I was writing to my friend Drea last night and I got to talking about how I’m not a big fan of winter because I can’t sit outside and watch the world go by. Well, I could, but I do prefer staying where it’s warm. I’m paying for the heat, I might just as well take advantage!
In my previous Ohio life my first wife and I owned a small house on the south side of Toledo. It was in a typical lower to middle class area, nice and close to the school in a neighborhood that had been there for generations (my house was built in 1925.) One of my favorite pastimes was to sit outside on a nice summer night and simply watch the world pass by. Sometimes I’d be joined by my wife, sometimes I’d be joined by my stepdaughter, and sometimes by her and a host of her friends. But most times I could sit and ponder the world as it was.
Still, I would wave at the neighbors if I saw them and sometimes walk over and have a conversation with them about whatever was going on. One of my favorite neighbor couples were the Grohnkes, who lived a few houses down. They were an older couple, and both of them had lived in the neighborhood for decades – he was a lifer as I recall. Talking to them, I could imagine how the neighborhood was like in the forties and fifties when they were young. He worked at the old hospital that literally sat around the corner and she was the typical housewife. I could imagine her out in the backyard hanging her wash and talking to the next door neighbor or the lady back across the alley.
Back then, there were a couple small grocery stores in the neighborhood, one right on our corner. A drugstore was 4-5 blocks over. There was a small business center of a handful of commercial buildings at the closest main corner with a filling station. The largest feature in our area was the state hospital for the insane across from the old hospital. It was literally the edge of town – the city limits were at Detroit Avenue then.
I think in some ways I would have liked that time, at least as far as being neighborly goes.
But the area evolved. The hospital closed in the mid-1960’s, later becoming part of the new Medical College, then sitting abandoned for most of the time we lived in our house. Just before I moved, they renovated the old building into senior apartments, and did a nice job. Most of the land that was the insane asylum now belongs to the Medical College and some is being developed into a business park.
More importantly, the people who used to own the houses moved away. Some houses remained as owner-occupied, but a number became rentals. And as more houses became rentals, the quality of the neighborhood began to decline. Crime, once unheard of, became an occasional occurrence but one that was still too common. Garages in particular became fair game for burglaries as most were oriented toward the alley.
I moved into the area in 1991, when most people still considered it a desirable and well-kept area. I don’t want to say it’s become a slum by any means, but along with the increase in absentee landlords, the heart of the area is now slated to be ripped out. The old school which was built about the same time as my house is to be replaced by a newer building in another location. While the school will remain after its replacement is completed (originally scheduled for the summer of 2007), it’s fate is unknown. There’s talk that it should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, to wit:
“Arlington Elementary School is an excellent example of Collegiate Gothic architecture that has experienced a minimum of insensitive renovation. It is one of the few Toledo schools that has experienced neither major additions or renovations. The richness of detail and fine execution of the style define Arlington as perhaps the finest example of Collegiate Gothic executed by the…Toledo Public Schools Architecture Department…we believe on architectural merits alone, Arlington Elementary School appears to meet the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.” (Historical survey by Mannik & Smith, 2002.)
But even if it stays, who will care for it? As the neighborhood becomes less and less owner-occupied, fewer people will want to get out and meet their neighbors – why bother when the place is just a way station on the path of life? And the houses will become solely cash cows for their owners, who will likely just do the minimum of upkeep on them. They start to deteriorate and rents start to go down. That attracts a lower element of people who care even less, and the death spiral begins.
It’s happened already in one neighborhood, where Toledo’s race riots occurred. A once-proud neighborhood gone to hell because no one really cared there anymore. I want the Grohnkes to live out their few remaining years in a nice neighborhood.
So why did I move out? Well, it wasn’t a matter of necessarily disliking the old house or the neighborhood. But wife #2 and I wanted a little bit more space and we found it out in the hinterlands of Wood County. However, we didn’t find marital bliss there nor did we find as many good neighbors. They all sat on their back porches as their main communal spaces faced inward instead of outward. Instead of walking down the street to see neighbors, I generally just talked to the two I had next door on either side. Kinda sucked.
I may not sit outside on these cold winter nights, but I do say hi to my neighbors when they pass. I live in an apartment complex now, but sometime I want a place to call home, and I want a good neighborhood to live in. Each of us should do no less than be good neighbors. It’s not just a State Farm slogan, it should be a way of life.