Category Archives: Neighborhood

Book Review

I’ve often felt a bit like a pioneer, staking my claim in a transitioning neighborhood, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. Sure, I do as much as I can, but some situations – like the foreclosure next door – are beyond my control.

I was naive when I bought. No, scratch that. I was blinded by the thrill of the whole experience. I just assumed that suburban neighborhood equaled safe, especially after my time living on the South Side. Of course the neighborhood was fine. I did cursory due diligence, driving by at different times of day, and took a quick walk around the block on the blustery March day of my inspection. But I didn’t talk to the neighbors, ignored the wildcard factor of the rental next door, and just assumed that the vacant pink building across the street would continue to be innocuously vacant. Or perhaps it would hold a tea shop that hosted a knitting circle of blue haired grannies who snacked on pastries.

That’s why the emergence of the drug dealers next door was such a shock to the system. Where had I moved? And how was I supposed to get rid of them? Fuming under my breath didn’t work, and nor did the hairy eyeball. I couldn’t exactly go up to them and say, “Hello, Mr. Crack Dealer. On behalf of the Welcome Wagon, we ask that you please stop dealing. Thanks. Now, would you like to attend our neighborhood barbeque?”

Now, however, things have improved greatly (fingers crossed). Which is why I could read Judith Matloff’s Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block and sympathize, laugh and realize it could have been much much worse.

I saw a review for this book and found the premise very interesting. Judith Matloff and her husband – seasoned journlists with stints in Rwanda, Chechnya and South Africa – bought an old brownstone in dire need of a lot of work in West Harlem. It was essentially an impulse buy, so they failed to do their homework on the neighborhood – and the neighbors – and soon discovered that they had bought a crack den whose occupants were reluctant to move out. Oh, and it was caving in and structurally unsound.

My neighborhood is small potatoes compared to Judith’s, and this excellent book made me feel better in many respects. I loved this book and read it in a single Saturday. It was witty, enthralling, funny and very well-written. I hope she continues to chronicle her transitioning neighborhood.

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Frustration

When I took my second look at my house – prior to making an offer – I noticed that the extra-large house next door had a large parking area, with space for four cars. Upon further inspection, I noticed a sign designating that parking was for tenants only, and multiple entrances. I thought for a moment that maybe living next to an apartment building – four single bedroom units – may not be ideal, but decided it was fine.

I was wrong.

That apartment building has caused misery and frustration during my time in my home. Since it’s old and in poor repair, the units are cheap – and the landlord hasn’t been very selective among his tenants. About four months after I moved in, it went on the market. I hoped someone would buy it, clean it up, maybe deconvert a couple units. The City of Elgin offers a very generous grant to people willing to buy these old homes that have been carved into apartments and restore them to single family homes. I even mentioned the program to the listing agent, encouraging her to pass along the information to interested parties. (If I read the information correctly, a buyer could get up to $90,000 – $30,000 per unit removed – if they converted the four unit property into a single family home. Heck, if they wanted to make it a duplex, they would still get $60,000.)

No such luck. The new owner continued managing from afar, renting to crack dealers who brought with them a parade of traffic, creepy crackheads and, one summer night, gunshots. One morning I even found a drunk/high/impaired man passed out on my front lawn! In conjunction with a small candy shop across the street, things got very bad for awhile, with large crowds loitering on my block, passing the time as they waited for their customers. I was afraid to walk home late at night, though they did seem like friendly crack dealers, calling hello and commenting on the weather.

Winter came, and things improved. It was far too cold to conduct business outside, and though traffic continued, it was much sparser and quicker.

With the spring, though, the crowd reappeared on the first nice day, as did many of the customers. One of the main dealers spent his time sitting on a milk crate out front, waiting for cars to pull up, then exchanging product for cash. Litter abounded, and one of my neighbors put a trash can in her front yard, hoping to alleviate the problems. Things got worse than the previous summer, with a more serious tone about the sheer volume of the problem. Until one day – my birthday – when I came home to a drug raid in progress. Five people were arrested, and my neighbor’s young son asked innocently why the police were interested in the large bag of flour.

After that, things got better for a couple weeks. But then, one by one, the crowd returned, minus the former tenants. The milk crate throne was restored, and business returned nearly to its previous level. The landlord, anxious to keep his rental income, rented one of the newly vacated apartments to the buddy of the dealer now sitting in jail. And another vacant unit to one of their friends. Despite neighborhood involvement, the landlord of the apartment building and the candy shop decided they preferred rental income to neighborhood quality and safety – an easy decision to make for an absentee landlord.

Fall came, and one of the new tenants next door was arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, vacating an apartment. A family moved in, with three small children in a one bedroom apartment. The winter again stopped the crowds, though the dealing continued, quietly, from one of the apartments.

The spring thaw brought the most blatantly open dealing I’d seen. I’d be out mowing the lawn on a Sunday morning and would watch three transactions, right in front of me. Helped by easy access to major roads and a hungry customer base, business even picked up, with new, younger faces doing the brunt of the work.

Then it stopped. The candy store closed, and the crowds disappeared into the summer night. It was quiet. Kids started playing in the street, biking and playing soccer until their parents called them in. It became a stereotypical 1950s Midwest suburban block, plus a bit of diversity. We spent more time outside, chatting with our neighbors. One of the kids threw a ball and hit one of our screens, prompting a stern talking-to from his dad in a very Dennis the Menace moment. The other kids chalked hopscotch grids on our sidewalks. We held a barbecue and invited our neighbors and their kids.

Sure, we had minor annoyances. The boyfriend of one of the tenants kept slamming his oversize van into our fence as he tried to park in the tight space, knocking loose several slats and completely destroying two of them. We put our fence plans on hold, hating to invest the time and money. Occasionally, loud, thumping music rattled our windows and the pictures on the wall.

Still, the building next door was crumbling. Built in the 1860s, the foundation was uneven, the paint was peeling, and some gutters had come unhinged. You could see damage on the roof. Apparently the inside wasn’t much better, and neighbors reported major plumbing problems and an unresponsive landlord. They stopped paying rent. He went into foreclosure. One of the tenants began holding moving sales every weekend, sitting on the front lawn selling anything and everything, leaving things that didn’t sell on the curb. Don and I talked about trying to raise the capital – and leverage city grants – to buy it out of foreclosure and rehab it, a difficult proposition given the credit crisis.

Finally, the city came to respond to tenant complaints about a lack of heat and plumbing. And then they condemned the building, slapping red tags on all three entrances. Monday, the sheriff came by and made sure it was vacant. Tuesday, the owner – no longer a landlord – piled everything left on the front lawn. The garbage crew only picked up things in cans, leaving piles of clothes and assorted junk outside. Rain lessened the probability that scavengers would be interested in the ancient TV, coffee table, baby furniture and other detritus of four families’ lives.
Wednesday night, I saw a shadow, peering into the windows next door. By the time I looked again and grabbed the phone to call the police, he was gone. Or maybe it was just my imagination.

That makes three vacant houses on our block. One, gutted by fire, has been mired in insurance investigations and a divorce settlement for nearly two years. Another, a rental home, is between tenants, but at least the owner stops by periodically to trim the grass and collect the political mailers off the front step. I only hope that the one next door is tended to and not allowed to dilapidate further, and that any resolution is quick. I’d rather it be torn down and cleared for a new home – that matches the neighborhood’s character, of course – than sit for years, vacant, potentially drawing the former crackheads. I plan to be vigilant and stay on the city for answers and action.

But it’s just so damn frustrating Every time the neighborhood starts improving – and we’ve come so far – something happens.

They’re Ba-ack!

Perhaps they were never really gone. After a couple months of relative quiet, the crack dealers across the street have returned. During the half hour it took me to mow my front lawn Sunday afternoon, I witnessed four drug deals. As is often the case, within about 2 minutes of calling the police, the dealers cut and run, scattering like cockroaches.

In honor of their return, I am declaring next weekend “Crack Weekend.” I will fill in all the cracks in the driveway, sidewalk and the foundation. Maybe I’ll even paint the front steps while I’m at it – and wave at the crack dealers across the way. Weather permitting, of course.

Meanwhile, the local smoke shop – really, more paraphernalia than tobacco – has acquiesced in their fight against our neighborhood association and is leaving town. The shop was just around the corner and lacked parking, so I often had patrons parking in front of my house. Good riddance!


Springtime Wandering

On this beautiful sunny day, I strolled through the neighborhood, buoyed by Claritin. This was the first such destinationless stroll this year, and it was divine. The air was clean and crisp – a nice 65 degrees with a slightly nipping wind in the shade, but beautiful sun permeated the trees.

I had nowhere to go or be, so I meandered through streets I don’t usually wander through. I deviated from the main streets and drank in the neighborhood in springtime. It was all very suburban – kids galore, out on bikes and kicking soccer balls around. There were even a couple moments reminiscent of driver’s ed videos, with kids darting into the street after a wiffleball without checking for traffic. But you can get away with that through much of the neighborhood.

There were blocks of old houses like mine, and a few blocks of identical ranches houses with only slight variations on shutter color and front door placement. There were a couple blocks of all brick homes, built in the 20s to replace the blocks destroyed by Elgin’s infamous 1920 Palm Sunday tornado.

I walked past tiny local businesses I never realized were there in my car-fueled haste. I stopped into Herb’s Bakery, which I’ve heard so much about, only to find their selection picked over and sparse. I never realized just how many tiny auto repair shops are in the neighborhood. I suppose it comes with being a less affluent area. I also passed dozens of homes for sale, and a couple with the tell-tale signs of foreclosure – including one on my corner.

But that’s what I love about Elgin and my neighborhood. There’s so much diversity in the houses and the people who live in them. When I was house-hunting, I was adamant about not wanting to live in a cookie-cutter subdivision where an overzealous homeowners’ association dictates house colors and suitable flowers for planting. Sure, the lack of such covenants does open the door for the occasional teal house or the pink bodega, and you get your fair share of tall, unkempt lawns – but it always provides conversation. For example, in my neighborhood, there’s a parakeet house, where the screened in front porch is filled with at least a dozen cages packed with the birds. You can hear it a block away!

I’m looking forward to many more such walks in the warming weather. I bike a lot, too, but even at 10 mph, you miss a lot of the details.

History

I live in an old neighborhood. I was drawn to the area because the houses are all different and there are some families who have been here for decades. My next door neighbor (the good one) grew up in his house and bought it from his father about ten years ago. He has told me stories about the elderly couple that lived in my house when he was growing up. Apparently, the lady paid neighborhood kids a quarter per bucket of acorns they collected in the fall, then parceled them out to squirrels over the winter. (Personally, I think she created an unnecessary middleman, since modern squirrels seem to have no problem digging nut holes all over my yard and flowerbeds.)

In the history of Elgin, my neighborhood was the home for many of the workers at the Elgin Watch Company. At the time, it was called Dutch Flats since it was originally settled by Germans who fell into the common mistake of being called “Dutch” rather than “Deutsch.” From where I sit at this very moment, I can see across the river to the site of the former factory and tower – though now it’s a somewhat seedy strip mall. In the summer, the grove of trees block much of this view.

When I was buying, I knew I wanted an older house, since they often have far more character than the newer cookie cutter houses, plus they’re more often situated in the older, urban neighborhoods that are walking distance to (in my case, anyway) the train depot, supermarket, library and the historic downtown. True, new houses can have the manufactured charm of built-ins and woodwork, but that usually comes at a steep price. Plus, I could afford far more old house. I gave an emphatic no to the new cornfield subdivisions that require a car to get milk. I didn’t want to live in a place where visitors had to know the exact house number to differentiate mine from its identical neighbors. I like being able to say, “It’s the white house with the big porch.”

When I found my house, the realtor guesstimated it had been built in the early 1900s. The inspector guessed about 1920. The township said 1900, which seems to be its default date for the neighborhood. I went with the inspector’s guess and imagined my house being built during the Roaring 20s, with Prohibition and a booming economy.

Then, last night, at my neighborhood meeting, someone brought a copy of an architectural survey the city did a few years ago. Excitedly, I flipped through it. Each house in our neighborhood was listed, along with date, style and any special significance. My house is listed as a Gabled Ell style built circa 1890. Apparently the Gabled Ell features a floorplan with the entrance in the corner (check), a steeply pitched roof (check), a second floor gable of nearly equal height to the main roof (check) and tall second floor windows (check). They were built using a simple design, but allowing for more light and cross-ventilation than traditional. That last bit was one of the big draws of my house – it felt very open and sunny upon first look, and that remains true. In summer, with windows open, I get a great breeze, especially since I’m perched on top of a hill next to a river.

But now that I’ve discovered my house is older than I originally thought, I’m anxious to research my home’s pedigree. Apparently the city has a trove of resources. Some rainy Saturday, I’ll head down to the library and see if I can trace its history. Depending on the number of owners over the years, I might be able to put together a pretty comprehensive history!

The thaw

Spring has been teasing us the last couple days. With Daylight Savings last weekend, it’s fully light out when I get home. The air, while still brisk, allows a bit of lingering outside – in the lighter coat, to boot! With 50 degrees today and tomorrow, I expected my household hazards to be centered around the basement.

Luckily, my basement is still bone-dry, despite the melting. Perhaps my basement leakage isn’t as bad as I’ve feared! Maybe I can handle the thaw, and any fixes I make are just icing on the cake!

However, the hint of warmer weather brings another threat. Yes, that’s right – the pink bodega drug house is back in business, with a new dealer leading the charge!

I spent my first summer in this house vaguely aware that something wasn’t quite right with the pink candy shop across the street. It held its grand opening the day I closed on my house. Sure, there were lots of kids around at first, but as the summer wore on, the kids seemed to be replaced by an older crowd. A couple minor burglaries showed up in the police blotter. And it was just plain suspicious. But I was naive, and enjoying my first summer in my house, turned my attentions to other tasks, like destroying all the crabgrass.

Last spring, as soon as it started to warm up, things got bad. It was impossible to deny that active drug deals were happening, and the police knew it, too, and kept an eye on things. One very late night, a car drove by and randomly fired a couple shots two doors down. Finally, on my birthday, a bust at the apartment building next door resulted in five arrests. The rest of the summer was pretty quiet. Winter is never an issue, as the shop lacks proper heat and keeps pretty minimal hours, not opening at all on the coldest days.

But now, some of the original troublemakers have drifted back into the neighborhood and appear ready to resume their apparently lucrative business with a new leader. I can only hope that we can nip this in the bud before it grows.

Now my crocuses, on the other hand – those should be appearing any day now, once the snow finishes melting.

Four (more) bottles of beer on the lawn

Yep, I ventured into the backyard yesterday to try to get rid of the four new empty beer bottles littering the snow. It appears the morons next door have switched to MGD from Modelo. Nice.

I threw two back over the fence. The other two are firmly frozen into place against the garage, where melting snow fell off the roof and then refroze. I wonder what other surprises the thaw will yield.

I’m still struggling with the thought process of the beer swiggers next door. In what universe is it okay to throw trash into your neighbor’s yard? I’m especially befuddled because there are eight trash/recycling cans in their parking area (two per unit; it’s a huge old house that’s been carved up into four one-bedroom apartments). Do they throw the bottles over their cans for fun? Does hitting my garage get them extra points? Sheesh.

Beer Bottles: An Endangered Species

From the Onion: Empty Beer Bottle Released Into Wild

Aha! So my beer bottle problem was really just a conservation project. Good to know.

(And no, I have seen nary a rogue beer bottle since tossing the four across the fence nearly a month ago!)

I love my neighbors

After last night’s frozen garage door debacle, I spent the day dreading the digging ahead. On my way home, I saw that my sidewalk had been cleared, which was great, but not terribly unusual – sometimes a neighbor will run down the whole block, creating a beautifully straight snowbank.

But as I reached my house, I discovered that my entire driveway was clear, and only the garage was still entombed. Perfectly straight tire tracks lined the driveway, and there was even a tidy path to my backdoor. Now, I’ve joked with my neighbor Santos on a couple occasions when we were out working on our respective driveways – “Hey, you can do mine when you’re done!” – but it was a very nice surprise.

I’ve baked chocolate chip cookies and will be leaving them on their step in the morning. Thank you, neighbor!

Slushy Beer

Thursday night’s snow left me with a solid 10 inches of the wet, heavy stuff. In some places, it was drifted to 16-18 inches. Fun, achy back times.

Being the bright ray of sunshine I am, I found the positive. It was pretty and peaceful. There was enough to justify “working from home” on Friday, along with the extra hour of sleep that entails. And it covered the three empty beer bottles I’d been locked in a staring contest with. All that was left was three subtle, soft, snow-covered lumps.

But Saturday morning, while brushing my teeth, I noticed a travesty on the pristine blanket of snow. A new empty beer bottle.

I grumbled and debated, but while debating, Don took matters into his own hands and tossed all four back over the fence.

Maybe we’ll have a six pack by spring.