Friday, February 13, 2009

The View from There

My house is a ranch, or rambler, on a street filled with other ranch, Colonial, and Cape-style houses, all built by the Levitt Corporation in the late 1960s. The neighborhood is very leafy now; filled with mature trees and shrubs, but I've met a few of the now-elderly original owners of the houses here, and they remember when the trees were saplings and the neighborhood suffered for want of shade. Shade is no longer in short supply here. Sidewalks are in short supply; more on that in a minute.

One of my favorite things about this neighborhood is the front yards. They're long, and the lack of sidewalk lengthens them further, so my house is set back from the street by a good distance. I often tell people about how different this is from my childhood home in Philadelphia. It was a tiny rowhouse, on a tiny treeless street, in a neighborhood located near the canal where fabric mills once thrived. These houses were built around the turn of the last century for the millworkers, and "utilitarian" was the guiding principle in their construction. Our house had two stories. On the first floor, there was a living room, a dining room where the steps to the second floor were located, and a kitchen. The second floor contained three small bedrooms and one bathroom. That was it, other than a musty dungeon-like basement. The facade was brick, and there was a "stoop" of three concrete stairs which led to the front door. Once you opened the front door, you were in our living room. No foyer, no entry hall, no separation at all, really, other than the front door, between your living room and the street. This didn't seem strange; everyone else I knew lived in similar houses. When I was 14 or so, we moved up the hill a bit, to the house my mother still lives in. These were much better houses, with three stories, a front porch, and a small patch of grass out front. Still a rowhouse, but the 8 steps up and the porch provide a bit of a barrier between your home and the street.

We spent a lot of time roaming our neighborhood when I was a child. On bikes, on foot, on skates...we were always outside, riding our bikes to a destination, or just around. We knew the neighborhood intimately, from a biker's eye view. I knew the names of everyone who lived in every house on every street in our immediate neighborhood. I knew which car belonged parked in front of which house (no family had more than one), and which houses had planters out front filled with impatiens or mums. There wasn't much variation to a casual observer; red brick rowhouses with white trim and concrete stoops. But to the kids who sat on the stoops, and played hopscotch and jacks on the sidewalks, and walked and skated and biked around those streets for hours every day, they were all different. See, this one has a red front door, and this one has curtains instead of blinds, and this one has a cracked pane in one of the front windows. We really didn't know much about the streets outside our immediate neighborhood. Once, when I was 11 or so, I was at a school friend's house. When I announced that I had to leave so I could be home by 5 as my mother had asked, her father offered to drive me home. We drove a few blocks, and he asked "ok, dear, left or right on Manayunk Avenue?"
What? I had no idea, really. That wasn't my walking route to Suzanne's house, and I had no real bearing on location other than landmarks and the familiar houses on my familiar streets. (He figured it out, anyway.)

I had forgotten how to live in and know a neighborhood like that until recently. Last summer, my son started to point out the neighborhood sights as we walked home from the pool, or around the corner to his friend's house. He knows the dogs, and the cars, and the mailboxes. He notices if something changes. This week, we had a few days' break from cold, and I stood in my driveway watching the boys ride their bikes. The lack of sidewalks and the utter lack of traffic fear on the part of my children makes it necessary for someone to watch while they're on their bikes. 7yo is eager to ride "by himself" (because, as he still frequently reminds me, he's SEVEN YEARS OLD), but as long as he continues his habit of flying down our driveway and into the street without so much as a glance left or right, that's out of the question. 4yo is still on training wheels, so I'd be out watching anyway. 7yo set off down our street, and I watched him watching his surroundings. He has the biker's eye view. He can't always remember which way we turn to get to Georgia Avenue, but he knows his own terrain. It's good to be seven years old.


Matty Boy said...

Nice piece of writing, CDP. Now, if you could give the Marxist critique on the differences between your childhood and that of your children, we will be able to grade the writing in the terms set out in the class.

Word verification: obtingla (noun) low level electrical field on a golf course, used to demarcate the out of bounds, also known as o.b.

Suze said...

I love my memories of growing up in my Philly rowhome. If I didn't bike to it or take the bus or 'el, I didn't know how to get there!

Lisa said...

I love this post. Our childhood locations were very different, but our experience was very much the same. I grew up in a small Ohio River town where we all knew each other and each other's business. We could ride bikes all over town and out into the country. And we knew where the dead squirrel was on Lincoln street, which cat belonged to which neighbor, all the dogs by name and demeanor and which dirt hill was best for jumping our bikes over when the new subdivision went in on the hill behind us.

I'm glad that your boys are getting to that point. It's a wonderful way to develop a sense of place.

pidomon said...

what a wonderful post. brought back some nice memories of my old neighborhood

Debbie said...

Neighborhoods and boys playing. What a lovely picture you have painted for us.

Weeping Sore said...

I grew up in Silver Spring, and the first home I owned as an adult was a few blocks from Georgia Ave, in Takoma Park. I can visualize your long front yard and no sidewalk. When I was in town last autumn, I drove by the place I grew up and barely recognized the house - it was so small and old.
I can also see what you mean about how kids on bikes seeing an entirely different habitat from the one we see only in passing out of our car windows.

Sauntering Soul said...

I remember those days so well. I seem to have done the opposite of you though.....I lived in a split-level house with a large yard growing up and now I live in the city with only a few steps down to the street from my porch, no foyer, no entrance and people walk right into the middle of my living room when the door is opened.

dguzman said...

Beautiful stuff, CDP. I'm always amazed by kids today who DO know the car-routes to every place; I didn't know a damned thing except
1. the route to school
2. the route to the corner/candy store
3. the route to the library

Anything else just didn't effing matter.

CDP said...

Matty--thanks, and this topic is filled with opportunities for Marxist criticism!

Suze--the el didn't come near our neighborhood, so I wasn't introduced to it until high school!

Lisa--it might have been nice to have more pastoral surroundings, but it's all the same as long as you have the freedom we had.

Pidomon--I think Baltimore and Philadelphia have a lot in common!


WS--we're just a couple of blocks from Georgia, and we can't go anywhere without crossing it!

SS--it didn't seem strange to me at all when I was growing up, and this neighborhood would have seemed like the country!

dguzman--exactly! We knew how to go where we needed to go, and that was that.

enc said...

That was touching, and brought back a lot of memories. I used shortcuts through woods and neighbors' back yards and all sorts, when I was bike-riding age. Those were different times.

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