Preservation

On Erskine Boulevard

Last week I shared a photograph that included the block I grew up on, before any houses were built on it. That made me want to rerun this 2010 post in which I took a photo walk along my childhood street, and remembered how life was when I lived there in the 1970s and 1980s.

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 the southeast side of South Bend, Indiana.

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.

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. Many of its homes carried distinctive design touches not found in the surrounding blocks. None of the homes was breathtaking by any means, as this was a middle-class neighborhood. But they had collective appeal that lent distinction to the boulevard. Coupled with the boulevard’s distinctive and unusual curve, Erskine Boulevard exuded class.

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 house in which I lived

Our home was on the last block, and upon its 1951 completion was among the last built. 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. My parents remained until 2014, when they retired 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.

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10 thoughts on “On Erskine Boulevard

  1. What a great place to grow up! I would love to live in such a place.

    I think that small lots help neighbors become closer. My late 50s neighborhood has large lawns but we tend to stay to ourselves for the most part, as was the case in the suburbs of my childhood.

    How long since anyone walked to school? Living within walking distance from the school used to be a big deal. I don’t think it is now.

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  2. Dan Cluley says:

    That does look like a nice area. It reminds me of some of the neighborhoods on the South & West sides of Lansing. I suspect the demographics were and are similar as well, mirroring the rise and fall of middle class manufacturing jobs.

    I’m less aware in Lansing, but my little hometown of Mason has one elementary school that still has quite a few kids who walk. If I am a little off schedule in the morning I may have to wait for a crossing guard.

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    • When I lived in Indianapolis I used to drive by a lot of schools on my way to work. While every school had school-zone speed limits, not a one of them ever had a single child walking.

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  3. Neil says:

    I loved this post the first time and love it again. I went to James Monroe School near the top of Erskine in the late 1950s-early 1960s and live on East Eckman east of Erskine, which was about the middle of the boulevard, about where the ranch-style homes began. I loved that whole area, many good memories, the best childhood was there.

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  4. Marc Pessar says:

    Jim, thanks for the evocative account of your childhood neighborhood. It reminds me of my own in Queens, New York. I too miss the sense of community. My neighborhood, like yours, was largely self-contained. All services were nearby our home or came to the door (milk, dry cleaning, diaper service.) The elementary school was a two block walk away. I feel fortunate to have been raised in such a setting.

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    • I’m just young enough that home delivery largely ended just as I was born. Except for maybe diaper service; I do have dim memories of that still operating while I was small. But I’m not so old that I don’t remember the Fuller Brush man or the Jewel Tea man stopping by.

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  5. Steve Miller says:

    Granted, you’re younger than I, but $4 to mow that lawn? You little robber baron!

    Have you been able to match any of these houses to Studebaker’s advertising shots of their new models?

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    • I mowed two or three other nearby lawns at $5 each. I always felt slightly cheated by that $4 lawn!

      I’ve not gone looking to see if any ad shots of Studies were ever made on Erskine. A South Bend group on Facebook did once post a shot of a Studebaker street cleaner working its way up the boulevard in 1936, though:

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