My morning commute takes me around the edges of the town where I grew up. It was a lot like growing up in Mayberry RFD. Everyone knew everyone or was somehow related. You could leave even the most valuable of things on the porch or in the yard – they’d still be there the next day. You didn’t DARE do anything to cause trouble in the next block. Your parents would know about it before you even got home.
As an adult, I’ve heard all the stories about its real-life Peyton Place melodramas, but even in my early childhood of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it still had a degree of the innocence that was present when my mom grew up there, her mother grew up there, and even her mother before her grew up there.
The place was never a haven for the ultra-rich, though there were a handful of rambling, historic homes. Today, the few that remain are not only shadows of their former selves, they’re barely homes at all. Mostly, there are vacant lots where they once stood. Even the smaller, quaint homes, many of which were immaculate when I was a kid, with lawns to match, have been reduced to boarded up shacks, or, in many cases, more overgrown vacant lots. The home that I grew up in is a few blocks off the main drag so I never see it. I’m glad.
In fairness, some of the homes still look quite nice. In fact, some look better than they ever did. But these are in the minority. Many days, I can’t bring myself to look as the bus rolls through. I occupy myself with a book or else I cat nap. It’s too depressing.
On days when I drive to meet the bus across town, I also go through an area that was once the gem of our locale. If you lived in the town where I do now, a few towns north of my childhood town, the “park district” was one of the only places to live. Its perimeter begins in what was once a thriving downtown. A downtown that, more than 20 years ago like so many other downtowns across smalltown America, succumbed to Wal-Mart and the advent of the strip mall. A downtown that looks very much like my childhood community now does. A downtown where the bus terminal, built just a few years ago on the site of what was a historic theater, is the nicest place around.
Sadly, block by block, the neighborhood around it has been disintegrating. And like a rampant virus, its reaches have expanded to blight more and more blocks.
Lately, though, as you get a few blocks from that formerly thriving little shopping district, a change seems to be in the works. Homes are being restored – and not just by those who are looking to flip them for a quick profit or use as rental property.
There are some grand homes in this neighborhood, many with historic roots, and bearing plaques that designate them as such. But in recent years, even those homes have been on the decline as many of the people who would have enforced their historic status have moved away. Mom and I talk about this a lot. It makes us sad.
Then, as the weather started changing a few months ago, I saw the beginnings of a transformation. Scaffolding going up in one block. Concrete being poured in another. Paint being applied to gingerbread on a big old Vic in the next. Dumpsters sprang up, followed by a parade of siding, roofing, and tuckpointing company trucks. Many of the older homes – and even a few of the newer ones – started getting facelifts.
Last week, I spied a moving van in the driveway of one of the older, grander, and recently updated homes. I smiled as I saw that things were being carried in, not out. (Extremely heartening in an area where nearly every edition of the local paper has at least two entire pages of foreclosure notices.)
Tonight, as I drove home from the terminal, I passed that same house. A baby toddled through the yard. A young man was watering a freshly planted flowerbed. A woman, presumably his wife, was picking up the tools they’d just used. They looked up as I passed. I smiled and waved. Somewhat quizzically, they smiled and waved back.
Welcome to the neighborhood, folks. You have no idea how glad I am to see you.