History, Preservation

The incredibly sticky sense of place

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.

Monroe1939

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!

school-house

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.

James Monroe School

I took this photo early one gray morning in 2013 from about the same place.

James Monroe School

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.

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12 thoughts on “The incredibly sticky sense of place

  1. How wonderful! So the 1939 photo looks North East? Across Donmoyer and Fellows? Next time I’m home I’ll have to compare the homes in the photo to the existing homes to see which are still there, looking the same. What a fabulous find; thanks for sharing!

  2. You sure find some great old photos. I have found some old aerial photos of the area where I live and it is amazing to see how much land was taken over by housing after the war even in fairly small towns. At least it seems like there is somewhat of a trend toward making towns more walkable. Although we have gotten pretty deeply invested in all our sprawl.

    • We’re still chewing up farmland for more vinyl villages and anonymous shopping strips out here in central Indiana. I’ve been here 20 years now and it’s remarkable how much of Pike Township in Marion County (Indy). and southern Hamilton County (Carmel/Zionsville) have been eaten alive by such development. I used to work in Hamilton County in an office building surrounded by cornfields — that was 2006-2009. I used to have to routinely brake hard for deer running across the little country road I drove to work. It’s gone nuts, like cancer, out there since then and is now wall to wall development. I don’t get the attraction to living out there.

      Come back Wednesday for a look at how a particular intersection in Pike Twp. has grown.

  3. Brian says:

    My parents built our house on Woodside Street in 1946 and I lived at that house until I married. It was a great neighborhood to live in, with many friendly neighbors. Heston’s Grocery (later Cira’s) was a block away and just across Michigan Street was the drug store, with a soda fountain and it was less than a block to the bus stop. In the summer we would take the bus downtown for a weekly shopping trip with our mother, which included lunch at one of the cafeterias or Kresge’s or maybe the tea room at Robertson’s. My twin sister and I started at Monroe in January 1954. In the late 50’s the junior high section of the school was built. This included the home economics room you mentioned, the industrial arts classroom, the cafeteria and other classrooms. I also remember the May Day celebrations, but our maypole, with orange and white ribbons, was on the playground, on the south side of the school.

    • Brian, thanks for chiming in! I used to ride my bike the four blocks down to Cira’s for a gallon of milk. And I bought comic books over at Hans-Burkhart a block away from there. It really was a neighborhood where you could get away without owning a car if you really wanted to.

      That junior-high addition to Monroe was transformed in the renovation a few years ago. You’d hardly recognize it. I think that’s a good thing, because before that it did not harmonize with the rest of the school’s architecture at all.

      By the time I started at Monroe in 1972, May Day celebrations had ended, but we had Balloon Day in its place. http://blog.jimgrey.net/2012/10/01/balloon-day/

      • Brian says:

        The original building of Monroe is really a beautiful structure and I agree that the junior-high addition didn’t fit, but with all the property behind the school, I wish they had left the trees and not put a parking lot in front. But at least the school was not torn down like my alma mater Riley.

  4. Christopher Smith says:

    Very interesting read JIm I enjoyed it. Looking at the Google street map link I see you have the same problem with roads there as we have in the UK, lack of maintenance, it sure looks a bit ruff, the road that is.

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