History, Stories Told

On Erskine Boulevard

My post last week about my childhood neighborhood made me want to update and rerun this 2010 post in which I tour the street I grew up on. 

Take a walk with me along the street where I grew up.

In 1976, my family moved from the cookie-cutter prefab neighborhood that we called Rabbit Hill to a larger, nicer home on Erskine Boulevard, about a mile away on South Bend’s southeast side.

Erskine Boulevard

My friends on the Hill were all sad to see us go, of course. But adults had a different reaction. Most of them looked momentarily wistful as they sighed, “Ohhhhhh, Erskine Boulevard, as if my family were moving on up to the East Side or something.

I didn’t get then that Erskine Boulevard carried some prestige. It was named after a past president of South Bend’s bankrupt and shuttered Studebaker Corporation. A rare curved street on the city grid, its homes, many of which carried distinctive design touches, were a half-cut above the surrounding blocks of middle-class homes. None of the homes was breathtaking by any means, but together they had appeal that lent distinction to the boulevard.

Erskine Boulevard
Anchoring the boulevard’s north end

Today, neighborhoods are built by developers. When Erskine Boulevard was built, each homeowner-to-be bought a lot, hired an architect or bought existing blueprints, bought the materials, and hired an independent contractor to build their home. The neighborhood expanded in phases over 40 years with the first homes built on the north end in the 1920s and the last on the south end by 1960. This makes the boulevard a microcosm of middle-class residential styles that unfolds as you walk or drive it from north to south, with small two-story frame homes on narrow lots giving way to larger brick or limestone homes giving way to sprawling ranch homes set back more deeply and packed in less densely. Alleys hide behind the homes in the first six blocks; garages front the street in the last two. Power lines are buried in the first seven blocks, where ornamental street lights line the road; the last block got utility poles and exposed lines with plain industrial-grade street lights.

Erskine Boulevard
The family homestead

Our home was on the last block. The elementary school was one block away to the southwest; the high school seven blocks north. Each school morning and afternoon the boulevard was filled with kids walking to and from. My neighbors included my kindergarten teacher’s widower, my third grade teacher, my fourth grade teacher, and my high-school homeroom teacher. We moved in when I was in the fourth grade, and it was very exciting when Mrs. Brown, my teacher, walked over to welcome us to the neighborhood with a homemade cherry pie in her hands. It all made for the kind of neighborhood I have wished for since, but have never found – one in which people were brought together not just because of proximity, but because their lives made them interdependent on each other.

Erskine Boulevard
One of my favorite homes on the Boulevard

It was possible to do quite a bit without a car. A small grocery store and two pharmacies lay within a half mile, all easy walks. A dry cleaner, a dairy store, a library branch, and a five and dime with a stainless steel soda fountain were a bit farther away; I preferred to reach them on my bike. My dad used to drive his car to a service station six or seven blocks away and walk home while a mechanic fixed it. A two minute car ride took us to appliance and furniture dealers. And if Dad had been less of the home-cooked meal sort, we might have made more use of the three or four restaurants on the perimeter of our neighborhood. If Dad had been a drinker, he could have lubricated himself just fine at the bar a few blocks away and then crawled home. All but the appliance store are gone now, although two well-regarded city golf courses remain, both within walking distance.

Erskine Boulevard
Another favorite

It’s typical of cities for decay to slowly radiate from the center. When I was small, challenged neighborhoods ended a mile or so north of us; today, decline will soon reach the blocks near my parents’ house. Somehow, Erskine Blvd. has escaped that decay, as these photographs show. Yet the boulevard’s prestige has faded as the neighborhood has become inner-city with all the attendant problems. It’s common to see the streets that cross Erskine Blvd. on the police blotter. Something like 80 percent of the children at the elementary school receive a free or reduced-cost lunch. The high school was recently on probation with the state because too few of its students passed the ISTEP standardized test.

Erskine Boulevard
In one of the northernmost blocks

Some southsiders are working to stem the decline and renew hope. Neighborhood associations have formed, and local businesses have made some attempts to come together for the good of the area. Some individuals are doing their part; my father, for example, has become involved in politics and with a few key grassroots social programs, encouraging both economic growth and individual growth to overcome the creeping malaise. And the church that anchors the boulevard’s south end, Living Stones Church, has made the surrounding neighborhoods its mission field. They have done a splendid job of showing simple, no-strings-attached love in the neighborhood. They give the elementary school a lot of their time and energy; for example, a few years ago they gave new shoes to every student who wanted them. And nobody on Erskine Blvd. has forgotten how, after a terrible storm toppled many dozens of trees, church members came through the neighborhood with their chain saws to help clean up.

Erskine Boulevard
Not as wooded as it once was

Belying the challenges, and excepting the missing trees, Erskine Blvd. looks much as it always has, and life goes on there much as it always did. People still go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, and care for their homes and yards on the weekends. Children still walk to school and still ride their bikes and play.

Erskine Boulevard
Notice the milk delivery door

The newspaper is still delivered, of course, although it’s a morning paper now, and teenagers shouldering canvas sacks full of papers have given way to adults in cars who dash out to place papers on porches. I delivered the South Bend Tribune every afternoon for many years. Several of the houses on my route had a little passthrough into which milk was once delivered. By the time I came along, milk delivery was long gone, but my customers always wanted their newspaper left there. I imagine they still do.

Erskine Boulevard
I mowed this lawn for $4 a week

Elderly homeowners, I’m sure, still hire neighborhood kids to mow their lawns. I made good pocket money every summer doing that. I also raked leaves in the fall and shoveled driveways and sidewalks in the winter. One neighbor erected a wooden privacy fence around his back yard and hired my brother and I to stain it. Another neighbor took his wife to Europe for two weeks every summer and paid me to bring in their mail and look after the place.

Erskine Boulevard
The boulevard’s curve

An annual Christmastime tradition was the candlelight walk, which had its 25th anniversary in 2009. One evening about a week before Christmas, neighbors lined both edges of the sidewalk in front of their homes with little white paper sacks weighed down with sand, and placed a lighted candle in each. That’s 2,500 candles along the boulevard’s eight blocks! People came from all over town to see; the event always made the news. In the early years, enthusiastic neighbors hired a horse-drawn wagon to give rides up and down the boulevard. In later years, Living Stones Church hosted a nativity scene with live animals and served everyone hot chocolate and cookies. In later years interest flagged – longtime residents were getting older, and newer residents weren’t as interested in participating. The event’s future is uncertain.

I left South Bend in 1985, but my parents remained. They have retired now, and are preparing to move to Indianapolis, where their grandchildren all live. But I was fortunate to be able to go back home for so many years. I liked to take a walk up and down the boulevard while I was there, or at least drive it, to enjoy my old neighborhood. What I wouldn’t give to live in a neighborhood like it today.

Standard

12 thoughts on “On Erskine Boulevard

  1. david says:

    beautiful old neighborhood , Thanks for sharing. , Many times as i drive the old roads in the northeast I like to picture the landscape as it likely looked, by eyeing the 200 year old homesteads along the the way, while canceling out the new homes that now dot the landscape in-between. It is amazing the distances to each of them. It gives me a nice picture of the way things were; Many of these old places were farms. .near old intersections, high upon hills, with large old growth trees (still alive) and , next to rivers, and brooks.

    Cheers.

    • Thanks David. As I drive some of Indianapolis’s older neighborhoods I sometimes notice houses that are obviously a lot older than, or a lot different from, the surrounding ones. I think those houses could have been farmhouses from before the land became urban. I love to imagine what the land looked like then.

  2. Looks like a great place to grow up. One thing I remember about the old neighborhoods is that because of the baby boom there were kids everywhere. And it was safe for them to run all over.

    • I’m Gen X. When I lived on Rabbit Hill, there were 30 other kids on my street. Erskine was more given over to empty nesters, and it was quite a shock to find that there wasn’t always somebody to run around with.

  3. Steve Miller says:

    Perhaps this would be a good project for documenting the built environment. I just bet that many of the houses that served as backdrops for Studebaker publicity photos from the ’30s to early ’60s were in this neighborhood. Perhaps we should get together and peruse a book or two. In the meantime, you’ll find some postcard views of downtown South Bend on the tumblr blog, Cardboard America.

    • You’re not the first to suggest that. If any of the houses on Erskine were in those photos I’d probably recognize them! Thanks for the tip about Cardboard America.

  4. Neil says:

    You are kidding me!
    I grew up in this neighborhood, over at Eckman and Dale, the northeast corner. We had a small woods next to our house where we had two treehouses, plus a gravel field across the street where we played plenty of baseball and dug forts. In the wintertime, the city blocked off several streets so we could sled down the Dale Street hill. I had a blast there!
    I remember at least my third grade teacher living in the neighborhood, right up on Donmoyer on the NE corner, the house with the huge granite rock in the corner of the yard.
    Many days, one of my best friends and I would part company at Eckman by wrestling in the front yard of the home there. Many times he would beat me by getting me in a scissors hold and then we would part ways.
    Other than that, my biggest memory of Erskine itself was a coasting contest some friends and I had there just after I got a new 3-speed Columbia! Three or four of us pedaled one or two revolutions and then just started coasting to see who could go the farthest. I know I got past Irvington and went the farthest. At least one of the kids said I lied about not sneaking in some pedaling so it just wasn’t worth winning.
    We left in 1963 after 5th grade and moved to Michigan because my dad was transferred with the I&M.
    Fortunately I was able to reconnect with some of the kids I went to school with at Monroe, so that’s cool but not the same as growing up there. I loved that neighborhood.

    • Neil, sure, I know Eckman and Dale! Sounds like you moved in before it was completely built out. I used to love flying my bike down the Dale St. hill. The city wasn’t closing down the street on snowy days anymore by 1976, when we moved in over there. We did, however, coast our skateboards down Erskine.

      Monroe was a special place.

      • Marla Metzler Sisti says:

        I have scars on my knees from the falls I got flying down Dale Street in the mid 50’s on my J.C. Higgins bike. My girl friend and I loved to race each other down the hill. We both lived on Dubail Avenue. It was quite a ways up the hill from Dubail, but great excitement for us. Never imagined then that someday my husband and I, along with our five children, would move into the neighborhood on East Woodside, two houses from Erskine Blvd. We always looked forward to the holiday walks just before Christmas.

        • The homes on Woodside on either side of Erskine all have lots of charm. You are fortunate to live in that neighborhood! I grew up in the gray house on the southwest corner, 2903 Erskine.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.