I followed the trail my fathers finger made as he pointed through the windshield towards an old blue house. This is what we had come to see, the next stop on the tour, the house he grew up in. We were in Lima, Ohio, last winter for his high school Hall of Fame induction ceremony and he took me on a tour of our town. Yes, our town. While my father and I both grew up in Lima, the two towns that shaped us couldn’t have been more different.
Like the story of so many, by the time he was of the age to have a family, my father’s old neighborhood wasn’t the same place. The other families had moved, people had stopped maintaining their houses, the city had stopped maintaining the roads and parks and the schools were in decline. The old neighborhood just wasn’t “good enough”, so my siblings and I were raised in the suburbs. A world away, a whole five minutes down the road.
We had an amazing upbringing in the suburbs, of that I am not complaining at all. But when I reached the age of being able to have a family, I didn’t want the suburb life. I wanted my kids to have what my dad had. I knew all of his stories of growing up in the neighborhood. Walking to school every day, meeting up with buddies to play baseball at the Park every single summer afternoon. The freedom to come and go as one pleased. No one needed to catch rides from their parents. Families lived close to one another, depended on one another and spent a ton of time with one another. They had community, autonomy and pride.
I liked where I grew up, but we didn’t have community, we certainly didn’t have much autonomy, and my neighborhood didn’t even have a name, so it was hard to feel any kind of attachment- let alone a sense of pride. It was a house, on some land, a ways away from some other houses. It wasn’t a neighborhood or a town, just houses.
When I was old enough to have kids, I wanted them to experience something closer to what my dad had. Something that I had missed. I wanted them to live in the old neighborhood. Turns out, the old neighborhood is gone. Almost all the old neighborhoods are gone.
Sure, there are still 1920’s neighborhoods similar to the one he grew up in, but they aren’t the same. I think it’s safe to say that they fall into one of only three categories:
-they are poorly maintained and the school districts are struggling
(this is most often the case)
-they are perfectly maintained, the school districts are great, and they are no longer available to middle class families
– The probably exist in Vermont, but I’m convinced Vermont is just a myth at this point.
My father’s town fell into the former. “The neighborhood” was still there but it wasn’t what it used to be. Houses were dilapidated, under maintained for far too long, and some gone all together- like a gap toothed smile. Occupied house were even further apart, and occupied stores- not a chance. The sense of community has declined because of this. Crime has increased because of it. I looked at my dads old house and I couldn’t hold back my emotions, because I knew that while this was the geographic location where he grew up, this was not the place. That place was gone.
It’s gone for anyone growing up middle class. I don’t know how to articulate this any better than to say- what a bunch of bullshit. It’s messed up that a walkable school district and a free roaming neighborhood, for large swaths of the country, just isn’t possible anymore. Some small towns have escaped the ravages, and some expensive neighborhoods still offer the lifestyle, but why aren’t there MORE?
How did we go about making the best kind of neighborhood nearly obsolete? What a feat. It must be the most expensive investment in the history of the world, to destroy the types of neighborhoods that worked best for people.
Neighborhoods with walkable schools still exist, but they are hard to find today and its almost going to require some kind of trade-off. Be it very small town, a struggling school district or an expensive neighborhood, the fact is, they just aren’t available to everyone. The number of kids walking to school has dropped from around 50% to 10% in the last 50 years. Further proof that the type of neighborhood my father grew up in is quickly disappearing. How incredibly depressing that something as simple as a quality working class neighborhood, with decent schools and the ability to walk to parks, is nearly non-existent. What a colossal blunder.
A few years back, it became time to make the neighborhood decision for myself and my family. The options are tough to navigate. I wanted to have it all, a great school, a walkable neighborhood and something we could afford. Most of the best neighborhoods are located in the city proper, but the city school system is plagued with a host of problems. Like so many other large cities, this is a huge hurdle to bringing old neighborhoods back to life. I still wanted my kids to have the chance to experience an “old school” upbringing, but it wasn’t easy to find. There are a couple of municipalities that exist within the urban framework of Pittsburgh, yet have separate school systems. They are not necessarily affordable, but they are walkable, close to public transit.
That is ultimately what we chose. The least bougie part of a bougie town. I love where we live, but it never fails to depress me, that we had to move to an expensive neighborhood for my kids to experience just some of what my dad had growing up in a working class neighborhood in Lima. All this progress is depressing.