Life, Stories told

Happy life in a modest neighborhood

It’s a modest house in a modest neighborhood. Isn’t the aspiration supposed to be for more, for a fresh build in a tony suburb? But I’ve been happy here, surprisingly so. It has been a good place to rebuild my life after my first marriage crashed and burned.

My humble home

The homes here are ranches, usually faced in brick, largely built in the 1950s and 1960s as people moved out of the city proper. But a couple lots remained vacant until almost 1990, which is about when the golf course was built behind us, putting an end to flooded back yards on each heavy rain. And the cornfield across the main road finally succumbed to suburban sprawl in about 2010 when the megachurch went up. Thanks to the city’s MapIndy site and its historic aerial imagery, you can watch my little neighborhood go from farmland 80 years ago to what it is now.

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I’ve been here ten years now. I probably shouldn’t have bought this house; my divorce left me broke. But I’d moved three times in three years and I craved permanence. And this house was less than a mile from where my sons lived with their mom. And my credit was very good. So I got an ill-advised 100% mortgage and moved in.

I couldn’t see the looming housing bubble about to burst. I couldn’t see my ex-wife soon remarrying and getting that fresh build, that tony suburb, 20 miles away. I wanted to move to live closer to my sons, but my house was suddenly worth less than what I owed on it. And so I remained.

It’s worked out; my sons and I have been happy here. But now my sons are grown and all but gone. And the housing market has recovered. And I’ve remarried; my new wife and I would like to share a roof. This one is too small and would take her youngest son out of his school, so now I’m preparing to put my house on the market.

I’m thrilled to move into the next part of my life, but sad to leave this home behind. I’ve been so content here. Preparing to leave has me in a reflective mood, which drove me to look through my photographs. I was surprised by how many I’ve made around the neighborhood. Could this be the most-photographed neighborhood in Indianapolis? Let me share it with you.

The homes are spaced wide and set back deeply on broad streets. Lots are about a third of an acre.

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In the late autumn and early spring, when the trees are bare, the neighborhood looks dingy and tired. That’s in part because so many houses here have become rentals and receive minimum care. Strangely, all corner houses here are duplexes and have always been rentals. And during the worst of the housing crisis a good number of these modest homes went abandoned into foreclosure.

My front yard

1967 Ford F250

In my neighborhood

But the neighborhood wakes up in the spring, thanks to so many flowering trees the original owners planted.

Spring flowering trees

Spring flowering trees

Spring flowering trees

And a few owners have taken great care in their landscaping, which looks best during the summer. And even now, after so many dead ash trees have been removed here, the neighborhood remains heavily wooded and deeply shaded all summer.

Neighbor

Home in my neighborhood

Home in my neighborhood

Home in my neighborhood

Because of the tree cover, autumns here can be spectacular.

Neighbor's house under the yellow canopy

Neighborhood trees

Autumn leaves

Autumn Street

Even the wintertime has its charm as the snow hangs in the tree branches. However, the city has plowed our streets but one time that I can remember, making it challenging to get in and out. One snowstorm a few years ago stranded me at home for a week — the snow was simply too deep for my car to cut through.

Snowy day

Mild winter in old suburbia

Snowy day

Snowy neighborhood scene

Down the street

It’s quiet here. Neighbors mostly keep to themselves; I know few of them. But I guess that’s the age. It’s also safe here — crime is very low. About once a year I drive to work and forget to close the garage door. Never once have I found anything missing or even disturbed upon return.

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I won’t miss a few things. The houses that need upkeep but never get it. The one fellow who parks his giant trailer on the street; it’s so hard to see it at night. The neighbors who forget to keep their storm-sewer grates clear, leading to flooded streets under heavy rain. I certainly won’t miss going out in my raincoat and waterproof shoes to rake the drains clear in front of their houses. But I’ll miss a lot of the rest.

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On Illinois Street

56th and Illinois
Pentax K1000, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax
Kodak Gold 400
2017

Margaret and I keep walking Indianapolis neighborhoods, considering where we might like to settle after we’re empty nested in a few years. The neighborhood around 56th and Illinois appeals deeply to me.

Photography

Photo: Street scene, 56th and Illinois, Indianapolis

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Stories told

Summer’s denouement

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. I’ve run this one many times; it’s one of my favorites.

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 and we all began to squeeze in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Armsalways 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, land on my back, 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!”) hoping to squeeze out another laugh. And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.

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Summertime children on Lancaster Drive

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. My kids are back in school (since two days before my birthday, what nonsense). The grass hasn’t grown much in weeks 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’ considerable 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!

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Stories told

On Rabbit Hill

It’s high time I retold this story that I first told in 2010.

My childhood neighborhood was packed tightly along steep, narrow streets with tiny, thinly built lookalike two- and three-bedroom houses. These weren’t anybody’s dream homes; it was optimistic to call them modest. But they were attractive to working families getting their start.

I was on the way in 1966, and Mom and Dad’s apartment wouldn’t accommodate three. Dad’s wages didn’t stretch far, making it challenging to afford even one of these homes. But a seller needed out badly, and he signed his mortgage over to my parents. With that, they had their first house, in this neighborhood on South Bend’s south side.

A whopping 31 other children were born along our street within a few years of me. With a wink and a smile, the neighbors all came to call our street Rabbit Hill.

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Summertime children on Lancaster Drive: Darin, Colleen, Christy, David, Mike, and two others partially hidden. Summer, 1976.

Kellie lived next door; when her family moved out, Jimmy’s family moved in. Robyn and Sally lived two doors down. Robyn was only a couple years older than me, but she always seemed so mature — except on the many occasions when she stuck her tongue out at me. Sally was my brother’s age, a flirty girly girl with lots of thick blonde hair. My dad always called her Sweet Sarah Ellen, usually in his deepest voice, just to make her blush. Their sister Mary came much later; to her mom’s embarrassment, she occasionally came to our front door in her birthday suit. Tomboy Angie lived a couple doors down with her dad, and Brian and David lived right across the street from her. Their dad was a cop, a man’s man, but Brian liked to direct neighborhood musical productions.

A few doors up from there, right across the street from us, lived Denise, Sherry, Michelle, and David. The girls liked to come over and color with me on the front stoop, at least until their mother shrieked at them to come home. Danny and Michael lived next door to them. Danny was a lot older and didn’t have much to do with us little kids. Michael was older too, but not by so much that he didn’t come around sometimes. He was cool, and we all looked up to him.

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Walking and Big-Wheeling it up Rabbit Hill, which was freshly slurry sealed: Me, Jimmy, and Sally. Summer 1972.

Darin, Craig, and Dawn lived just up the hill. Darin was about my age and liked to sing slightly naughty rhymes. (“In 1944 / My uncle went to the war / He stepped on the gas / And blew off his ass / In 1944!”) Tammy, Mike, and Dawn lived across the street and a few doors up. Tammy liked to be in charge. So did I, and so we didn’t get along. I regretted it in high school because she turned out to be traffic-stopping gorgeous. Mike and my brother were both four years old when his family moved in. Something clicked between them and they are still best friends more than 40 years later.

Christy lived a few doors down, right next to the Secret Sidewalk, a concrete shortcut through the neighborhood. She organized endless games of Red Rover. Next door were willowy, honey-haired Shannon and her younger sister, Rachel. Skinny, anxious Eric was next door. Once I shut Eric’s family’s garage door on my brother’s hand, shredding the skin to the bone. Between Eric’s house and ours lived Angie, Colleen, and Muffy. Colleen liked to eat dirt with a spoon, but I think she did it just to get a rise out of the rest of us. Ornery Jay lived in the house behind us, which we accessed through a hole in the bushes. He got on my last nerve one day when we were playing ball and so I clobbered him with my plastic Wiffle bat. My dad made me apologize in front of his parents, but Jay didn’t get out of line around me again.

With so many children around, there was almost always something to do and someone to play with. Our yard was popular, especially in the summer. Mom would set up the Slip ‘n Slide and half the neighborhood’s kids would come over. She made gallons of Kool-Aid and popped gobs of popcorn for us all. We also had a lot of old Army gear and some plastic M16 rifles, and we’d play war across several neighbors’ back yards. But our default activity was riding our Big Wheels up and down the hill over and over. The noise used to get to my dad, and he’d take us all out to Dairy Queen for ice cream cones just to have a little quiet.

The adults often gathered to socialize. Robyn’s dad often hosted, as he had built a large family room and bar onto the back of his house. I remember lying in my bed and hearing his big stereo thumping late into the night. Michael’s mom and my mom became best friends. We used to all pile into her big ’68 Chevy and run up to Kroger. My parents grew close to Kellie’s parents, and our families spent lots of time together even after they moved off the Hill. My parents and Kellie’s played Canasta most Saturday nights for 48 years, until my parents retired and moved to Indianapolis.

All was not idyll on Rabbit Hill. I understand that there were factions in the neighborhood, drawn mostly along Catholic and Protestant lines; the two sides barely spoke. The parties sometimes got a little out of hand — for example, there’s a famous story of several of the men injuring themselves as they made a drunken ride down the hill on their kids’ Big Wheels. (My parents, who were extremely straight laced, always left the moment any party looked like it might get raucous.) Alcohol abuse led to marital problems for some couples; there were a few divorces. And a woman at the top of the street made dates with truckers on an illegally boosted CB radio. You could hear her loud and clear if you tuned your TV to channel 3. Her neglected kids ran around in filthy clothes; the youngest was so ignored that he was eight years old before he could speak coherently.

We left in 1976 for a larger home in a quieter neighborhood. We didn’t see our old friends except around school, and in time we drifted apart from most of them. We heard that Robyn and Sally’s parents divorced, and later that their father was found dead unexpectedly in his home, and that much later their mother passed after a long illness. We were saddened by all of this news, but didn’t know how to reach out. Then Michael’s mother died after a long fight with cancer. My mother had remained close to her right up to the end, and we all went to the funeral. Her death was hard on my mother, but of course it was harder on Michael and Danny and their dad. And then bit by bit many of the Rabbit Hill families moved away, sometimes propelled by divorce, sometimes in search of more room for a growing family, and sometimes because fortunes afforded better.

Facebook has reconnected me to several of my old Rabbit Hill friends, including Robyn, Sally, Shannon, Sherrie, Denise, and Michael. It’s been fun catching up.

Robyn’s dad took endless Super 8 home movies, which she had converted to digital files. A few Christmases ago, she mailed me a wonderful DVD full of those movies. When my parents and my brother came for the holiday, we watched together in wonder over how much life was lived in that little spray of houses. It’s hard to imagine any neighborhood could have been more fun for young children than Rabbit Hill.


Summers on Rabbit Hill were the best. Read that story.

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Photography

Autumn strolls through my neighborhood

Velvia is born for sunny days. Cloudy days, meh. Or so I found out when I strolled through my neighborhood one overcast afternoon with camera in hand. But this is the only photo I got that shows how the reds, yellows, and oranges frosted the green trees here as autumn began. So you get cloudy-day shots.

Neighborhood trees

A canopy of trees covers my little neighborood’s banal little houses. My neighbors and I all have our work cut out for us each autumn when the leaves fall. I spend half the day five or six weekends in a row driving around on my tractor sucking up leaves.

Neighbor's house under the yellow canopy

This is one of the better looking homes, just a few doors down from mine. Even though these houses aren’t anything special, I’m happy in mine and am glad to live here.

Neighbor's house

I did get one useful shot of the colorful leaves on a sunny-day stroll through my neighborhood.

Looking up

This really was a remarkable Indiana autumn: wildly colorful, mostly sunny, dry, and warm. I wish they were all this way.

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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.

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