Thursday, July 31, 2008
My city neighborhood
I live in a little neighborhood at the top of northeast Reading, nestled at the foot of Mount Penn under the Pagoda.
It is bounded by City Park on one end, and the large high school five blocks away at the other end. The neighborhood is only two blocks deep: from 13th Street, to the half-street Linden, then to 14th Street, with the wooded hillside starting up just beyond 14th. Nine residential blocks, 2-by-5 minus one taken up by a high school band practice field. According to the 2000 US Census block data, there are 468 houses.
We are dominated by schools. Ripley's Believe It or Not says that 13th Street is the only place in the country where you can go from kindergarten to college on a single street: it has two elementary schools, a middle school, the high school, and Albright College down at the far end. The college even offers scholarships to students that are All-Thirteenth-Street grads. A new junior high is being built on the site of a former hospital - also on 13th Street.
Since there is no school busing within a 2-mile radius of schools in the city, most of the city's teen population walks to the high school every day - all 4400+ of them. About 65% are Hispanic, 16% black, 18% white, reflecting the city mix. 91% of the 500+ elementary school kids nearby qualify for free lunches. There is a certain amount of chaos and a hint of violence, but it is surprisingly orderly as more than 5,000 people come and go past us each school day - especially when you consider how frequently the city's adults solve their problems with drugs and guns. I cannot tell you how lucky they are to have the superb elementary school crossing guard I have watched for the past 4 years.
The little Hillside neighborhood is tucked just above that passing stream of cars and students. The typical house is about 100 years old, 3-4 bedrooms, 1 bath, and costs $45-55,000. Rented houses typically cost $600/mo plus all utilities. Oil heat is common, which has been painful this past year. Parking is tight, especially the nights before the weekly street cleaning. But there are few cars during the day, a testament to the employment pattern.
The rows of houses marching up the steep streets from 13th to 14th are squarely blue-collar and always have been. People work in factories, trades, and service jobs, or are retired from similar jobs. Probably split about evenly between tenant and owner-occupied, racially and ethnically mixed, with a bit of tension over that. 14th Street is almost suburban, with an odd little public playground, a ball field, a semi-public pool, a set of condos, and a strip of ranch houses under the wooded side of Mount Penn. Most of the vehicle traffic we get is people who live in our 2-by-5 block neighborhood, or are attending ball games. It's good for kids, who can walk to school, park, pool, pizza, and convenience store without crossing a busy street.
The houses are mostly similar. 12-15' wide brick rowhouses with 40' narrow back yards to an alley. A small front planter or square of grass, although some are just concrete. I know my own block best, of course. Many of the back yards are used daily to play, garden, hang laundry, and grill. A few are weedy and ignored, or are used only by a family dog. Lots of dogs. The turnover of tenants and owners over the past few years has seen an uptick in modest backyard improvements. Yard furniture, grills, better flower and veggie gardens. The alleys are often grass and seldom used by cars, unless someone is doing construction.
We would benefit from a neighborhood group. Work at the playground and pool is monopolized by "old" residents, mostly white home-owners, and renters are ignored. But I think both renters and owners would join a garden club, if we made it bilingual. Gardening would be a good foundation for other forms of neighborliness - a potluck, cooking and canning activities for families, car playing or movie nights. There is an annual garish display of Christmas lights at the playground, with visits to Santa, which will probably need to change, with increasing electric costs. Might be a good time to propose something less blindingly commercial.
Beyond our own little park area. We are close to the city's greenhouse building in City Park, which used to be a place to buy plants, and could again become a center of gardening education in the city. The city is planning to renovate the whole Park area, which would benefit us. We enjoy the bandshell concerts on Fridays in July.
If we end up staying here, it is likely I will start something, probably to the dismay of my DH. If only the stupid house were bigger! (And less covered in shag carpet and paneling.)