Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tale of Three Neighborhoods

I've lived in Brookline for twenty years this year. That's longer than any other place I've ever lived, even my home town. During that time, I've inhabited three different abodes, each with its own unique character. But what has really made an impression on me is how different the daily experience of my neighborhood has been in these three places. This, in turn has got me wondering what it is about these three different settings that should make for such different realities. After all they were all in the same town, and in terms of the physical characteristics of my space (some variation on the one or two bedroom condo) they aren't all that different from one another, and yet, there are so many differences when it comes to the feel and tone and pace of life. From the daily rhythm of my neighbors and their patterns of behavior, or the noises I hear, such as the amount of bird song I notice, to the amount of traffic on the streets, all are drastically different.

My first place was a two-bedroom condo in a 1920's courtyard building we rented on Washington St., right next to the amazingly preserved Victorian "gingerbread" house, just up from the intersection of School/Cypress. This location had lots of advantages. It was equidistant to the Village and Coolidge Corner, and the Library was so convenient. My T stop of choice was Brookline Hills, accessed via a pleasant walk through the charming residential neighborhood off of Greenough. I loved watching the ever changing porch displays of window boxes, front yard gardens, flags, etc. as the season warmed. It was a nice way to start and end the day. The courtyard had a nicely overgrown archway entrance that gave it a bit of separation from the too busy Washington St., which we soon learned carried almost all of the firetrucks dispatched in town. One night several of them came to our place as the carriage house behind our building that had been the store house for unlimited junk for too many years burned to the ground, taking our car, which was parked near it, with with. That was the same night of the big fire on White Place. I got to witness first hand our famed "top notch" services, and was grateful for the fine work of our fire department.

But as for neighborhood feel, I have to say, the court yard building itself and the other adjacent buildings, just did not have it. We knew our immediate neighbors in our building, but did not see many people coming or going. Because of this we did not often have the opportunity to stop and chat, that all-important casual encounter that slowly builds ties in more cohesive neighborhoods. Our park of choice was of course Emerson, which on a hot summer night was a favorite haunt after getting a frozen fruit Popsicle at the very convenient convenience store at Cypress/Washington. While our unit was deep within the U of the court yard, we did still hear the constant stream of cars on Washington that did not still until late at night. Being next to the Victorian house meant that we had a beautiful display of maple leaves filtering the sunlight into our kitchen and mitigating the pavement out front. It was a comfortable and pleasant place, like many buildings of its era, with the small tile in the entry way and solid marble steps.

People did not loiter on the sidewalk out front though, and I think this must have been because of the traffic. Maybe visiting both the Village and Coolidge Corner dissipated our loyalties and we did not build up that same kind of familiarity one has going to the same places on a more regular basis. We lived here four years, as we saved for that all important purchase, our condo.

Shopping for a condo in Brookline, is of course an education. We looked at dozens of places. We had become sensitive to those "neighborhood" issues and would go back at night to check the noise level, etc. Of course you never really can tell until you move in...but you do start to look and pay attention, and you can never find that one perfect place, as you have to choose from what's out there when you are looking. But we took our time and ended up buying a place at the corner of Beaconsfield and Dean Rd. This place "had it all" actually more than we were looking for. A roof deck, a fire place, a balcony, an elevator (for only 4 floors!) and a garage, with automatic door opener and direct access to the building. The building had been rebuilt to replace the one that had been destroyed in a gas explosion in 1985, hence all the modern amenities, and no gas. Across the street was the Jean B. Waldstein park. The best feature of which was the laughter of the children sledding in the winter that would float up to our window, the sunset through the majestic trees were a treat too. The T access was to die for and the car simply sat in the garage. The Star Market was a two minute walk, the rest of Washington Square not much further. I often took walks on Fisher Hill, I felt the remains of the Longyear museums' formal garden were my secret sanctuary before the condos came. Oddly enough, no one else did. One day I was shopping for a present for my Dad at a flashy gift store at the Atrium Mall and the woman behind the counter said "You're the woman who I see walking in my neighborhood!" That's how unusual my activity was I guess. I was rather persistent and did not let bad weather deter me. I subscribe to the dictum that there is no inclement weather, just inappropriate clothing choices.

I relate this anecdote to illustrate some features of this neighborhood. While I loved having the Park across the street, this park was mostly an activity park and I did not find myself hanging out there much. There were plenty of ball games, tennis, dog runs, etc. but its steep slope down into it and lack of welcoming seating areas did not create good gathering spaces. So in this regard, it did not seem to help create a cohesive neighborhood spot. While obviously some people walked to Washington Square, etc. the foot traffic seemed confined to Beacon St. Again there was not much loitering on the sidewalk. I took it upon myself to plant some planters to grace our buildings' front door and while I was out there doing that, plenty of people stopped to chat. But our building didn't have a stoop and people didn't really sit out there or spend time out on the sidewalk. If we had a porch or stoop, that would have made a big difference. The other conclusion is most people will not walk somewhere, just to go for a walk the way I did. Dog walkers do, and they often have a social interaction pattern of their own. But for everyone else, they need to be going somewhere or doing something. Without those draws, you won't get life on the streets. Our nearest gathering spots were in Washington Square. So, as much as I found many things to enjoy at this location, I did not have a strong sense of living or identifying with "a neighborhood".

My third spot, where I live now is on Browne Street. Once again I am in a U shaped courtyard building. Our courtyard is big, with beautiful 100 year old maple trees, and it takes a few moments to traverse the walkway from the sidewalk to my front door. This simple fact often brings me in contact with my neighbors. They are out of their cars, even if they have just parked out front. There is a walkway that is protected from traffic and is comfortable to stop and chat on. The people living in this building are welcoming. Is it a self-selecting phenomena? or just a function of the fact that the design of the building allows us the chance to get to know one another in an easy, casual way? Across the street is Winthrop Square park, containing the Minot Rose Garden and a children's play area. A constant stream of people, mostly mothers and children during the day and elderly in the afternoon flow to this place the minute the weather even nears 50 degrees. BU students stop as they pass on St. Paul St. On the weekends when the roses are in bloom the place is packed. Here I see an amazing mix of people chatting to each other or just sharing the space together. The ethnic and cultural diversity in this neck of the woods is pretty amazing. This is a well used park and a true meeting place for the neighborhood.

Browne Street itself doesn't carry much traffic, as it is short and very local access only. So, in terms of traffic noise, this is by far the quietest place I have lived. The birds in the tree outside by window wake me up. The quite street helps make the sidewalks the kind of place you want to stop on, so when you see your neighbor, you feel comfortable spending a few minutes catching up. And here is the biggest difference. There are lots of people out walking on the sidewalks! We all have somewhere to walk to, namely Coolidge Corner or the park or library and there are enough of us that there is some kind of critical mass. The routes we take are pretty predictable too, so this enhances the chance of us seeing each other. So, here, I do feel I live in a neighborhood, this place has achieved that illusive definition.

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