Making a Neighborhood Happen
by Mike Paulus
(originally published in the Nov. 20, 2008 issue of Volume One)
Looking back, I wish there had been more stick ball. And gangs of 11-year-old kids defending their turf. And little newsie caps.
I grew up on Eau Claire’s west side. When we first moved into our neighborhood, there were some older houses here and there, sprinkled around new construction. We moved into a brand new home. The place wasn’t swarming with kids, but there was enough of us to play tiny games of baseball. Or, there would have been enough of us to play tiny games of baseball if we hadn’t lived on a hill.
Our street was angled into a gentle slope, so any group sports to be played in the street couldn’t involve spheres, not unless you wanted to spend half your time chasing your balls down to the stop sign. And none of us did.
We played occasional baseball games in backyards and there was always someone shooting hoops in their driveway (the hoops being bolted to the roof above the garage door). But there was far more TV-watching going on than base-running.
So, no stickball. Of course, “stickball” had long since given way to “aluminum bat purchased at Shopko ball” by the time I was a kid in my ball-smacking prime. But I don’t think an old timey kid sport would have given me what I wish we’d had – some sort of neighborhood bonding, some sort of identity. Nope, by the time I was old enough to run around streets and alleys in a neighborhood gang, nobody wanted to. But I’m not sure that kind of thing really ever happened outside of big city neighborhoods in Boston and New York. In the movies. From the eighties.
So, I didn’t grow up in The Sandlot. I grew up watching The Sandlot. And that’s OK, I guess. I just kind of wish everyone had been more connected – all the kids and all the families. We never had block parties or cook-outs. I do remember my family visiting another family’s house on a regular basis, but this was the neighborhood’s oldest family, and I assume they came from a time when neighbors actually hung out with each other. Once they left, that kind of stuff was gone.
Now I own a house in one of the city’s older neighborhoods – the Eastside Hill – and there’s a lot more of that connectedness happening here. There aren’t any gangs of 11-year-old kids running around defending their turf, and rarely do I see a newsie cap, but there’s a neighborhood association, so you get the occasional block party and newsletter.
I talk more with my neighbors than I ever expected to. My next door neighbor has given me cart blanche access to his wheel barrel. So that’s awesome. Despite these bright spots, there’s some kinda depressing stuff in my neighborhood. I have plenty of neighbors who look the other way when you walk right by them. Stuff like that.
My wife and I have recently become more involved with our neighborhood association. With so many feel-good vibes getting shot at community-minded ideals and organizations like this, I don’t even need to make a joke about going to association meetings to complain about the length of my neighbor’s grass or those damn kids walking on my lawn. The association does important work. Real work. They get trees planted and parks planned and they communicate with the city and a lot more. They make the difference between a crappy neighborhood and one you’re excited to live in. Those differences just don’t happen by accident.
We’re already proud of our neighborhood, but why not make it better? We just feel like we’re going to be living here for a long time, and we want to take some responsibility for the place we call home. I never really cared about all that when I was a kid. And I probably shouldn’t have since kids are supposed to be worried about riding bikes and cartoons and daring each other to stick different things up their noses. But now I care about the quality of life in my chunk of the city, and I’m not going to just leave it up to chance. I mean, there’s no city department dedicated to “Making Mike Paulus’s Life Awesome.” There should be, but sadly, there isn’t.
It’s my solemn hope that one day stickball will make a comeback. Why not here?