Tag Archives: Neighbors

A-Caroling We Went

Thursday evening, as the winds shifted  to bring in biting winter air, a small party of friends assembled nearby. “Let’s go Christmas caroling!” my friends had suggested as they invited me over. I realized I had never actually done old-fashioned, door-to-door Christmas caroling. As a child, my Brownie troop had caroled at the local retirement home, but that was about the extent of it.

My friends just moved in and don’t really know their block yet, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to spread some cheer.

We weren't quite this Dickensian...

I dressed for the cold, swaddling myself in a big scarf, hat and mittens. We assembled song books from internet print-outs and, after letting the trio of adorable little girls bake cookies, set out down the dark block.

We quickly realized several things. First, many houses are truly vacant. I knew this is a problem in the neighborhood, but it becomes more apparent at night.

Next, a lot of people just don’t answer the door. At each house that showed some signs of life, we sent the smallest in our group – a bubbly blond five-year-old – up to ring the bell as we began singing. Most times, even if we clearly saw a tv on or other indications that someone was home, no one ever came to the door, so we’d move on after a verse. Granted, thinking about it, I don’t answer my door if I don’t recognize the knocker, especially after dark.

Third, kids really seemed to enjoy the experience, on both sides. The three kids with us delighted in singing, especially “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which we sang as the finale every time we actually had an audience. And  where people did answer the door, kids would watch with giant grins. At one house, no one answered the door, but a small girl peered at us from the upstairs window, waving and smiling. We sang a couple of songs to her and moved on.

Fourth, some people just don’t appreciate some roving carolers. At one house, a couple had just pulled up in their car… and sat in the car, paralyzed with some type of cheer-fear, until we moved along. And at our very last house – next door to our organizers – the woman opened the door, saw us, and slammed the door rather forcefully in response. Bah, Humbug!

Afterwards, while warming up with hot chocolate and cookies, I was content and merry. Next year,  perhaps we’ll choose a block with some known “friendly” houses.


Another Brick in the Wall

Since my house is perched on a hill, the yard slopes down towards the street, creating a three-foot drop from my front yard to the sidewalk. A previous owner built a retaining wall, which adds a nice little touch to the front of the house.

However, the wall builder merely stacked the bricks, with no form of adhesive. As a result, years of freeze/thaw cycles and rain had pushed the wall forward several inches, leaving it leaning precariously over the sidewalk. It wasn’t in any imminent danger of falling, but eventually, it will. And kids tend to jump up on the wall and use it as a balance beam, which makes me nervous.

Before: note the "missing teeth" and the general jumbledness. I should have taken a picture of the side view to really show the tilt.

Plus, people steal the loose bricks. In my first four years here, four or five bricks were taken from the end of the wall. This spring, though, four more have disappeared, including two in a 24 hour period (one of which was in broad daylight, as I worked from home). Who steals landscape bricks that retail for 88 cents? My neighbors had some plants stolen, so we wonder if someone further down the street is assembling a garden out of “found” items.

So this weekend, my parents came over and helped me rebuild the wall.

I bought several new bricks to replace the missing ones, plus my parents happened on a rebate that enabled them to buy the 12 tubes of landscape glue for free. When my parents arrived early Sunday morning, we surveyed the situation, then ran to Menards for pea gravel and anchors.

I had hoped for a nice, cool day since the front yard is in full sunshine, but alas, the rainy spring has limited our options, and I wanted to knock this out before we get further into hot weather. We worked quickly, especially since storms were forecast. (Luckily, the glue only requires 15 minutes to set.)

First, we removed all the old bricks – approximately 200 of them. Next, we leveled out the dirt, and leveled the hill vertically, rearranging dirt and marveling at how much the front of the yard jutted out. (I also yanked all the dandelions I could – removing the bricks exposed several 12″ taproots.) We poured 150 lbs of pea gravel to enable drainage, which should help prevent future shifting. Next, we carefully laid the foundational layer of bricks, leveling each one.

When it came time to glue on the next layer, my dad and I experimented with where to glue and how much to use. We finally determined that since the bricks “lock” and have a lip on the back, a bead of glue along the lip seemed to suffice.  Once we found the method, the gluing went quickly. My mom prepped the bricks, cleaning off all the loose dirt and debris (and so many bugs), my dad applied the glue, and I placed them as we all eyeballed things to make sure we were building a straight line.

Between the second and third layer, we inserted anchors: 36″ stakes driven into the side of the hill and glued into place between bricks. This should reinforce the wall and prevent future movement. (Take that, gravity!)

The original wall had four layers, but after three, when we stopped and looked, we decided we didn’t really need a fourth layer. In the past, that fourth layer had stood about 3″ higher than the grass level, making mowing difficult. Now, because we had built things up a bit and leveled everything, the third level is nearly flush with the grass line and looks great. If it bothers me after a couple of weeks, I could always add another layer – the process isn’t hard, and the initial foundational prep was the time-consuming part – but for now, I’m very pleased.

As we worked on the smaller section (the left side in the picture), it was the hottest part of the day, in the 80s with no shading clouds. My lovely neighbors brought over a pitcher of margaritas and chatted for a few minutes while we took a break. They’ve done a ton to improve their home – the house was actually condemned when they bought it – and we talked about the crumbling, vacant $33,000 house on the other side of me. (Want to take a crack at it? It’s got a river view in the winter, so the land’s worth that! And I’m a great neighbor!)

After our break, clouds started rolling in, so we quickly finished up, including the Tetris of making the partial, curved bricks wrap around the sidewalk. We reset much of the dirt we had originally moved, and replanted the tufts of grass. I still need to add a couple of bricks on the other side of the sidewalk, but the sky was dark and we thought storms were imminent, so we cleaned up and called it a day. (The radar turned out to be wrong – the storm swung south of us, and it didn’t rain for another three hours. But eight hours of work was a long enough day.) I may need to plant some new grass, but I’ll give it a few days and see if the old tufts survive.

Afterwards, we sat in the cool house and sipped Coronas for a few minutes, trying to discern dirt from sunburn and reveling in exhaustion. Returning from dinner at the Public House, I smiled at sight of the new wall – it looks so good.

After: Nice and even. Now I just need the grass to re-grow.

This was my favorite kind of project: the kind that you can see every time you pass by. It was a very long day, but very much worth it. And hauling 12 lb bricks for eight hours is a heck of a workout.

Snowpocalypse 2011

As you might have heard, we got a bit of snow last week. Snowpocalypse, or #snOMG as Twitter was calling it, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or experienced. I vaguely remember the 1999 storm, but I was a senior in high school still on Christmas break.

This storm was incredible for its fury. All week, Skilling and others kept raising the expected accumulation totals and narrowing down the exact hour the storm hit. And they were right.

I woke up Tuesday morning to a fresh inch or so of snow and word that Metra was rearranging their afternoon schedules to help people get home ahead of the storm. All day, the skies were relatively clear. Until 2 PM, when suddenly, I looked out the 22nd floor windows and saw snow blowing horizontally, swirling violently.

The few coworkers who had come into the office started leaving to catch the special early Metra trains. I heard that Union Station was chaotic, so I decided to wait an hour to let things thin out a bit.

I left work at 4:15 and hunched against the wind and snow until I got to the eerily empty Union Station. I boarded the 4:50 train, which closed the doors right on time, with several empty seats. We sat for 10 minutes and then departed. Just past Western Avenue, we stopped. And sat. For nearly two hours. The conductors had no information, but I was able to learn from Twitter that there was a switch failure ahead. We sat on a bridge, near Damen and Grand, as the wind rocked the train back and forth. I was hungry and cursed myself for leaving an apple on my desk. Another passenger joked about ordering a pizza, if we could convince someone to come to the rail bridge.

Eventually, we pulled into Elgin just before 8 PM, and I made a very difficult walk home, as the 40 mph winds flung snow at and around me, obscuring my vision and sucking my breath. Scenes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Long Winter filled my head, as I thought of pioneers getting lost in blizzards, stringing clothesline to navigate from house to stable. I wish I had a rope to follow home.

As I killed time on the train, I had seen several Twitter friends mention power outages. When I finally got close to my house and saw the porchlights, I breathed a sigh of relief. But as I trudged through the drifts on the driveway, I found a couple shingles. I think they’re from my roof, but I’m still not quite sure. I had made it home, but had to dig out my back door, which was already encased in snow nearly up to the doorknob.

As I left work, I had hoped to settle in early and study, but after a four hour commute, I curled up with a glass of wine and listened to the storm. I’ve been in this house nearly five years, and I’ve never heard it rock and shake and creak quite like it did Tuesday night. I followed the storm on Twitter, as Elgin’s city manager tweeted from a snowplow, and crossed my fingers every time the power flickered. Finally I went to bed, but laid awake, listening to the howling storm.

No wonder my kitchen was so dark! That's a six-foot tall fence

When I woke up, the winds had died down quite a bit, but the house seemed very odd. I realized it was because nearly every window was covered with frozen-on snow, obscuring much of the light. I surveyed the damage: officially, we got 20 inches, and I had drifts nearly 4 and 5 feet tall, some next to bare patches of pavement. A piece of my garage roof soffit was lying in the backyard.

The driveway: 4 ft drifts next to bare pavement

But since I was working from home, there wasn’t really a snow day. I went out at lunchtime and began shoveling – after I tunneled to the garage to retrieve my shovel.

I went out for a couple brief spells in the afternoon, thankful I didn’t really need the car until Saturday.

My tunnel, from house to street

Late in the afternoon, I started to dig out the end of the driveway, where it was drifted pretty deep, and finally had a tunnel to the street. My neighbor stopped by with his ATV, to which he had strapped a plow blade. He had a great time, riding up my drifts and then barreling downhill towards the street, pushing mountains of snow as he went. As he plowed, a former neighbor pulled up with his snowblower and asked if I wanted some help. Other neighbors also offered help. (I love this town.)

Luckily, I had no pressing need to take out the trash.

Later, I met up with some neighbors and helped clear the sidewalks of the main street in the neighborhood. Afterwards, we went to the local bar for chili and beer.

So while I didn’t get a traditional snow day, it was still a pretty good day. I even settled in with a mug of tea and pulled out The Long Winter before bed.

But that said, I think I’d be okay if we didn’t get any more snow this winter.

Though it was kind of pretty.

I do love the view over the river.

Finding Community

When I moved to Elgin over four years ago, I knew exactly four people in town, all high school friends. Two have since moved away.

I wasn’t too concerned about it. After all, I had several college friends in Chicago proper, where I was commuting daily.

But over time, I found a real community unlike anything I had ever experienced.

People here are friendly. And involved. And just plain nice.

I grew up in a cornfield subdivision with large lots and no sidewalks, miles from town. We vaguely knew our neighbors – or rather, their cars – and waved as they drove by, but even after more than 20 years, my parents don’t know the names of most of their neighbors.

It’s different here. Even before I moved in, one of the boys from next door had stopped by on his bike and asked if I had kids. When I said no, he instantly responded, “Well, you should get some.”

I joined our very active neighborhood association and met so many of my neighbors. Walking home from the train, I met additional walkers (or “hill climbers,” as I call us) who introduced me to their friends and family. I’ve volunteered and met still others. Via Facebook, I connected with other friends of friends who I now know in real life.

It’s to the point that I can barely leave my house without running into someone I know, in some capacity. I’ve begun referring to Elgin as the “biggest small town” because despite its 100k+ population, everyone knows everyone else.

In my parents’ neighborhood, front yards are larger than most lots in central Elgin, and yet no one ever sits out front – they’re all behind the houses on their decks. As I run or bike through my neighborhood, I typically see dozens of people out on their front porches, sipping coffee in the mornings or having an after dinner drink. Instead of playing on backyard swing sets, kids are running between front yards or biking or skateboarding down the sidewalk, or drawing on the sidewalks themselves. On some of the blocks with less traffic, kids actually play soccer in the street, or set up a basketball hoop at the foot of someone’s driveway.

And since the kids are out, their parents are watching, whether from the porch or through front windows. There are eyes on the street. We inherently know who belongs on a block. Even when I’m six or seven blocks from my own house, I recognize kids and their parents and have a vague idea of which house they belong to.

As an undergrad, I took a couple classes in urban politics and policy because they really interested me, especially since I was suddenly living in a big city (Chicago) after growing up in a cornfield. We talked a lot about Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, about the function of sidewalks and short, walkable blocks, about parks and churches and how a single broken window on a block can telegraph a lack of care to n’er do wells. Though the book is nearly 40 years old, I am constantly reminded of its theories and research as I walk around my own neighborhood.

This neighborhood is even older than Jacobs’ book. My house dates to roughly 1890, and there are some that are even older. Large swaths of bungalows were built in the 20s and 30s, so the neighborhood is well-established, with many families here for multiple decades. As such, a community has really developed around those sidewalks and schools and churches.

I feel very fortunate to have accidentally found such a great community, and I love working to build it even more.

A Bounty of Acorns and a Lack of Sleep

One night last week, I heard a strange noise while working in the kitchen. It sounded kind of like someone was knocking.

Since then, approximately 17,000 acorns have fallen from my neighbors’ giant oak trees. Each one makes a thwacking noise as it slams into the ground, one of their cars, or one of our houses. In my five summers in this house, I had never heard such a thing, but apparently we’re in luck: it’s a bumper crop.

Mostly, I hear the acorns thwacking while in the kitchen or living room. But on windy nights, I hear them dropping off the limb over my bedroom. Better yet, when they fall from that limb, a mere 2 or 3 feet above my roof, they hit exceptionally hard, and then roll down the roof. It sounds like someone slamming a door and then taking off running.

Last night was really bad. It was windy with a threat of storms, so all night, dozens of acorns were falling. It never rained water, but it certainly rained acorns. I’d also made the mistake of having a giant iced coffee about 4 PM so I was still wired and twitchy. Every time an acorn hit the roof, I would jump a bit. I tossed and turned, until finally about 2 AM, after the last Metra pulled through, I gave up and slept on the couch where the acorns weren’t as loud.

So if you see any hungry squirrels, send them my way, please.

Neighborhood Crime

Today’s Elgin Courier-News ran a story about crime in my neighborhood. The reporter did a ride-along with our local beat officer and wrote a good article about the different factors that influence crime and public safety in a our very diverse neighborhood.

I love my neighborhood dearly and can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m quoted saying that crime has improved over the past few years, which it certainly has. It made me think back to the first couple rocky summers, when there were serious problems on my block and neighborhood.

Though problems still crop up, by being proactive, we have gotten much better at nipping them in the bud. Working with the city and the police is a reality that has helped slow the growth of new problems this spring. But we can’t rest on our laurels. This is still a large city (100,000+) facing the same economic problems that plague the rest of the region. I counted the other day and realized 5 of the 8 houses on my block have been in some stage of foreclosure in the past 18 months. Wow.

But still, I love this neighborhood for its sense of community, for the friendly neighbors, for the small-town feel. I’ve often called Elgin the “biggest small town I’ve ever known,” and it’s true. While there are  over 100,000 people in town, it’s rare that I can go out – even beyond the neighborhood – and not run into someone I know in some capacity. And I’ve only been here four years!

And that in and of itself is worth its weight in gold.

The Fence

The fence has been a long-standing source of frustration, ever since the previous neighbors knocked out numerous slats. (Before that, a random teenager running through backyards also destroyed half a dozen slats.)

But we’re on the move! New neighbors bought the previously condemned crack house and have spent the last couple months working around the clock on it. They essentially gutted the interior – save for the gorgeous hardwood floors and woodwork – and are replacing just about everything, including the plumbing, electrical and roof. Though they’ll keep it a four-unit for now, they’ll live in a couple of the units and thus have a vested interest in screening tenants when they’re ready. I talked to them about the fence, and they assured me they value their cars too much to slam into our fence.
So I started watching for sales and tried to figure out the logistics. My sister called and asked what we planned to do with the old fence, then offered to haul it away to use in a bonfire. I took her up on the offer, and came home one day to find her with a crowbar, pulling down the old slats. The old stringers were so rotted that they crumbled into dust as soon as you pulled on them.
Since then, we’ve had an army of solitary posts left, which is just odd. Upon further inspection – and confirmation from our jack-of-all-trades neighbor, who witnessed the original installation – the posts are fine. They’re still solid in the ground, no signs of rot or decay, and the concrete beneath is fully intact. So we decided to just replace the panels themselves.
Three weeks ago, Menards ran a sale, which I price matched at Home Depot (to get the extra 10% off). Originally my sister had thought we could fit the new panels in her pickup, but we quickly realized that while we might fit 3 or 4, hauling 17 required either multiple trips or renting a HD truck. We went with the rental.
Since then, we’ve been plagued by a ton of rain (October was one of the wettest in history!), illness and the logistics of trying to remove the evil mulberry tree. When we removed the old fence, we discovered metal stakes long the property line – and the tree proved to be 100% on our side. I signed the death order that day.
All 17 panels are still stacked up against the garage, ready to go. Our neighbor has said he’s happy to loan us his nail gun to speed things along.
We’ll get the new one installed very soon, especially given some crime in the house behind us last week.

What’s So Sweet About It?

So when my neighborhood had all its, um, problems, one of the biggest sources stemmed from a “candy shop” across the street. When it first opened, it was truly a candy shop for kids – there were always tons of candy wrappers on my yard.

But then, things changed. The shop in question was bright pink, operated strange hours, covered up the windows with blackout curtains and shooed children away. The one time I ventured inside, the bare shelves boasted a few dusty cans of soup, a small fridge with cans of grape soda, and a few t-shirts and hoodies for sale. And lots of annoyed looks from the proprietress at my presence.

Plus, it was the only drive-up candy shop I’ve ever seen! Cars would pull up, and someone would race to the driver’s window, and perform the transaction. They must have had call-ahead service!

Eventually things changed again, for the better. And the neighborhood quieted down. Kids started playing on the block again. It was great.

But now a new sweet shop has opened around the corner. And it reminds me of the old one. Which leads me to ask – why a candy shop as a ruse? Why take something so innocent and retro – heck, my small town never had a candy shop when I was a kid – and turn it into something so putrid? When I first bought my house – and closed on the same day as the pink shop’s grand opening – I thought to myself, “How quaint. How suburban. How nice for kids, to have someplace in the neighborhood where they can spend their allowance money on candy.” Growing up in a cornfield subdivision that was miles from anything, I embraced the idea of an older neighborhood designed to allow residents to walk to their needs – and let kids do the same.

So why ruin that nostalgia with something so tawdry?

Hopefully I’m wrong. Maybe it really is just a candy shop, with its hand-made signs and shaded windows. Maybe they’re trying to keep the sun out, not prying eyes.

Cutting Metal Past Midnight

When the auto body shop opened across the street last year, I was wary. I was skeptical. But then I was delighted.

Sure, they sell car stereos, alarms and a more varieties of rims than I ever knew existed. They serve as a meeting point and hangout for a large group of men who spend their free time customizing and polishing their cars and preparing for car shows. But they cleaned up the long-vacant property, are relatively friendly, and usually close up shop by 8 PM. During the day, yeah, we’ll hear outbreaks of car alarms as they’re testing stereo installations, and occasionally they install so much bass that the pictures on our walls rattle, but for the most part, they’re pretty good neighbors. And, they installed so many cameras to protect their investment that they drove the previous, crack-dealing neighbors out of business.

Occasionally, prior to car shows, the guys will pull some late evenings. We’ll see lights on until 9 or 10 PM and hear a bit of music as they’re finishing their work. Last night, though, was awful. It’s been a long week, with activities every night. I haven’t had a quiet, spend-time-vegging-on-the-couch night in over a week. I got home from the city last night about 10, did a bit of cleanup, made lunch for today, and fell into bed around midnight. As soon as it was quiet, we realized it wasn’t so. Across the street, we could hear grinding metal. It was loud and one of those piercing sounds that penetrates your skull. Sure, living right by the train, we’re used to the late night train horns and the rumbling of the house as the 1:30 and 4:00 AM freight trains tear through town. But they’re relatively quick sounds that I usually sleep through. But this sound was insane. We called the police non-emergency number and logged a complaint around 1 AM and were told it was a busy night but they would try to send a squad out. I fell into an uneasy sleep, tossing and turning. Around 3 AM, when a huge thunderstorm rumbled in, I got up to make sure it wasn’t raining in, and there were still lights on across the street. The thunder was drowning out the worst of the grinding metal, thankfully.

It was an awful night’s sleep, and I’m paying for it today. Next time, I’m going over there myself. The guys are pretty friendly and I would think if I wandered over at 2 AM and asked them to please, for the love of god, stop cutting metal, they would listen? Maybe?

The Jungle Next Door

I have found the advantage of the vacant house next door: it makes my own lawn look downright manicured.

But how long will the grass get before someone takes action?

With foreclosures growing, we’re up to three on our block. In the winter, it wasn’t such a big deal. The houses looked kind of peaceful with their undisturbed blanket of snow. I often shoveled the sidewalk next door because it was a quick job – what’s another 10 minutes when I’ve been outside an hour? – and to help the numerous walkers around here. Nope, not being selfish at all with my walk to the train.

Now that spring has sprouted a jungle next door, though, there’s a very clear line where my lawn – and my labor – ends and the property next door begins. Until Sunday, my dandelion population helped bridge the difference (the fallow land across the street sends a swarm of dandelion seeds my way), but especially since my second mow of the year, it’s painfully obvious.

For now, I’ll let live and be thankful that the one next door looks just overgrown and lush. But the second a tiger comes after me… I’m calling the city.