If you’ve lived in one place for a long time, think back on how much the area has changed. Think especially of farmland that now boasts subdivisions or office parks. Don’t we marvel at the sprawl? Don’t we rail at how a long stretch of lonely road turned into a string of maddening stoplights? Don’t we sometimes wish for the bucolic scene of days gone by?
If you moved into your current home after it had been there for a very long while, as I have, you might not remember a time before the area was as it is. But it was almost certainly once farmland.
I’m going to share a photograph with you that blew my mind when I was 13.
Our neighborhood was busy and thriving, full of homes and ringed with shops and schools. You could get away with not owning a car, as you could walk to most things you might need. My mother walked to her job as a teacher’s aide at the elementary school, which was a block away . She kept the textbook inventory. Her book room was a repurposed home-economics classroom, since cooking classes ended after the seventh and eighth graders were moved to a middle school. Mom stored books among several complete kitchens.
After school one afternoon I walked over to visit Mom at work and snooped through the kitchen cabinets in her book room. In one of them I found a very large canvas photo print showing the school’s front lawn, probably taken from a second-floor classroom window, probably on the occasion of a May Day celebration. I found the image online recently, with a comment that the photo was taken in 1939, just eight years after the school was built. Here it is.
By the time I attended this school in the 1970s, most of this scene was the same, though the trees were much larger. But what blew my mind is the photo’s upper-right corner – the grove of trees in the distance. I was used to seeing it full of houses – including the one in which I grew up!
I knew that our house had been built in 1951. But it might as well have been 1851 or even 1751, for it was a time I could not imagine. From my limited childhood perspective, my neighborhood might as well have existed since the dawn of time.
The 1939 photograph made that time more imaginable!
At right is an excerpt from a 1922 map of South Bend that I own. It shows the location of my childhood home and of the school, neither of which had been built yet. I lived on Erskine Boulevard, the curved street, which would eventually curve back and end at Donmoyer Avenue, the street at the bottom of the map.
I’ve written about my elementary school here many times, and occasionally other former students find my posts and leave comments full of memories. One fellow former student who attended in the mid 1950s, by which time this land was filled with houses, commented on this post how his father always called my neighborhood “the new extension.” His dad suffered from the same delusion I do. I remember as a boy how farmland to the south slowly filled in with cul-de-sac subdivisions, and how thirty years later they still seem new to me just because I vividly remember the land as it was.
Things change even in the existing built environment. If you’re a young student of James Monroe School – or, should I say, Monroe Primary Center, which is its name today – you might not know a time before the school was renovated and expanded (read about it here and here). The school’s wide and deep front yard included no driveway and much of the original landscaping remained, as this 1984 photo shows.
I took this photo early one gray morning in 2013 from about the same place.
By the way, I’m pretty sure that those tall pine trees at right in these photos are the three little bitty ones at bottom right in the 1939 photo, all grown up.