curled black and white snapshot of a spindly, bare maple tree that came with the brand-new ranch house and a skinny big-eared 4-year-old standing next to it.

Now, with seven children and six grandchildren, I am by necessity not so skinny anymore. And, as I found on a recent sentimental journey downstate to the old quarter-acre homestead in Roslyn Heights, the maple tree is gone. There's nothing left but a graphic from a Scotts seed box: a weed-free carpet of flawless lawn, a perfect flagstone path, impeccable flower beds waiting for daffodils, manicured yew bushes and a nondescript gray house that bears considerable resemblance to the one I grew up in.

We had moved from 135-18 77th Avenue in Kew Gardens to this potato farm bulldozed into a housing development in distant Nassau County. Even though it was a mere 13 miles from door to door, our friends and family back in Queens and Brooklyn felt we had deserted them. They said we were moving to the country.

A week before that elemental trek, I had tripped on the concrete steps of our garden apartment building and howled like a spoiled brat in the peanut gallery on "Howdy Doody." My Aunt Miriam, who would later follow the wagon train across borough and county lines to her own plantation-sized 100-by-100 plot of land in wild and woolly Great Neck, soothed me by saying there would be no steps at my brand-new ranch house in the country.

She was right. There were no sidewalks either. Nor were the narrow roads in the development all paved that February. In fact, we didn't even have phone service yet. The telephone company had to install a temporary booth down on the corner of Westwood Circle for emergency calls. This was true wilderness, and we were settlers.

Most amazing to this undersized immigrant from the world of numbered avenues and honking traffic, the quiet road was named Candy Lane by some visionary. That's right, Candy Lane. Did I think that candy canes would grow on that spindly tree, just like on the Candyland game board? Absolutely.

And thus the universe was full of possibility for me. And, I suppose, for all those parents who courageously cut their own tap roots so that their children would know the postwar bliss of crickets, barbecue grills, chartreuse dinette sets and two-car garages. It would be eight more years before the Long Island Expressway made it all the way out to Roslyn, but during the 1950's, there were 1,570 houses built in Roslyn Heights.

Fifty-four years after I jumped out of the vast backseat of the loaded-down Hudson and hit terra-driveway, my Candy Lane appears more like a Lionel train set-up to me than a real street. The Schnippers' house has been renovated beyond recognition; it's hard to believe that this chemical-laden soil ever supported a potato farm, much less a spindly maple tree. Or that the original second-generation Jewish settlers in this rural outpost -- the Weils, the Danzigers, the Formans, the Diamonds -- ever raised children here: no one is on the street. There are no marbles, no bikes tossed onto the lawns and no one working under the hood of a car.

The great sense of renewal and possibility has been edited out of this scene. Everything is very neat, very settled and very prosperous. According to recent statistics, the average household income in Roslyn Heights hovers around $120,000 and approximately a third of the houses in the 11577 ZIP code are now valued at $500,000 to $750,000. For the record, my parents bought 19 Candy Lane for $19,900 on my dad's $200 weekly income.

My parents sold the house in 1976 and, according to the Nassau County clerk's records, the same people who bought it from them still own the old homestead, which means that they have lived there longer than we did. They probably think it's their house, just as my family still thinks it's ours. But we're both wrong. That cookie-cutter ranch house where I grew up, where I played touch football in what was once a vast side yard, and from which I daily plotted my escape from Roslyn during those pedagogically long days at Wheatley High, is America's house. It is a true relic from America's second manifest destiny. Before someone tears it down to erect one of those gaudy property-line-to-property-line palaces you see elsewhere off the L.I.E., I'd like to see the house covered in plastic (like the Formans' couch) and hauled off on a big flatbed to the new Museum of Modern Art. It could sit there in the sculpture garden as an artless monument to America's best intentions: the suburbs.

In February 1951, with a light snow on the grassless ground along Candy Lane, everything was as bright and white for this country as the bulb that instantly lighted when we opened our brand-new refrigerator. I'm pretty certain that the suburbs still represent the same American dreams of home ownership, community, safety and opportunity that lured my parents' generation there a half century ago. But from the looks of the BMW's in the driveways and the McMansions that have blossomed, it is clear that the only thing it takes to make the trek to Roslyn Heights now is a hefty down payment.

Op-Ed Contributor Steven Lewis, a faculty member at Empire State College, is the author, most recently, of "The Complete Guide for the Anxious Groom."