Monday, January 16, 2006

A Sense of Place

Celebration, Florida, is the first place I've ever lived that I've ever really cared about. I try to get involved because I love the town and hope to live here for the rest of my life. The only thing that would spur me to leave is if its character changed significantly. If the downtown ever disappears and the population density becomes too great, if the streets become too dark and empty because the vacation home owners outnumber the full-time residents, then I'll reluctantly leave. Why pay a premium to live in a town that's just like any other Florida subdivision? But so far, Celebration has retained most of its uniqueness, and I'm happy to call it home.

I never really though about why I love it so much and what defines a sense of place for me. I always thought it was the close proximity to Disney World and the overall quaintness of the town. But last night, through my online wanderings, I discovered that it's something deeper. It took a virtual return to my childhood neighborhood to show me that Celebration fulfills a sense of loss I didn't even realize that I had.

First, a bit of background. I spent my earliest years in a south Chicago neighborhood called Roseland. At the dawn of the 1960s, it was the quintessential old-town neighborhood. We lived in a cookie-cutter Chicago bungalow across the street from the grade school. Just a couple of blocks up, you could hop onto State Street or Michigan Avenue and head to the business district. It was known as "going up the Ave," and in doing so, you'd find movie theaters, hole in the wall Chinese restaurants that served the best food ever, mom and pop groceries with penny candy counters that contained all of paradise inside a glassy case, and gas stations where they still gave away free dinnerware with a fill-up. Go a little farther and you'd hit the big-time commercial zone, with the Peoples Store (an old-fashioned department store offering everything from clothing to housewares to a bakery, a grocery store, lunch counter that served burgers and Green Rivers, and even a barber shop), the Home Store (furniture) and a strip mall with drugstore, grocery, and coffee shop.

Sadly, that was the era of the infamous "white flight" to the suburbs. Within literally less than a year, every one of the neighbors on our block had fled. We stayed much longer than most, and I remember watching the mom and pop shops get boarded up one by one. One was owned by a friend of my dad's, and he tried to stick it out, but robbers shot him to death. The stores on the Ave were soon mostly abandoned, although some were converted to churches. The few that remained were fenced in by heavy-duty burglar bars. The gallant old movie house showed porno for a while before finally closing down for good.

People showed their homes to prospective buyers in the dead of night, and they moved out in the wee hours before dawn. One day a house would suddenly have new occupants, and the process would repeat itself a week or two later until we were the only original owners left on the block. I was much too young to understand the social, political, and economic forces behind what was happening. All I knew was that suddenly all my friends were gone and the streets that had once been familiar were now almost unrecognizable.

We stayed longer than most, so I witnessed the entire decline and fall of what had once been such a vibrant area. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't a racial issue, but rather an economic one. Our new neighbors were nice, but many had gotten FHA loans that they couldn't really afford. They soon lost their homes to foreclosure, and the abandoned structures were a magnet for squatters and gang bangers. The new residents who could afford their homes didn't want to stay in what was rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous areas in Chicago. Soon, our second wave of neighbors was moving out, too.

In the midst of all this, my dad died, and we moved to my grandparents' house in a nearby suburb where I did the rest of my growing up. But even though I only spent my earliest years in Roseland, it's the place I still think of as "home." We had a big backyard with a weeping willow, and I loved to swing from its branches. In the summer, I chased fireflies on the front lawn, and on the hottest days someone always opened a fire hydrant and flooded the street. In the winter, I loved to sled down the "hill" right across the street, formed by a grassy berm around the school.

For years, I put Roseland out of my mind. Occasionally I toyed with the idea of driving through my old neighbor, but by the 1980s it had one of the highest crime rates in all of Chicago. The one time I tried, a man banged on my car window at a red light and I peeled away, never to return.

Recently, I was looking for some information on the band Styx, which started in Roseland, and I found an online discussion site frequented by other displaced Roselanders. Someone mentioned that the county assessor's office has fairly recent pictures of all the properties. I followed the link, and soon enough I was looking at my very first home in a photo from five years ago. I could barely recognize it; there is an awning and a fence around the front yard now, and the maple tree that was a mere sapling four decades ago is massive. But the ghost of the home it had once been was superimposed in my mind over the picture on my laptop screen.

Intrigued, I plugged in street names and numbers and took a virtual tour of the old residential areas and business district. The properties are blighted, trash-strewn and boarded up now, and many of the buildings are completely gone. But the ghosts of what had once been welled up in my mind and dredged up memories buried for decades. My eyes grew misty at the thought that my very first neighborhood was gone forever. I still go back to my grandparents' old home, and to the neighborhood where I rented my first apartment (my brother's family still lives in that area). But they're not what I consider home; they were just substitutes that came later, out of necessity.

I was surprised at the well of emotion that my virtual tour stirred. Back on the discussion board, I read someone's post on how they frequently dreamed about Roseland. They said they believed that they were still haunted by their memories because there was no sense of closure. I pondered that thought, and it made a lot of sense. What a blow to lose every friend and neighbor in less than a year, with most of them disappearing literally overnight. How painful to see the stores with soaped up or boarded windows and to have to drive miles away just to get groceries. How frightening for a little child to overhear that the kindly old shopkeeper who gave her comics had been murdered in cold blood as he stood behind his counter.

Even though we didn't flee in the night, my world was ripped apart by the disappearance of everyone else. By the time my dad died, we were living a nomadic existence between Roseland and my grandparents' house so I could attend a suburban school. I wasn't allowed to have any friends lest they find out that we didn't live full-time in the school district.

The only good thing to come out of that whole sad era was that I learned not to be prejudiced. In my last year of school in Roseland, I learned how to felt to be a minority, picked on because of the color of my skin. But on the flipside, we had some wonderful African-American neighbors, and I saw that there is really no difference at a person's core. Even when we moved to the suburbs, I was fortunate enough to attend a diverse school, and my social circle had no regard for race. I had learned in childhood to judge people for who they are, and I'm thankful for that lesson.

After some introspection, I think I understand why Celebration is so important to me now. In many ways, it reminds me of that long-lost neighborhood. Back there, like here, the kids went to a neighborhood school and everybody on the block knew everybody else. You could borrow a cup of sugar or gather on the front stoop for an impromptu visit. You could walk to the business district to have lunch or catch a movie. The kids could bike around the neighborhood for hours or play games till darkness finally drove them home. Everybody knew everybody else; you couldn't venture to the post office or the coffee shop without waving or hollering, "Hi!" at least a dozen times. It had that sense of place that felt so good became you knew that it was your home.

Sure, Celebration has problems like vandalism and crime, but Roseland always did, too. No town is perfect, but some still manage to capture that elusive hometown feeling. In all the places I've lived between Roseland and Celebration, I had a house but not a home. I lived in those places for utilitarian reasons, but in my mind they were all interchangeable. I moved from each with no pangs of regret; they were simply stepping stones to new phases in my life.

But Celebration is a place I chose; I didn't believe all of the Disney propoganda, but I hoped that even a small kernel of it was true. And indeed it was...maybe it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy because others moved here for the same reasons, but I've found the place that I want to stay. It worries me to see changes that could affect the viability of the town because I never want to leave. I shudder at the thought of the downtown parking situation that could drive the stores out of business. I look at the empty storefronts in Water Tower Place, and a ghost of the soapy windows in Roseland dances around the corners of my mind. I watch more and more buildings go up, and their price tags keep going up, too, far beyond the reach of average families. Maybe we can overcome the challenges, but maybe someday I'll reluctantly leave and return to a utilitarian existence in a cookie-cutter Florida town with a smaller pricetag.

If that ever happens, I'll still carry a part of Celebration with me forever. Like Roseland, it will always be one of those rare places that I truly count as home.

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