Personal

The sad state of my childhood home

The neighborhood I lived in until just after my ninth birthday was crammed full of kids. I counted 31, not including my brother and me — and that was just on our street. So prolific were the parents up and down our street that they all called it Rabbit Hill.

The houses were small and plain. Mom once told me that the homes were manufactured, the pieces brought to the site on trucks and assembled in place. There were a handful of floor plans, all repeated throughout the neighborhood. Ours was the second-to-largest floor plan at just under 900 square feet.

During my 1970s childhood, these houses were about 20 years old. The owners took pride in them, and Rabbit Hill looked good. Here’s a photo from about 1971, looking up the hill. I’m the boy in the blue shirt. The house I lived in isn’t visible, but the yard is; we kids are just about to walk in front of it.

Photo credit: Judy Dieu

I have just one photo with our house in it. I shot my first roll of film in August of 1976, just a couple months before we moved out of that house. Meet my childhood friends Christy and Brian. Our house is in the background.

Christy and Brian

We sold the house to a family who lived in it for some number of years. They sold the family to someone who rented it out for the next 30 years.

Lots of the houses on Rabbit Hill became rentals during these years, and the neighborhood declined. I suppose it was inevitable.

In 2010, the elementary school I had attended held an open house after an extensive renovation. My brother, his childhood best friend, and I all met in front of our old house on Rabbit Hill and walked to the school from there, for old time’s sake. I photographed the walk and shared the images here.

I drove down our old street when I was in South Bend in March. The trees were all bare and the Zoysia grass was all characteristically brown, which didn’t cast the properties in the most attractive light. But it looked like some homeowners were once again working to make the most of their properties. Our old neighborhood might be seeing a bit of a renaissance!

Then I came upon our old house, and I was shaken by how bad it looked.

Childhood home

The windows are all new, at least, although replacing the plate-glass picture windows with two sash windows just looks tacky. I wondered if perhaps this meant that the previous longtime landlord had sold the house. So I went looking on Zillow and found that the property had indeed sold at the end of last year. See the listing here. The photos from inside are shocking to me. Next to nothing has been done inside since we moved out. The carpet has been replaced with vinyl flooring throughout, all of the closet doors have been removed, and everything has been painted white. But everything else, down to the handles on the kitchen cabinets, are exactly as we left it in 1976. I’m betting the wallpaper in the hallway is still there, under that white paint. Here’s a view from inside the house in 1971 showing that wallpaper, with a glimpse of the kitchen.

I know this is just a structure, and that times change, and that whoever owns this house is within their rights to care for it as they have. But I feel bad about what’s befallen our old house just the same. Rabbit Hill was truly a magical place to grow up, and I hate to see the magic lost.

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38 thoughts on “The sad state of my childhood home

  1. Thanks for sharing Jim….I recently (two or three years ago) was in my hometown and drove past where my parents first house was – they had it built in 1958 and we lived there for six years until our family outgrew it. It was a modest three bedroom home, about the same size as yours. It is gone now, replaced with something bigger and shinier. It is the passage of time I guess, but in a world where we consume far more than is sustainable it does seem like a waste to me!

    • The neighborhood I lived in then, the houses were not especially well built. They weren’t junk, either. But in truth, it would not be a real loss if someday the whole thing was razed and something new built instead. It would be painful for a bit to know I can’t go back anymore, but I’d get over it.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I feel your pain, Jim. Our families first home was purchased when my Dad was transferred to Milwaukee from Chicago (until then, like many Chicago families, we lived in a large apartment). We only owned that for 8 years, as the neighborhood went from middle-class to high-crime in that period of time. My parents were new to the city, and didn’t realize they were buying “last in” to a changing neighborhood. Their first home was not a financial success, and we hold no romantic view-point of that property.

    Our second, and last home, was in the family for 40 years, from 1972, until both my parents were gone, and I gave it a coat of paint and we sold it in 2012. That neighborhood is now slowly changing as well, and since it was sold, I have not had the heart to drive by it and see what is happenng. My Dad was not a handy person, but my Mom, who also had a decent job, was astute enough to hire people to do the jobs needed, and with “good taste”. Within a few years of selling it to a young couple, it was already taken back by the bank, and then was sold to a “rehabber/flipper” and now owned by another family. I can guarentee that house flipper / rehabbers were not choosing solutions for the interior that would be in the pages of Architectural Digest. My sister has a house in a downline neighborhood, but was built in the 20’s by a famous architect, and when she has work done, she has to sit the workman down at the beginning and tell them there is “no solution for her house that is available at a local big box store”, it is neither appropriate nor of the quality needed.

    And therein lies the problem. Not only do we hold a “golden view” of our houses from when we were kids, glossing over, or even not seeing some of the deficiencies that would be seen with the eye of an appraiser; but as neighborhoods slide downward on the socio-economic scale, the people buying in, don’t have the money for the upkeep, and many times have a lifetime of cheap “jury-rigged” solutions to many of their living and transportation needs. As a life-long renter, I’ve shied away from renting in certain areas, not because of the crime, but because the educational background of the landlords have runied the properties with the cheapst, and many times, the ugliest solutions to problems. Not unusual to look at rentals in perfectly beautiful neighborhoods, with brand new forest green shag carpets, and vintage oak cabinets repainted in garrish colors with 2 buck knobs from Menards put on. Painting over wallpaper, which is a no-no on every level, is the norm in many of these places. No accounting for taste, but I’m always amazed at how ugly the “cheapest solution” can be!

    • “the people buying in, don’t have the money for the upkeep, and many times have a lifetime of cheap “jury-rigged” solutions to many of their living and transportation needs. ” This accurately summarizes the fate of my town in Mississippi. It once had a beautiful collection of 1890s to 1930s houses, including quintessential Craftsman homes. Today, many look like shit (sorry Jim, I had to describe it). Decades of jury-rigged cheap rehabs and additions (and dirt) ruined them.

      I live in a 97 year old house. When a workman comes here, I have to sit him down and tell him that he can’t use those convenient self’drilling screws that workmen so love. He MUST drill pilot holes in the heart pine and cypress wood first. In other words, do it the right way, which may be an increasingly rare practice in USA today.

      • Good addition to the discussion. Yes, American construction is all about speed and shortcuts today. It can be difficult to find people who are willing to do the old methods.

  3. It is incredible to me what ever-increasing standards of living have done to our expectations for housing. Would either you or I ever have considered for a moment the idea of raising a family in a 900 square foot house? But that is what people used to do, and these were not poor people, but middle income people who were usually on the younger side when they bought the homes.

    Your house reminds me a lot of the first neighborhood my parents inhabited, which we left when I was under 3 years old. I looked at the place on Street View recently, and it is rougher than it appears in old family photos. My father was pretty successful for his age and in 1962 they moved to a much nicer neighborhood, one inhabited by executives of local companies, doctors and lawyers. Our house was maybe 1500 square feet (on a slab). Kids were everywhere and there were 3 schools for K-12 within walking distance. But when I tried selling it by owner for my mother when she retired in the late 90s, did one single person with a family come to look? Nope – it was by then a “starter house” or someplace for empty nesters to downsize.

    The older I get, I find it interesting how some neighborhoods thrive and some do not. Usually areas where the houses were the most expensive when new do best, but this is not always so.

    • After my divorce I did look at some sub-1000-sf homes. My budget was tight!

      I realized I had lingering feelings from when we moved off Lancaster Drive into a larger, nicer home on one of South Bend’s best known streets, Erskine Blvd. Yes, that Erskine. Our house wasn’t that much larger; 1200 sf, perhaps, but with a full basement. Suddenly the houses on Rabbit Hill just didn’t seem as nice anymore. The extra room we gained seemed luxurious. For years I had dreams that we were forced to go back to Lancaster Drive and I always woke up unsettled.

      However, my sons and I truly could have been fine in a house the same size as Lancaster Drive.

    • Unfortunately, expectations on housing have been warped by the stupid HGTV shows, keeping up with the Jonses, the McMansion craze, and the belief that larger and more voluminous housing must equate to quality or the demonstration of “I’ve made it.” In many parts of USA, were are grossly over-housed, which has resulted in environmental damage, deforestation, excess runoff, elimination of productive farmland, and many people getting far too deeply into debt (remember the 2009-2011 housing and financial crisis – the one where we bailed out the banks?). Sadly, some of this was driven by white flight, a trend that continues to this day in many US cities.

      • My previous house was a little less than 1400 sf and it was plenty of room for me and my two sons. The older son got the smallest bedroom, and it was not quite big enough for his bed, dresser, and desk, but we squeezed it in. That was the only challenge with the place.

        My current house is 1900 sf. Its space utilization is poor and the four of us (wife and two of her adult children) feel more crammed in here than my sons and I ever did in our previous house.

        I have friends who have a wife and a couple three kids who live in 5000 sf houses and it just seems ridiculous. So much wasted space. They furnish rooms they almost never use.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Not to mention many of the suburbs and x-urbs have covenents that limit the size of houses to the “larger” not the smaller..to limit the iimpact on police and fire, it’s not unusual around both Chicago and Milwaukee to have areas where one cannot build a house smaller than 3000 sq. ft…by covenant!, and those lots have to be much larger than the lots we were accustomed to in the city. I don’t know why a married couple with one of two kids even needs a 3000 sq. ft. house!

  4. It is always best never to go back and look at the places you’ve lived in. Especially if you are the one who last renovated it. Believe me. It feels like someone has altered your life history, rather than just a house.

    • It’s true.

      I loved my last house, that little brick ranch in Indianapolis. I drove by once. The new owner isn’t destroying it or anything. But she’s not tending my gardens, and she made the curious choice to replace the gutters (which didn’t need replacing) with black ones that do not match the white trim that is everywhere else on the house. Ok – can’t drive back through there again. Too hard.

      • For me it was the Langley house that we’d lived in for more than a decade. When it was time to move I finally got to do it up to just how we would have liked it had it been possible to renovate while we were there. Within a year it was listed again – with so many horrible changes! The only thing they did right was take down the ratty old garage and put up a new one. At least they left my massive rear deck intact.

  5. I am fortunate in that my Mom and Dad still live in the house I grew up in. When I visit them, I sleep in my childhood bedroom. They are both still healthy and vital and enjoy keeping the place up, so it actually looks even better now than when I lived at home!

    • That really is nice. My parents lived in the home I spent most of my childhood in until 2014, and it was truly wonderful to always be able to go home. Mom has a condo in Indianapolis now, and it’s nice, but it’s not home.

  6. DougD says:

    I looked at the Zillow listing, it sure didn’t change much at all!

    Could be worse, a friend told me this week that the house I grew up in got knocked down. I knew it was coming, it was on a rural road and suburban development finally reached it a couple of years ago. Because it had a large lot the construction company used it as an office and the lot for equipment storage, so I knew once construction was complete they’d raze the house and subdivide the lot.

    It might have been nice to walk through it one more time, or perhaps not. At least the cave-riddled woodlot across the street was preserved as a park.

    https://conservationhamilton.ca/conservation-areas/eramosa-karst/

    • Probably for the best you didn’t tour it. Everyone I’ve ever known who got a chance to do that came away with mixed, challenging feelings. But, still sad that it’s gone.

  7. That must have been a very nostalgic walk to the school – and I am sad to hear about the state of your childhood home. My family moved to another house when I was in the third grade, and it’s been at least a decade since I’ve driven by that original house. Probably longer. But I’ve heard it’s grown a bit run down and that makes me sad too. Like yours, our neighborhood also had a lot of kids. Not 31! But enough to play a lot of outdoor games in the summer.

  8. Nancy Stewart says:

    Jim, the few times over the years that I have driven through our old neighborhood, the thing that I found most disturbing was how dead quiet it was … no children anywhere … not one person in their yards. It was such a vibrant family place back then … so different now. Our old house didn’t look to bad a few years ago … and it was nice to see how big the little tree that we brought up from our farm had grown in the front yard. It was a magical time and place for you kids … and it makes me happy that my adult kids are still friends with their childhood friends.

  9. Karen Bryan says:

    Just the opposite has happened in my childhood neighborhood. My parents bought our 3-beds, 1 1/2 baths, 1300 sq.ft California tract house brand new in 1954. We watched the orange groves come down, making way for our house and thousands like it. $17,200 was the price. My sister recently came across the actual sales documents. You’ve doubtless seen what’s happened to real estate prices lately, but it’s downright surreal in southern California. Houses in my old neighborhood are going for $600,000 and up! Which means that those who bought ten or twenty years ago can draw home-equity loans to do as many improvements as they want–and they have. Those little tract houses are looking spiffier than they ever did before–and the now-mature trees are just a nice finishing touch.
    My late mother’s childhood home is also in better shape than ever before. It’s a 1910 farmhouse that’s full of great memories for our whole extended family (that’s hundreds of people). It has stayed in the family. My sister and brother-in-law own it now. He’s one of those I-can-fix-anything guys, and it brings me such joy every time I visit to see how good it looks. It’s a landmark!
    Our street, in true baby-boom style, was also full of kids. I think part of the reason suburban streets seem so deathly quiet these days is that parents don’t let their kids play outside anymore. Combine that with chronic overscheduling–sports, music lessons, etc., and widespread addiction to video games, and you have that eerie kid-free silence. Whereas (I’m so old now that I’m always slipping into “Well, you know, back in MY day…”) we were allowed to roam pretty much wherever we wanted. Ride your bike to the library? Sure! Walk up to the city park? Go ahead! Just be back by dinnertime. (That city park is looking better than ever. They’ve even kept up the massive old swimming pool where we all used to go on hot summer days. The tennis courts, too.)

    • That’s definitely a California story! You’ve had ongoing population growth. Indiana has not, except in Indianapolis. So we see more decline and decay here.

      In my childhood we had a lot of freedom, too. I wish it were still so for children.

  10. Thank you for sharing, Jim. Your childhood neighborhood does sound magical but it’s probably the kind of magic that wears off with adulthood. I guess that’s why they say you can’t go home again. All the same, I hope you don’t mind I’m going to focus on the joyous parts of this story because the thought of it being a neighborhood of rentals is just too sad.

  11. tbm3fan says:

    My parents first house in Bogota New Jersey, 1958-62. Finished basement and so three floors and the area hasn’t slid. Second house in Catonsville Maryland from 1962-66 has gotten a little less rural and hasn’t slid. Third house, brand new, in Canoga Park San Fernando Valley from 1966-68 was large ranch style and I am not so sure about this neighborhood. Next house, brand new, 1968-72 in San Diego on top of a hill with a killer view of San Diego, the Pacific, and all the way to Mexico. Clearly a house with a view like this doesn’t slide down at all. Last house 1950s built, from 1972-1996, in Orinda California cost him $90K which I thought was ridiculous then. This was/is a high end town and nothing is below $2 million, going up to $20 million, there today.

  12. Neil says:

    In my childhood in that general neighborhood but living on Eckman near Miami and going to Monroe, I can’t recall ever hearing that area called Rabbit Hill (1956-1963). It’s been about 14 years since I’ve been back there, so it’s about time to make a detour through there the next time we drive to Mishawaka.

    • It was just the parents up and down our street who called it Rabbit Hill. It was kind of an inside joke.

      Depending on which side of Miami you lived on, I might have delivered papers to your old house in the 80s. We moved out of the house above in 1976 to a house on the corner of Erskine and Woodside.

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