YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Take a Walk to Find Neighborhood's Soul


It was a ritual that had to be performed as soon as possible when we moved into another house--I had to walk around the block.

It was the only way I could get a bead on yet another new neighborhood; the only way I could reconcile myself to once again going through the painful process of finding new friends, new vacant lots and other areas of interest for a new kid on the block.

It was the only way I could get the feel, read the soul of the place where I would be living for another year, maybe two, if I was lucky.

My Daddy used to tell me that Mama had a case of the wanders. It had something to do with the fact that she lived in a rattrap of an old house in Kentucky for the first 23 years of her life. She hated that house, which was located as far on the wrong side of the tracks as you could get. It was a constant embarrassment of place, circumstance of birth and delegation of class, the negative effects of which she lives with to this day.

The outbreak of World War II and the many jobs available to women during that time were her ticket out of there. She met my father during her sweep through Denver (after stints in Connellsville, Penn., and Baltimore, Md.).

But even he couldn't keep her in one place for very long. We never stayed in any one area more than three or four years, and within that period we never stayed in any one house more than a year. And that's why I developed my ritual.

It was amazing what I could find out just by walking around the block, which I always did as soon as I could sneak away from the hubbub of movers and my mother's frantic cleaning of every surface before things could be put away.

I searched for a front yard filled with the paraphernalia of children: bikes (not tricycles or anything that had training wheels on it--too young), balls, skates and, maybe, bonus of bonuses, a tree swing.

These were the surest indications that children lived there. And back then, bicycles also bespoke the genders of their owners, so I could report back to brother Evan an almost exact count of boys in the neighborhood.

And if I was lucky, or the neighborhood was especially child intense, I would get to actually meet one or two of my prospective new friends, who would be drawn out of their houses by that wonderful kid radar that goes off when a new youngster walks down the street.

We'd stare at each other clumsily. If I liked the looks of them I'd say, "Hi." But usually, I'd just walk by slowly trying to track their friendliness quotient in the index of their eyes. In the best of cases someone would come up to me and start asking questions, a sure sign of an impending friendship. Several times I got chased home. Once, one extremely unfriendly boy came out and threw dirt clods at me.

In the best of scenarios I would come upon a collection of neighborhood youngsters in the middle of a game: baseball, hide-and-seek, hopscotch or marbles. This was the best way to check out the group, since representative kids from other blocks might also be present. (A block was the core area of measurement in my young world because I could move within its confines without crossing a street--something I was forbidden to do by myself until I was almost 10.)

My ritual hardly ever failed to produce results. Shortly after my initial block trip a cluster of neighborhood kids would just happen to come walking by my house. If I wasn't outside, they would just happen to make a lot of noise. I'd yell for my brother and we'd race to the door, stop, gather our nonchalance about us, and then amble out and slouch into the two big Adirondack chairs that always sat on the front porches of our houses, wherever they were located. We were perfect souls of indifference.

Then, that almost psychic and wordless interaction that is instinctive to only the very young would begin. We'd find a thread of common interest: a stone, a marble, the shredded remains of a kite caught on a power pole. Once the verbal door was open, nothing was held back.

These holders of the wisdom of the neighborhood would start conveying it to us--the best and worst teachers, location of the nearest store where you could buy sodas and candy, the name of the kid who had a wading pool, secret hide-outs and the home of the neighborhood grouch.

After this, the rest was easy, until I had to do it all over again. Even after I left home and got my own apartment, I continued my ritual of checking out a new neighborhood by going around the block. Even though I had long ago been given permission to cross streets, and even though I now drove my own car, I never felt that anything gave me as good an indication of the soul of a neighborhood as that first block survey.

Eventually I married and moved into my own home. I made my husband accompany me on my first walk even before we started unpacking. A year later, my son was born. He wasn't more than a month old when I bundled him up and put him in his stroller for his first "walk" around the block. The ritual was repeated for each of my two daughters.

Los Angeles Times Articles