(originally posted 9/14/08) During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.
The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes. We squeezed in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, always organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”). And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.
On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.
Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. Kids have been back in school for weeks already. The grass hasn’t grown much lately because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.
Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!
Rerunning my post about the street on which I grew up, Erskine Boulevard in South Bend, Indiana, the other day made me nostalgic. So I looked through my photos for childhood images from the old neighborhood.
Here I am standing on the sidewalk in front of our house shortly after we moved in. It was 1976, and I was nine.
I had Verichrome Pan in my Kodak Brownie Starmite II, which my grandmother bought me for a quarter at a garage sale. I hadn’t learned to smoothly squeeze the shutter button; shake marred most of the photos. And then I stored the negatives carelessly, allowing them to become scratched. But I’m still very happy to have them today. Especially this one below, of my brother (right) and neighborhood friend Kevin, who passed away unexpectedly in his 20s.
We played a lot on the sidewalk and even in the street on Woodside, which is the street pictured below. Woodside was only lightly traveled, so it was the better choice for street soccer. That’s my brother there on the left and neighborhood friend Phil crouched on the right. The fire hydrant was painted as a Revolutionary War figure in honor of the Bicentennial the year before, as I shot this in 1977. Hydrants all over the city were so painted. I shot this on Kodacolor II with my truly awful Imperial Magimatic X50 camera, which took 126 cartridge film.
The shutter button was so stiff on that camera it was virtually impossible to avoid shake. Here I aimed the camera east along Woodside a little. The old Plymouth station wagon there is the only thing that dates this photograph, which is also from 1977.
The city repaved Erskine in 1982. I’d never seen a street stripped of its asphalt before. I had Kodacolor II in the Kodak Duaflex II I had recently purchased at a garage sale, and photographed some of the equipment in action.
Soon a fresh, black ribbon of asphalt had been laid on Erskine and cars could again travel our street. From the looks of the above and below photos, I made them while sitting on our front stoop.
1982 was the year I began to experiment with the growing collection of old cameras I had amassed. I made this photo with an Argus A-Four, probably using Kodacolor II film. I feel fortunate any photos from that roll turned out, as I didn’t know what I was doing with f stops and shutter speeds. My guesses were lucky. This is just another shot of Woodside from our front yard. The house on the left was owned by the Mumford family, who had owned a small grocery near my mom’s childhood neighborhood downtown.
In 1984 a friend who was in my high school’s photography class gave me some hand-spooled Plus-X for my A-Four. I asked him for advice about exposure and he said, “f/8 and be there.” It worked out well enough. When I made this shot of the street blades on the corner of Erskine and Woodside, I chided myself a little for wasting a frame. But these unique embossed black-and-white blades, which were on every South Bend street corner, were removed during the 2000s in favor of more generic green-and-white blades with stick-on letters. Now I’m glad I have a record of this time gone by. If I had known the city was going to replace these blades, I’d have stolen this one.
I shot a roll of color film, probably Kodak, probably in my A-Four, as I was about to graduate high school in 1985. I climbed the giant oak tree in our back yard for this view. The van was Dad’s; he used it to haul lumber and finished pieces in his cabinetmaking business. It had, for a few years, been our family car.
Here’s a quick peek down Erskine, showing its distinctive curve, from that 1985 roll of film. I remember being deeply disappointed when the city replaced our minuteman fire hydrant.
Here’s one photo looking up toward our house from that 1985 film roll. Erskine was dubbed a boulevard because of its curve and because it was noticeably wider than other streets on the city’s grid. My childhood home is visible, above and to the left of the station wagon rolling up the hill.
Our house was quite famously green. When we gave directions to our house, all we had to say was “the green one” and people found us with no trouble. We never really liked the color, however.
I left for college in 1985, and moved out for good in 1989. My parents stayed on until 2014. Somewhere along the way they had the house repainted in light gray. I never got used to it. In my dreams, my childhood home will always be green.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
At 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.
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.
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.
Twenty years ago my neighbors were bakers. They made breads, pastries, and cookies for a popular deli at 56th and Illinois Streets here in Indianapolis. They brought unsold products home and gave a lot of it to us. They’d call and say simply, “Meet us at the fence.” Such sweet words! They made a flat-out wonderful challah bread that never sold well. For years we hardly bought a loaf of bread, so much challah did they give us!
I never actually visited their deli. Never once drove over to that neighborhood. It’s an easy drive from where we lived, and there were and are lots of other little shops and restaurants over there. Plenty of reasons to go! Yet it wasn’t until I went looking for subjects for my old cameras that I finally visited.
I’m not always clear on where one Indianapolis neighborhood begins and another one ends. I think this area is part of the larger Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, or perhaps it only borders it to the north. Either way, it’s a neighborhood of lovely older homes that stretch for blocks in all directions.
The Indiana Central Canal flows past this neighborhood and forms its northwest border. A concrete-arch bridge carries Illinois Street over it. This bridge is noteworthy for having been designed by Daniel Luten, who patented a particular kind of arch used in bridges his various firms constructed. Today Luten-arch bridges are considered worthy of preservation, and many are on the National Register of Historic Places. This one is not on the Register, but it is considered eligible. It was probably built in the early 1920s.
But the star of the show is the business district. Looking back through my images, it looks like I’ve photographed Kincaid’s meat market more than anything else. It’s an old-fashioned butcher shop — take a number, wait, ask for what you want from the counter, wait while they wrap it up for you. They’ll custom cut anything you want. You know, like every meat counter used to.
Many of the businesses here have been there for decades. A few have closed during the years I’ve lived here. But this strip never seems to have trouble attracting tenants.
The business district provides many opportunities to move close to details.
Another shot I make over and over again is of the northeast corner of these two streets. I love the scene.
There’s plenty I’ve still not photographed here, including that deli! Of all the places I’m leaving behind as I move, this is one I feel like I’ll still come visit. There’s no butcher shop like Kincaid’s in Zionsville!