James Monroe School

James Monroe School
Canon Canonet QL17 G-III
Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros

Banking off yesterday’s post, with the photo of me in my second-grade classroom, I thought I’d share this photo of the school building itself, on the south side of South Bend, Indiana. The building was built in stages, the first of which was erected in 1930 and was funded by the Studebaker family. This is the original main entrance in the 1930 part of the building.

Additions in 1946 and 1959 brought the building to its footprint at the time I attended (1972-79). A 2010 renovation and expansion added a great deal of space and relocated the main entrance.

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Film Photography, Preservation

single frame: James Monroe School


Life, Stories Told

Why I stay on Facebook even though I don’t enjoy it much

I’ve not enjoyed Facebook much for months and months. Especially since the election of our current President, the place has become so polarized and tribalized. Angry screeds and narrowminded memes. Siding up and tossing ad hominems.

It’s not fun. I keep thinking I should quit. And then something like this photograph happens.

Me in 2nd Grade

Me in second grade, 1974 or 1975

A fellow I knew in elementary school, someone with whom I’ve not spoken for nearly 40 years, shared it on my wall. It’s me at my desk in our second-grade classroom. The fellow’s mom brought cupcakes for his birthday and photographed the class. He came upon the photo his his mother’s things, made a quick mobile-phone snap of it, and posted it.

What a joy to see this photo! I’d forgotten what a mop top I was, and I had no memories of what that classroom looked like.

But what happened next was truly special. Because I’m connected on Facebook with so many of my elementary classmates, many of them commented and reminisced. And we discovered together that we all felt like our elementary school was a truly special place where we felt safe and cared for. We shared memories of our teachers, of walking to school together, of after-school snacks at each others’ homes, and even of summer fun on the playground. We experienced community in our neighborhood through our school, and we agreed that it was wonderful.

This wasn’t just sticky-sweet nostalgia. We Monroe School alums had a joyful shared experience thanks to this photograph. We compared our notes to find that we all privately felt the same way about our long-ago experience. It validated that experience, I think, for all of us.

In this way, Facebook is like an abusive relationship. It’s good just often enough that you don’t leave.

This gorgeous school building underwent a thorough renovation in 2010. See interior and exterior photos here.

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Life, Stories Told

On the corner of Erskine and Woodside, 1976-1985

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.

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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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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.


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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Eastman Double-X 5222 in the Olympus Stylus

I have a terrible habit of buying four or five rolls of a film I’d like to try, shooting one roll, and then buying four or five rolls of another film I’d like to try. I’ve repeated this pattern enough times that I have probably 50 rolls stockpiled in the fridge. So I put a moratorium on buying more film until I shoot what I have.

The last time I shot Eastman Double-X 5222 I used my Nikon F2 and a 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor lens. This movie film gave me blacks so deep I could have fallen into them, and textures so rich and realistic I expected to feel them if I touched the screen. So when I decided to shoot another roll I chose an entirely different kind of camera: my point-and-shoot Olympus Stylus. I wanted to see if the film behaved differently.

I didn’t get the same rich blacks this time, but I did get the same realistic textures.

Around the Corner

I was at church for a meeting, so I made some quick photos. Once again these images invite me to touch the screen to feel the rough brick.

West Park Christian Church

I brought the Stylus inside to shoot a couple rooms, which were set up for our day care to resume the next morning.

First Steps Day Care

I love the moodiness created by the window light and the corner shadows.

First Steps Day Care

The church is in an old city neighborhood with alleys. Ours is concrete and was probably poured 100 years ago.

Concrete Alley

On the way home I passed this run-down building, which I bet began life as a grocery store. I am impressed with how well the clouds rendered, especially since I didn’t use a yellow or orange filter.

Used Tires

I took the Stylus along on a too-brief visit to South Bend, my home town. I was there on business, but I made a few minutes for a coffee at the Chocolate Cafe downtown.

South Bend Chocolate Cafe

I miss South Bend. I’d love to run a little bookstore in the State Theater building. Too bad this shop owner thought of it first.

Idle Hours

A storm rolled in quickly as I walked a couple blocks of Michigan Street. In reading the light the Stylus misguidedly decided it needed to fire the flash, serving only to create flares off every reflective surface. If I didn’t need to explicitly turn off the flash every time I power up the Stylus, I’d shoot it a lot more often.

Michigan Street

Still, I’m not getting rid of my little Stylus anytime soon. It fits into my jeans pocket and packs a great lens. And it liked the Double-X just fine.

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