Reine Duell Bethany - Author and Illustrator
My Blog

Death of My Childhood Neighborhood

Reine’s 6.1.15 Visit to Dayton
I drove through Dayton on my way back to Yellow Springs from seeing the terrific, marvelously produced and performed program of Ballet Chicago at the Harris Theater on May 30.
     What I saw in my old neighborhood showed me the combination of uncaring on the part of city authorities for their own city's health, and the opportunism of underground-economy builders like drug sellers and gangs. My area had been allowed to deteriorate into a degraded version of human habitation -- and I believe that the Dayton View Hustlers and its offshoot, the Hooskals, want it to continue to be exactly this degraded, for misery loves company and the miserable have a place to go there, hide, and drown themselves.
     I went first to Dayton View. I drove along Grand Avenue. I negotiated many speed bumps, both the decorative type at intersections with brick crosswalks bordered by scalloped cement rows that will wreck a car’s suspension if driven over too fast, and the undecorative lumps of blacktop that appear randomly between intersections, signaled by yellow stripes painted on the lumps. No speed bumps existed when we first moved into the neighborhood in 1959; those started to appear in the late 1970s.
     The Dayton View homes were built by individuals, not by developers. They were lovingly designed to be roomy, attractively configured, and practical to maintain with big yards for children, both front and back. The houses are all set back at least thirty feet from the street. I remember the challenge of forcing a lawn mower – not a power mower – all around our back yard and up and down the hills of our front yard, making the lawn once again a pleasant sward of green. The houses are two and three stories high. They have gables or cupolas. Some of front porches along the length of the front of the house, but most have small front porches with archways over them, like 651 Oxford Avenue. Our house also had side porches that were enclosed to be sunrooms by the time we Duells moved there.
     The neighborhood was changing even as we moved in. The family next door, the Ezekiels, whose children were our ages, moved away shortly after we moved in. It seemed as though only older white people stayed in their houses, until, like Mrs. Mossroe two doors down, they died. Then lower-income white people moved in. These new inhabitants did not maintain the properties like Dad and Mother maintained 651 Oxford Ave. We helped Dad mow and trip; we washed the many windows in the house, and cleaned house often; Dad had the house painted periodically (in fact, Charlie and I painted it one year, maybe 1979-ish), and Dad paid close attention to the roof and the gutters.
     Other families who were moving in did not do these things. They did not seem to care. It was okay if their kids looked very dirty. I remember a friend who moved into a house on Lexington Avenue chatting away in front of Ulrich’s Drug Store, where we bought candy and pop and comic books. Poochie the neighborhood dog was sniffing at the girl’s feet. He cocked his leg and peed on her. The pee ran down her bare, tanned leg, across her strong bare foot, and puddle on the cement. Disbelieving, I told her, “Poochie just peed on your leg.” My own reaction would have been, “Eeew!” and I would have run back home to wash my leg with the garden hose. But my friend, who (like me) was about 11 years old, just laughed carelessly and said, “Oh. I thought it was getting’ a little warm down there.”
     Later, the lower-income white people were replaced by black people. I remember respectable, clean young black children trotting along past the house on their way to Jefferson Elementary school, and I enjoyed trotting along and chatting with them. But by about 1966, maybe a little bit later, an ominous change took place. More and more often, the black kids at the school seemed prone to misbehavior. Most were still intent on education as much as any white child, but a larger and larger proportion of difficult kids appeared. By 1971, I remember staring in puzzlement at cars that would stop in the middle of the street while the drivers conversed, unconcerned that they were blocking the traffic in both directions, and moving on only when their conversation had concluded.
     Yesterday (June 1, 2015), I drove through the neighborhood with increasing consternation. At least 50 percent of the stately homes were either boarded up or left with vacant, gaping windows, their roofs in the process of collapse. Lawn after lawn was covered with hip-high grass. Untrimmed hedges and shrubs spilled over onto sidewalks.
     From Grand Avenue, I turned right and went up Rosedale Drive. Ulrich’s looked as though it had been long closed, I think, though now I realize I’m not sure – anyway, instead of the busy cheerful little store of my child, I have a dark, huddled, filthy impression. I drove past our house, turned right at the next block (Kumler Avenue), proceeded to Catalpa Drive, and then right onto Oxford Avenue. I parked in front of our house and got out of the car. The little store building across the street had deteriorated badly. When I was growing up, it was a bright Laundromat where my siblings and I did countless loads. After we left, it became a deli run by Palestinians with whom Dad and Mother had a cheery relationship. Now, if it was open at all, its owners had an interest in making it look crouched and secretive and grungy. A slender black man leaned against its front wall. The house next door – was it even there? Or just miserably overgrown?
     Someone obviously inhabited our house. On the now-majestic trunks of the great maple trees in our front yard, the inhabitants had posted NO TRESPASSING signs. One of the signs also said, “No Hunting or Fishing,” so I suppose it had been stolen from some other property. A third NO TRESPASSING sign made the front door look grim instead of welcoming.
     I looked at the silver maple planted on our tree lawn when I was in my early trees. It is now a matriarch, lovely in the midst of the blight. I then directed my eyes up the hill of our – no longer our – front lawn to the fence that always separated the front from the back yard. When we lived there, the shrubs planted along it didn’t prevent the eye from looking into the backyard, but now a morass of vines and weeds guarded the backyard from view. All the shrubs planted decoratively along the perimeter of the house had been permitted to grow uncontrolled, evidently for some years. Their long woody branches extended far beyond their bed over the lawn. Someone had mowed the lawn recently.
     More hedges had been planted long the stone front steps that descended from our front walk to the sidewalk. They too had been intentionally permitted to meander into overgrowth, though trimmed back from the steps themselves. The cluster of shrubs on the corner showed the same ferocious, triumphant overgrowth. I turned and walked along the Rosedale Avenue side. The mower of the lawn had missed a couple of streaks. The piny shrubs continuing along the house perimeter now touched each other, clutched each other like fighting dogs posted as sentinels. Dingy white cloths had been tacked on the inside of the sunroom windows, obscuring its interior in a forcefully  ugly way, unlike the peasant blinds that were there in my childhood, and which I periodically had helped to clean.
     The pretty archway Mother had gotten built over the side porch remained, but like the rest of the house, its wood showed through peels and chips. In the side yard, among the shaggy shrubs, the linden tree Dad and Mother had planted in the 1970s now towered far above the house, unchecked, its branches straggling over the family room roof.
     Walking farther to the driveway and the alley, the lilac bush I had loved and the other bushes straggled, their overly woody stems seeming to crackle behind the leaves. I walked into the alley to the back fence, noting the degradation of the house across the alleyway, the shameless trashiness behind the inhabited homes. Peering through the back fence was made impossible by the overgrowth. The only redeeming moment was discovering a large tangle of honeysuckle reaching toward me through the back fence, as if to say, “You always did love me and see! I’m still here to greet you!” I kissed its blossoms with my nose and discovered once more that nowhere else have I encountered honeysuckle with such delicate yet prominent fragrance, nor such large blossoms, each at least two inches from pistils to the bottom of the blossom. I broke off a five-inch sprig and walked back to the car, inhaling the perfume at every step.
     The man outside the devastated little store across the street was still there. He had begun to hum. I quickly left.
     My drive through downtown Dayton showed strong efforts to rebuild buildings like the Victory Theater, which is now quite beautiful; I don’t know if the Dayton Ballet still exists on hits third floor because I didn’t try to stop and get out. I turned on First Street and drove the two blocks to Memorial Hall. Even at this short distance from Main Street, some buildings looked barren and none of them well cared for, not even Memorial Hall, whose grandeur is definitely former. Determined to see the library, I turned down St. Clair. The library entrance, once so lovely with its pink stone and its golden engraving or lines from Langston Hughes and big doors facing Third Street, now has an unpoetic entrance on St. Clair. I parked and went in, noting that a large truck was pulled up at the back as if delivering goods, and the little park behind seemed only partially mown.
     Strolling through the much-changed interior, I noted shelf after shelf that was empty. I visited the children’s room upstairs – I don’t like the low, open shelves that have replaced the densely packed gondolas of my childhood, but there you have it. On both levels are tables with flat-screen computers, which obviously did not exist in my day. On the second level, in the hallway beyond the auditorium, I saw signs pointing to “Teaching Center” and “Learning Center.”
    Downstairs again, I asked a lady at the information desk why the shelves were empty, after explaining that I was returning for a visit. She told me that the library had bought the tall Howard building a couple of blocks down St. Clair, which once had contained a busy music store. The shelves were empty because the whole library is moving to the Howard building for about a year while the original library building is renovated to have the electrical infrastructure necessary to accommodate computers. Then it will return. In addition, the flat, construction-like area I had noted beyond the far windows on the ground floor was to become an extension onto the building plus a dedicated parking lot for the library.
     Heartened, I left and returned to Yellow Springs. Mother listened with interest to my recounting of the journey while I filled a glass with water and put my wilting sprig of honeysuckle into it. The sprig brightened. It is now opening a series of blossoms at the end of the stalk and rewarding Mother and me with its fragrance.

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