by Carol A. Westbrook
When I was child, I knew every square inch of the streets in my Chicago neighborhood. I could tell you which trees grew where, which houses had the grumpy people to avoid on Halloween, which grass patches had four-leaf clovers, which stretch of sidewalk had the most black chewing-gum spots, and which playgrounds had the fastest slides. It was my world, a world of texture and wonder. I knew the detail so well because my school friends and I walked the half-mile home from school every day. Of course, that was back in the 1950's, when children were expected to walk home after school, and some of us even went home for lunch. The neighborhoods were safe then because everyone knew everyone else, and there were so many people on foot that they could look out for the kids.
Even today, I enjoy walking through the streets of my current neighborhood in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Come along with me and I'll show you things you wouldn't otherwise notice in a car. We can peer into the living rooms of grand houses, such as the one on the right, once owned by a politician or a wealthy coal mine-owner whose mine has long since been abandoned. Some of these stately homes have been gentrified, like mine, while others are derelict. I'll point out some very big, very old trees–and a small but thriving dawn redwood newly planted in a municipal park. We'll read the historical markers about Indian chiefs long dead, whose people have disappeared from our midst. We'll cross a bridge over the mighty Susquehanna River, and then walk over the levee into the bottomlands under the rusting train trestle bridge, where frogs jump and catfish hunt them–just a half-mile from the city center.
Recently I re-visited my old neighborhood in Chicago and walked home from school again. Fifty years later, and I still remembered much of the detail. A few of my favorite trees were still standing, much increased in girth. The penny-candy stores were gone from the corners, but Al's tavern was still there (with a new name, but the same old signs). Sadly, most of the houses had barred windows, and all the yards had locked gates. I was the only person on foot. Times have changed.