Community connections

May 2nd, 2010

What is a neighborhood?  A collection of houses with lawns? Blocks with children playing and dogs barking?

There was a time when a neighborhood had very clear physical boundaries and emotionally encompassed community, friends and family.   I think for many of us that has changed.

How well do you know who is living either side of your front door? While your facebook “friend” count hovers near 2000, who close by would you call when you’ve made too much beef stew and would welcome dinner guests or locked yourself out or just need a cup of sugar? (not being a baker I never stock sugar nor have I gone knocking on doors for it but you get the idea).

For the most part I grew up overseas. Never have I returned to a childhood home but when I visit Tulsa each month I experience the closest thing to it.  For the past seven months I have stayed in MapleRidge-Sunset Terrace, a midtown neighborhood with a woman who has become one of my dearest friends.  It feels a bit like “going home” – actually a lot like it.  In the early 90’s I lived just a few blocks away in a house Joel, Clay and I  had for ten years, a time span still roughly twice my stay in any single residence. It was the house Clay remembers best; his experience leaving it was more profound than departures I experienced. To his one, I experienced nine places called “home.”

Lying in bed one recent Sunday morning I listened to songbirds, barking dogs, passing cars and bouncing basketballs. Wrapped up in my roommate’s Super Bowl XXII terry robe, I sprinted across the lawn for the morning paper as patrons of All Souls Unitarian Church began to park along Woodward Avenue.  I took a second to feel encouraged by this sight; cheered to see a wave of moderate church goers practicing tolerance and compassion. In this part of the country politicians are more often members of  the extreme Christian Right and they are voted into office.  Inside I brewed Chicory coffee, feed my roommates cats Raffles and Violet and efficiently polished off other household tasks.  I wanted to fit in a brisk walk before brunch with my parents and son.  Such a Sunday routine hardly differed from what Joel and I did in the 90’s.

Was it different experiencing it solo?  Certainly. If anything, I was more attuned to the experience as I blended memories with the present.  I am now only a visitor, a historian of a past decade.

A block to the north I tossed newspapers in the collection bin at Channing School, where Clay attended kindergarten plus a year of preschool dedicated to twice-weekly field trips with six classmates “double-buckled” in Ann Barry’s Volvo wagon.  I looked at the low brick wall tracing the outline of the entry walkway, remembering fondly how Clay navigated it each afternoon before leaping into my arms, safely out of sight of the director who insisted he was too old to be carried.

Then as I did a week before when orienting a friend in real estate less familiar with midtown, along my brief walk I identified the past or current occupants of most houses – the red-brick bungalow that once belonged to our Sophian remodel general contractor and then the dental hygienist I’ve seen for 20 years (who also spent some time living in Indonesia as a child). The multiple car garage of a Mediterranean Villa owned by a Porsche collector and the IT consultant for Norvell-Marcum, the multi-level landscaped garden begun by a well-known landscape artist and later cultivated by Blue Dog Market owner, Paige Martin.  Around the curve at 28th and Cincinnati where we lived was the traditional style home with detached garage occupied by the principal of Clay’s Catholic middle school (which made putting wine bottles at the curb for recycling a questionable practice), the charming brown brick one-story called home by the prematurely gray supplier of plantation shutters for our first home by Holland Hall, the east-facing house of the manager of KoKo & Ellis, a Brookside children’s store that sold our Harvard Bound jams and shoebags.  Other houses I passed belonged to Dana Gilpin, the artist chosen for one of the early Festival of Trees commemorative pins, concert pianist Peter Simon, MAPCO colleague Mike Ward, the late Saks’ general manager Debbie Palazzo, granite and marble counter top supplier Carl McMahon, TV reporter Michelle Lowry, fabulous watercolor artist Laura Shafer and her husband John, the current president of the Porsche Club, Phillips freelance team member Myna Burk, chef Phillipe Garmy…

And our former house in the neighborhood?  A maintenance free place we under appreciated!  An infill project we outfitted inside to look like our condo at the Sophian Plaza, where we had lighted for only 18 months.  Not really emotionally ready to leave our two-bedroom at the Soph, we listed it for sale because a gaggle of siblings for Clay seemed possible and mortgage rates dipped to single digits for the first time in our experience.  Instead of a larger family, our house on Cincinnati gave birth to Joel’s teaching career, first in ballet, then yoga and to my company, Arts Society.  It was a place we entertained foreign visitors, family, Clay’s first girlfriends, WAFALs and many dear friends.  We launched fundraisers, held meetings, conducted school science experiments…

It was what a house should be.  It was a place where dreams where hatched, disappointments endured, accomplishments celebrated, Lego villages built, Easter eggs hidden, Christmas trees decorated, a rose bush (A Lucille Ball Rose!) planted.

A somewhat nomadic childhood made it easy to adopt the expression, “home is where you hang your hat.”  What I really believed was home was where Joel and Clay were. But did some of what made us a couple and a family get left behind when we left our house on Cincinnati?  In general, do we need to seek old-fashioned neighborhoods for families to thrive?  And what setting is best for empty nesters?  What makes a house a home, a neighborhood a community? How much of what we call home is it tied to a physical location? I don’t have the answers.  I live in two cities.  In some ways I feel connected to both, at other times I feel completely detached because I am an unmarried woman negotiating life solo.


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