When I was 9, we moved to a suburb after living for most of my life close to downtown. There was a multi-tenant house before the apartment but I don’t remember it that much. What few memories I do have from my youngest years are in the apartment on the bus route that took my mom to work every day.
The neighborhood we moved to was on the edge of another neighborhood so we straddled the divide between “the good zip code” and “the so-so zip code”. We lived in a good area frankly, and most of the houses and shops were from the post-WWII building boom in that area. It was the first time we had a yard and there were trees and plants everywhere. No weeping willows though, which had been the only tree in the tiny dirt backyard of the apartment we lived in before. My first walk through the neighborhood had me feeling like we had moved to a magical place.
I can remember stopping under a tree and becoming dazzled by the way the sunlight filtered through the leaves. The feeling I had that day wasn’t so much that I was home but that I was finally discovering something meant for only me. The following year, I recreated that walk, hoping to find the magical quality that had so enchanted me that first time. It wasn’t there.
It took me a while to find the flow of that neighborhood. It was quiet until the kids came out like you expect a suburb to be but it felt tired and cranky for all of the childlike adventures the neighborhood kids went on. It was like it had been put through its paces for so long that it needed a rest. And that’s the truth; the neighborhood was filled with blue collar workers who has “paid the dues” to buy houses away from the busy city center. Nowadays, it is resting as all the people who snapped up homes there say goodbye to their children and grow older, quieter, and more housebound.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
My original forays into local cultus had me focused on local landforms. The idea felt a bit like all of the mountains and rivers and parks and fields needed attention; they needed some form of homage or tribute paid to them. The wildlife of these places, too, needed attention and affection in some way. The world in which I inhabited, an urban hellhole with animals that hardly made an appearance day or night, required no love, no attention, no tribute. It existed merely as a place to live for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t ever live close to a rural, or more suburban, flow.
Years have gone by and while I had started and stopped attempts to get in touch with my city, to pay it homage in some form, it never worked out. I had a bad attitude about it. I was trying to force things to fit in while being disgusted with my urban home. Neither of those, being disgusted or forcing things, was ever going to make it work. It was never going to happen if I didn’t let the process evolve naturally. And frankly, it wasn’t until the last year or so that it really began to develop.
I think the idea began when I really started noticing how many bunnies called my yard home. Or, it could have been the night a skunk silently waddled through my yard while my heart leapt into my throat in fear of being sprayed. I had never actually seen a skunk that wasn’t dead before then. But it may have begun when I started taking daily walks along the river that sometimes included walks in the city instead and I noticed so many little details of the yards, the houses, and little things that spoke to the history of the neighborhood I lived in.
I came to be fascinated about what happened before I even came into existence and would spend hours reading and downloading historical tidbits from bloggers, webpages, and city funded surveys. With each new thing I learned, an appreciation for the city I had called home for most of my life developed into a sort of childlike wonder at all the things that had come before to form what I see everyday all around me. It was a trip.
The more that I learned, the more I came to realize that to leave out the neighborhood in my local cultus forays wasn’t a good idea. Whether I liked it or not, I lived there and to think that ignoring its existence for some imagined “grass is greener” ideal was faulty and rude. I began to focus more and more on my neighborhood and all the ones that had come before, trying to piece together what my intuition was telling me.
The spirit of these neighborhoods may have changed dramatically through the years, but they were still there in some form. And some of them wanted the attention that I had been paying to other things. They wanted just as much to feel that breath of life blown back into them that I had been giving to others.
When I realized this, I mused and researched the idea of paying homage or tribute to your neighborhood. It didn’t seem particularly common from what I found. It was as if everyone wanted to ignore their home setting for something else. Or maybe those who had been pulled in this direction were silent on the topic, uncertain on how to speak of it. In either case, I began trying to figure out how to make this work especially in an urban setting.
The first and most important piece I found was that research was the key. In many cities, we live in areas that have been around a far bit longer than we have been alive. Researching the areas that I felt most connected to, or the area that I lived in, gave me a sort of general feeling and idea about what the neighborhoods had originally been created for. While that purpose is no longer the case for any of the neighborhoods in my city, it’s a good starting point. To know a thing is to know its history.
The second piece was to begin searching out specific areas mentioned in the research. Those pieces of the neighborhood may still exist, or they may have been torn down. But those areas were central, once, to its existence and it may still play some large part to the overall spirit of the neighborhood. I found that that is the case for only one of the neighborhoods (ish) that I lived in over the years; the rest had changed and morphed into whatever the city needed after their primary focus had been taken away.
The third was to focus on the plant and animal life that made the neighborhood home. As I mentioned above, most wildlife in the area that I had been living in hid away from human eyes. We had encroached so heavily into their territory that even many birds tended to stay away from the urban sprawl. But if you look hard enough, you’ll begin to find their habitation all around you. You just have to know what to look for.
And finally, when I felt ready, I began to explore the sense I was getting from the spirit of the neighborhood. I would close my eyes at random times of the day, take a deep breath (sometimes with a bit of smog mixed in), and try to connect with the feeling of the place around me.
I’ve done this twice now since I began realizing that I was doing myself, and my home, a disservice by ignoring it: once in a truly urban setting and again in a suburban setting. It’s worked out well so far.
The Village Within the City
After moving back up north, we found ourselves a tiny-ass apartment at the end of a quiet city street and the end of the main street through the neighborhood. It was literally on the very edge of the city; our yard was the last one in the city and the sign proclaiming entrance to the city next door was on the edge of the property. Across the river was another city, easily accessible from the 75 year old bridge that was the easiest way in and out. It was a nexus of sorts, simultaneously quiet and overlooked as well as busy and noisy.
The neighborhood proclaimed itself a village, which was technically true. It was one of the last neighborhoods to be truly settled in the city and was a village unto itself until the industrial boom of the early 1900s that was its claim to fame. A large river separated the village from the city across from it and it was on that river, towards the edge of the village, that the mills and factories were built with tenement buildings for the workers. The main street was picturesque with trees and sidewalks. The railroad had a depot in front of the mill and factory area along the river. Another railroad, still functioning, cuts the edge of the village off from the city-next-door.
The houses that line the streets are a hodgepodge. There were three-deckers for apartments, bungalows and ranches, multi-unit buildings, American foursquares, and the like. Every available space in the village had been taken up for some urban use, either commercial or residential. Victorians and Queen Annes made up smaller sections of busier roads, everyone with a postage stamp sized yard to call their own. Trees decorated the city sidewalks and offered shade for those who needed it.
For all the beauty of the river, the planning board didn’t give much thought to parks or conservation. Three parks call the village home. One is difficult to get to, another has a water feature and is used by many, and the final largest park was in talks to be sold off for a parking lot years back. The largest park is the only local home of a decent basketball court and the parking lot lies full for hours at night and on the weekends during good weather, yet another reason the city thought about selling it off since the majority of the population are Hispanic, black, and poor. The only conservation taking place are the hilly spaces on the outskirts where building more plants or mobile home parks are nearly impossible. There is nowhere for preteens and teenagers to really go to hang out.
The village lost its image after the mills and factories closed. It had a face to present to the world. It was a good face: the face of hard workers (men, women, and children) happily working in the mills for pennies on the dollar. When the factories and mills along the river dried up and closed down, the buildings were shuttered and the tenements were raised to make room for parking or commercial needs. A large swatch of cracked blacktop sits where pictures were once taken to document the child workers in the mills.
Two major businesses still call the village home, though on the very edge of the village, and one of them pollutes the air or the river with their runoff. The smoke stacks puff heavily into the morning sky, and either blanket the mobile home park or the part of the village that I once called home with chemicals. No one had raised an alarm against this business; they are after all interconnected with very big government names and who cares, really? The village was built on the idea of the factory and the mill: isn’t it grand that a single token of that heyday still stands? And besides, who cares about the poor?
Once when I was talking with an old-timer about the area, he told me a little anecdote that encapsulates this point:
“I can’t believe they built the elementary school there. There were better places to put it,” he said to me.
“Why do you say that?” I had asked, not knowing a lick of history about the area at the time. It had never interested me before.
“Well, one of the old factories turned uranium rods into slugs. And it was down the street from where the elementary school is now. You know it; the place that’s fenced off looks like it should be a parking lot? That was the dump. The solar farm is where the factory was and they dumped the uranium there. They say it’s ‘remediated’ now, but how can anyone think a school within a mile of that place is a good idea?”
I drove by that place every day on my way to or from work.
The village never rebranded itself. It didn’t seem to want to. Walking down the streets early in the morning or late at night, a desire for an identity seemed fleeting. It was as if it had had its heyday and couldn’t be bothered to come up with a new image, a new face. The councils have tried rebranding and marketing the busy little village as more than a pass-through for people on their way to work in the morning or people on their way home at night, but nothing has truly stuck.
The village often felt like it had been forgotten. As if it had once served a valuable, capitalist ideal and had never recovered from that ideal later. It was a mecca for travel but not for anyone looking to stay for long. People who drive by perhaps look at the older store fronts with picturesque windows and brightly painted signs, hoping to entice people to stay for a bit and shop. But the store front windows are mostly dusty and unused, a reminder that what had once been important isn’t any longer.
The overall feeling of this little village with a vast mix of people is tired. It is a place to go home to but little else. It only bustles on the weekends for all the people driving to somewhere else. The village often seemed to me like it had had enough. Not unlike that first neighborhood that I mentioned above, it was done with it all. Only instead of cranky, the village felt more resigned than anything else. It was as if it had seen it all and nothing could surprise it anymore.
As the village seemed to not want to interact, I respected its wishes. There were places where a hint, a whisper of a desire called to me and I paid these tiny little spaces homage with little offerings of food or pictures. These tiny little bastions of want weren’t common and on the by and large, I did my best to leave the sad, little village alone. It wanted to be left behind and progress refused to allow its wants. So the best I could do was to walk the sidewalks and wonder what things had once been like a hundred years before and whisper that I could understand how it felt.
The Bedroom Community
As some readers may remember, my husband and I finally bought a house last summer. The area we moved to is filled with an historical pretension it doesn’t have. There are only about half a dozen houses that date to between the 1750s-1850s, but most of the houses built here are trying desperately to hearken back to ye olde days.
There are a lot of houses built during the 1900s revival era: Georgian colonials, Cape Cods, Dutch colonials, and New England colonials. Some people may like to think their homes are older, but none of them were in fact built then since our little bedroom community was originally wild forest before it was turned into pastoral grazing land for the town next door. And this isn’t to say that we don’t have the standard ranch, split level, bungalows, raised ranch, or A-frames in the neighborhood because we do. However they’re more like beacons amid the historical throwback attempts of the other homes on the block.
My town was incorporated only 126 years ago, but people had moved here only starting in the mid-1700s. Most of those original houses were lost and there’s only a single one that claims to be from then. The rest of the handful of older houses are from the 1800s and every single one registered with the historical society are within walking distance of where I currently live.
This place is a bedroom community for the metro area beside it. And as I stated above, it has staked a claim on a history that was not properly recorded and so, therefore, is most likely inaccurate in many respects. But that doesn’t stop my neighbors from putting cute little decorative carriage house hardware on their garages and front doors, or the pristine green of their perfectly manicured front yards.
After the quarries dried up in the early 1900s, the city rebranded itself as a bedroom community for the metro area. It also focused heavily on conservation efforts across town, many such efforts centering on one of the hundreds of quarries that once called this place home.
Many houses in my areas have been built to conserve as much nature as possible with thick copses of trees and wildlife strategically found up and down the city streets. I have a bog and a few hundred feet of wooded area between me and the houses behind us although strengthening wind storms due to climate change have downed many of the trees back there. There are 470 acres currently devoted to conservation areas and they attract many hikers.
They built one of those rail-trails a few years back across a good portion of the town. The original train depot still exists and they’re working to conserve its legacy as the stopping point for visitors and the loading point for the stones mined from the quarries to places unknown. Nowadays it’s used so often by locals and non that I prefer to stay away from it. There’s too much going on over there.
The wildlife is everywhere, making itself felt in the hoards of geese and ducks that call the baseball fields by the tiny man-made lakes home. The birds and bees and rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks all scramble through the yards and streets on their way to finding the next delicious morsel for sustenance. The deer keep to the outskirts of town, but they’re easily found if you look hard enough. They claim there are bobcats around here, but I couldn’t say for sure. I can only assume that there may be.
The overall feeling of this community is hopeful. They saw the writing on the wall when the quarries began to close down and realized that they needed to do something to keep their home functional. They hadn’t seen it all having only had its incorporation legal for twenty years, if that, by the time the quarries began to close and knew that they had to do something to keep their home alive.
As I walk through the twilight hours down to the cemetery nearby or down the hills towards the center, the feelings that come to me are peaceful. I am still a bit in awe of all of the beauty around us with the trees and shrubs and flowers coming into bloom now. But I have always felt relaxed and at peace here (my grandparents lived here when I was a kid so we visited a bit) and that feeling has never diminished.
I know this has been a long entry and for anyone who has continued to read to this point, thank you for sticking it out.
I wanted to convey the point that while the idea of living in either an urban or suburban settlement may preclude the idea that we can find local cultus there this isn’t necessarily true. It may require more time, focusing on the research of the history of your home or just spending time outdoors with eyes closed to catch the sense of the world around you, but it is possible. And I think, on the by and large, we may be doing our homes and ourselves a disservice by not finding that spirit, that sense, that feeling of home and giving it the attention that it truly deserves.
This is fraught with issues for a variety of reasons (and I won’t get into them all). I can’t tell you how many times I left a little offering out on the crossroads beside my home in the village with semi-trailer drivers staring at me from their temporary red-light home while I started back, nonplussed. Or the amount of looks I get from old-timers in the bedroom community as I stop for a moment to soak up the way the sunlight hits the blooming flowers in their yards in awe and wonder.
But it helps to feel that connection with your home, to build upon its connection with you so that you can, in turn, build upon it as a form of foundation to branch out into other local cultus arenas.