A Neighboorhood, Then and Now

An old-fashioned letter inspires our writer to ask what has kept her suburban neighborhood strong since it was built 50 years ago and why, despite its challenges, she believes it will stay strong for 50 more.
Dear Afi-Odelia:

I am a 55-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Canada. I saw your article on interviewing your grandmother this morning and it was right on target with my own thoughts of the past few years•

The real reason I'm writing is that all of my childhood memories and wellsprings of deep feeling are tied up in a house • in South Euclid • I was in Cleveland several times over the past ten years • and every time I would park out in front of that house. Once or twice I rang the bell, but no one ever answered. Probably better that way •

But the connection is so strong for me that I Googled you and found your Web site with your picture on it. This may sound strange to you but you look kind of like me.

Well, that's all. I never write letters like this. But I just wanted to say hello — who knows, maybe you know the house I'm talking about. All my memories are in the late '50s and through the '60s, lovely years of peace and quiet on Wrenford Road.

Wishing you the same.


Getting a letter is rare these days, perhaps because we write for the moment, not for generations. But Fern had sent me a letter — even though it was delivered by e-mail. The emotion behind her words evoked a time when folks committed their thoughts to fine stationery. Her words made me recall the thrill of opening an envelope and rubbing a sheet of heavy writing paper between my fingers. I even became wistful for the task of deciphering handwriting.

She'd responded to an article I'd written about digitizing an interview with my 92-year-old grandmother. The process, like Fern's e-mail, straddled the gap between then and now. The interview was on tape, and I was converting it to an MP3. The article appeared in an online magazine, not in print.

Through our computers, Fern and I had recaptured pieces of our pasts.

I know her old home because I pass it daily: I'm only six blocks away on Bexley Boulevard. The house is white with white awnings. The lawn is the shade of green that comes from regular weekends spent applying fertilizer and weed killer. It's not much different from other houses on the block.

I wouldn't have even noticed it, except for Fern's letter.

After I read it, I got up from the computer and went downstairs. I sat in my living room and gazed out the big picture window for a while. I looked at my street, trying to see what about it would have moved Fern to write once she found me.

My house was built in 1954, a boom time for many suburbs, including South Euclid. The town became a destination for Jewish and Italian families. The GI Bill put homeownership within the grasp of a generation, so they left the cities, flowing onto streets like mine.

There's not much architectural variation around here, just a bungalow and a driveway, one after the other. On one, the entrance faces the street. On the next, the entrance faces sideways, toward the neighboring house. Awnings provide the only color. Malvina Reynolds could have been talking about Bexley Boulevard when she bemoaned the "little boxes made of ticky tacky ... little boxes all the same."

This neighborhood is a relic.

My brother confirmed that opinion when he visited from Tennessee this summer. He stood in my front lawn and looked at the houses neatly lining the street. On that day, Cleveland's fickle weather was behaving itself. The sky was as bold and blue as a robin's egg. The wispy clouds looked like ribbons in a little girl's hair.

Everyone was out. The neighbors were filling the flower beds with impatiens and begonias or spreading mulch. The teenage girls were strolling toward the park, surreptitiously looking for boys. The cheers from a softball game floated over the fence and hovered over my yard.

My brother walked to the tree lawn, turned east, then west, then walked back to my side door.

"This looks like Leave It to Beaver," he said.

He wasn't being sarcastic. He was being complimentary. He wasn't talking about the homogeneity; he was talking about the feeling that this neighborhood had been here for 50 years and would be here 50 or 60 more. That longevity blended with the languid vitality of a summer weekend to create a scene made for black-and-white sitcoms.

Of course, a lot has changed since Fern's lovely years of peace and quiet on Wrenford Road.

I've seen two of the original residents die, while others moved to more manageable apartments. When I arrived in 1995, I was the only black person on my part of the block. Now, three of my neighbors are black, and I often see groups of African-American children walking home from school.

The shift has some residents — themselves black — complaining that the neighborhood has "gone down." Of course, that's long been a code phrase for newcomers who aren't the same color or class as the established residents.

To me, the challenge doesn't have to do with race or class — it's about the town's financial health. Still, I understand my neighbors' fears. Cleveland is an area made up of ethnic and racial enclaves, and many of those divides still haven't been bridged.

But some good may come out of my neighbors' reactions to change. Some of the streets have formed block clubs because, so they say, crime is becoming a problem. Others go door to door, introducing themselves and handing out invitations to block meetings in the park. It's a way, a lady once told me, for us to get to know one another. They may be acting out of fear, but they're still building a community.

In his book The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans described the way a suburban development changed from long blocks of nearly identical houses to a complex network of friends and cliques, of organizations and alliances. One observation stayed on my mind.

"The residents had at first associated almost exclusively with their neighbors, but ... some had sought more compatible people and activities outside the block ... and had set in motion the founding of community-wide groups," Gans wrote back in 1967.

According to Gans, a neighborhood was a block of residences. But my neighborhood stretches from Mayfield Road on the north to Cedar Road on the south, from Warrensville Center Road on the east to Belvoir Boulevard on the west. I define my neighborhood not by the proximity, but by the people I know who live within walking distance. As friends moved in, my conception of my neighborhood expanded. And as I met more people, I became part of something more: the community. Obviously, a community transcends a neighborhood, but the character of a neighborhood determines the character of the community. In mine, the fact that families still walk home from the swimming pool in the park — amenities that lured hundreds of thousands to Levittown and developments like it — sends a message: This is a safe place; this is a family place; this is an enduring place.

That doesn't mean the future is assured. "Elmwood," an urban planner who posts to SkyscraperCity.com, calls South Euclid "a low-profile, mid-century suburb on the edge."

"South Euclid is emerging as a hotspot for foreclosures; the number is increasing and there's a growing inventory of vacant houses," he wrote in January 2007. "While real estate prices are rising outside the city line, they've flat-lined in South Euclid."

When Elmwood listed my town's strengths — it has good schools and good public services and it seems to be handling integration well, without much white flight — my thoughts returned to Fern.

She lived in the neighborhood when times were flush, and her memories reflect that optimism and prosperity.

I'm here as the community peers into an uncertain future. I understand that anxiety, of course. But I also see things I didn't see until Fern's letter opened my eyes: the tranquility of a Sunday afternoon, when young parents push strollers that look like cars while toddlers play at steering and share the sidewalks with couples walking hand in hand, getting a little exercise in the cooling day.

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