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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Neighbors and Neighborhood

It may seem anachronistic, but over a year ago, Teri and I went searching for a neighborhood.  Some people go house hunting looking for a specific sort of house, nearby amenities such as stores or churches, or even value a neighborhood based on its perceived affluence or zip code.  There were some house-related issues on our wish list: a multi-butt kitchen, a big enough bath tub, double-paned windows and space for our dining room table. Our driving motivation for the perfect house, however, was a yearning for neighborhood, community, diversity, and connection.

Now, we are happy to report, we know all of our close neighbors and many others on our street, on the block and throughout the neighborhood.  Despite detractors or those who value homogeneity, we have found what we have both been searching for--a true neighborhood: quirky, alive, and sustaining.

We live in what is lovingly referred to as "the Whit"--the most socio-economically and racially diverse neighborhood in our small city--also known as Whiteaker neighborhood or Ward 7 for those of us who like to know who are city councilor is.  On our street, there are grad students, families both large and small, retired seniors, and Teri and I are not the only queer people--not by a long shot.  Small children draw chalk towns in the middle of the street, an athletic teenager plays basketball incessantly at the end of the block, and seniors do Tai Chi in the nearby park.  We can call across the street if we need to borrow a ladder and our next door neighbors give us their house key every time they leave town so we can look after their skittish cat.  I recently told a friend that I finally live in a neighborhood that feels like the Sesame Street I fantasized as a youngster. This is the sort of neighborhood where no one is likely to go unnoticed if they fail to emerge from their house for a few days.

As perfect as our neighborhood community is to us, we are well aware (because we hear it often, people write snarky letters to the editor, and politics reflect it) that some of the realities of our neighborhood are considered "undesirable" by others: the train tracks run right through the middle of our neighborhood; because this has historically had some of the "poorest' areas in town, there is a tolerance for the unhoused, newly-arrived, and those challenged with mental health issues.  These are our neighbors too; we are lacking wide streets and sprawling lawns--instead there are intentional living communities, renovated bungalows, apartment complexes, and post-WWII tract housing all nestled in together. 

Teri originates from the East Coast and when she refers to "the city" she is almost always referring to the city: New York city.  She has expressed that The Whit has as close a feeling of pulsing energy and diverse human living as she has felt anywhere in Eugene.  The fact that we can chat over the back fence with our neighbors or walk to a nearby brew pub on a Saturday night reminds her of the urban neighborhoods where she grew up.  When we had our big snow on the second day of Spring this year, there was an "old school" way that the neighbors all checked in on each other and helped move branches and shovel pathways.  Honestly, we never feel the fear that those who don't live here complain about.

I imagine it all depends on what you want out of this short life. I have no desire for a fancy address or a big, brick house--isolated from the surrounding community.  I want to know the people who share this journey and I want to be challenged to stay connected, authentic and in touch with the intense and ordinary concerns of life.  I delight in the neighbor who sells tamales out of a little red wagon; the sound of squealing from the Head Start classes one block over; the swapping of fruit overload as neighbors share the bounty of their cherry, pear, apple, and fig trees; the curb-side chats as we pet cats; and they myriad other benefits of living in a genuine neighborhood. 

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