History, Preservation

The incredibly sticky sense of place

The land on which my home stands was farmland not 20 years ago. It’s typical: thanks to sprawl, many American neighborhoods occupy land that produced crops sometime within the last hundred years. In my town, a suburb of Indianapolis, neighboring subdivisions and shopping centers are brand new. I remember well the farmland that was there before.

But at some point the last farm will become another vinyl village or strip mall. Children born here then will have no memory of this area’s bucolic origin.

I was such a kid once, born into a busy and thriving South Bend, Indiana, neighborhood where the last new house had been built 20 years before. It was a typical 20th-century city neighborhood bordered by shops, businesses, and schools. You could almost get away with not owning a car.

My mom managed it: she walked to her job as a teacher’s aide at James Monroe School a block away. I visited her at her job one day when I was about 13. While snooping through some cabinets, I came upon this photograph, and it blew my mind.

MonroeSchoolMayDay1930s

This is that school’s front lawn on the occasion of a May Day celebration. I found the image online recently with a comment that the photo was taken in 1939. That’s eight years after the school was built, but twelve years before my childhood home was built. It and many others would soon be be built on that distant grove of trees in the photo’s upper-right corner. It is fascinating to not see the houses there that have always been a part of my memory!

To me as a kid, our 1951 house might as well have been built in 1851 or even 1751 — it was a time I could not imagine. From my limited childhood perspective, my neighborhood had always existed.

I knew intellectually that this couldn’t be true, of course. But I had no way of imagining the neighborhood before it was completed. The 1939 photograph made that time more imaginable!

school-houseAt right is an excerpt from a 1922 map of South Bend. 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 who attended Monroe School in the 1950s commented on this post how his father never stopped calling my neighborhood “the new extension.” He clearly remembered when this land was that grove of trees.

This is the same delusion in reverse, and it illustrates how sticky our sense of place can be. Because this man remembered the grove of trees, he likely considered it to be this land’s true use and purpose.

Similarly, I have childhood memories of neighborhoods being built well south of James Monroe School. I still recall what was there before, and forty years on those neighborhoods still feel new, in a way, to me. And on my first visits to Indianapolis as a child, US 31 in the county just north of Indianapolis passed through nothing but farmland. A building boom that started in the 1980s brought tall office buildings to that corridor, plus a long string of stoplights. Recently US 31 has been converted into a limited-access highway there. But even after all these years I still marvel at how it’s all changed.

Even the existing built environment changes. 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). My memories of this building do not include its current dropped ceilings, and include rooms that no longer exist. And my mind’s eye will forever remember the school’s front yard looking as it did in this photo, which I took in 1984.

James Monroe School

Visiting my hometown in 2013, after the school’s renovation was complete, I happened to take this photograph one gray morning from about the same place. Little of the landscaping survived the addition of the driveway — except the pine trees at right, which are almost certainly the same little pine trees in the lower corner of the 1939 photo.

James Monroe School

The years to come will surely bring more changes, and they’ll surprise both current students and aging alumni like me. Because place imprints on all of us.

I first shared these thoughts and photographs in 2014, but rewrote the article for today.

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14 thoughts on “The incredibly sticky sense of place

  1. Jason Shafer says:

    You are so correct on it being hard to imagine how things used to look before our age of consciousness. If nothing else, it’s a good mental exercise.

    The tiny town where I grew up has presented me with the opposite. Sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River, it flooded one too many times and a great buy-out occurred. Now, on those rare occasions I go back, I see nothing but emptiness where houses once stood.

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    • I once followed this great blog from a woman in Missouri who documented the destruction of her childhood neighborhood, house by house. It was in the path of some sort of planned extension of the St. Louis airport. The extension was never build, the houses moldered for years, and finally the bulldozers started coming. It was a haunting blog. She stopped blogging when the last house fell.

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  2. This is so very true. I recall a job I had in college, maybe 1980 or 81, that took me to Albany, Indiana. Next door was a demolition project of an old school building that probably dated back to the 20s. An old lady (probably in her 80s) stood watching and said to me when I walked past her “they’re tearing down the new school.” In 25 years I could see myself saying the same thing if my old elementary school were to get the wrecking ball as I was in class the day it opened for business in the fall of 1965.

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    • That old lady put her finger right on what I’m saying here. Place imprints on us. It’s almost like hearing a cover version of a song — even if the cover is technically superior, it’s not right.

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  3. Roger Meade says:

    Jim-
    I found it interesting to see the “old” houses that were probably built in the 1920’s in the first photo. They are obviously a new neighborhood, with young trees and all shipshape. I live in a very old (135 years) house, the first in this area according to Sanborn survey maps of this area. It was built before streets were added and sits slightly askew to the roads, unlike all the other houses built since. I would love to find a photo of this place when it was new in 1885 or so. I find new housing tracts boring and maybe even depressing. They have not had time enough to develop any “character”, so are more about the developer than about the people who live there.

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    • Yes, those houses are almost certainly 1910s-1920s. They’re all still there. Type 312 Donmoyer Ave, South Bend, IN into Google Maps and go to Street View.

      One trick people use to find old photos of their homes is to ask elderly neighbors across the street if they have photos of things like family by the car at the street – because the houses across the street would be in the frame!

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  4. Very interesting and thought provoking post Jim. The district I work in has seen a terrifying amount of development in the last 10 years especially and it continues to escalate.

    The village I spent my childhood from age 2-11 is already about four times the population and a new proposed development will increase the housing by maybe a third again. I imagine 25 years ago, people would consider this a fairly rural, green and leafy district. It’s becoming increasingly unrecognisable.

    I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but English people seem to have an obsession almost with archiving the past, so there are an unbelievable amount of photographs, maps etc going back decades, even centuries. So we don’t always have to rely on our own memories to see how things used to be.

    This is probably of little interest to you, but the parish I grew up in has quite extensive photo archives online – http://www.slaughamarchives.org/years.asp

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    • Here in Indiana, there’s very little older than about 1820. The vast majority of the built environment is from 1910 or later. I think an obsession with documenting the built environment might just be starting to form here, at least with nuts like me who photograph everything they see.

      I browsed the archive link you sent. It would be fascinating to take some of the oldest photos, go to those places, photograph them now from as close to the same place as possible, and show them side by side! A buddy of mine in suburban Toronto did that and it’s fascinating.

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  5. Jim, I certainly enjoyed this article. As I live in an agricultural community and have therefore been treated to the machinations of the various interests within the community, the seesaw if you will between the developer mindset and the agriculturist mindset I have wondered if it has always been thus. I suspect that the ringing of the first axe in the woods was a disturbing, nay frightening sound to the inhabitants of that land as it was!

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