My wife, Marcia, and I are suburban kids; she grew up in White Bear Lake, and I was raised in Bloomington. Yet, most of our lives were spent in cities with orderly, right-angle intersections and traditional street names and numbers like 54th and Russell Avenue South — which, for many years, was our corner and our address in southwest Minneapolis. It was the classic 1920s streetcar neighborhood with ancient elms, wide boulevards and quiet streets.
Lynnhurst Park, Mount Olivet Lutheran Church and Lake Harriet were close by. Minnehaha Creek was a block away. There was a corner grocer, a hardware store, an ice cream parlor and a bakery. Two good legs, a bike or the Bryant-Penn or Xerxes Avenue bus routes could take us anywhere we wanted to go. A car was an afterthought. It was perfect except for one thing. The neighbors were missing. Not in a literal sense — there were people and families who lived along our block — but absent the occasional pleasantry or greeting, we barely knew them. It was a neighborhood of strangers.
A lot had to do with our age and the fact that we were busy with our lives and our careers. We worked all day and were seldom around except on the weekends. Even then, we were occupied with other things. Everyone on the block experienced the same. There was no sense of community or belonging. We knew a family that lived across the street. When they had a fire that ruined their home, the fire department put out the fire, the house was immediately repaired and restored, and they quietly moved away without a word to anyone.
There was the same disconnect when we lived in other places and neighborhoods in Wisconsin and New York. Everyone had a small world and stayed in it. Marcia was involved in her work and in art and historic preservation groups outside our immediate neighborhood, and I was as well, but once we moved in and introduced ourselves to the neighbors, very little was said thereafter.
Not so when we came back to Minnesota and moved to Pleasant Street in Prior Lake. Neighbors helped us get settled. We could sit on our front porch and have coffee and say hello as people walked by. When an old tree came down in our backyard, our neighbors cut it up and helped cart it away. We help mow their lawns and they help with ours. After a snowfall, clearing driveways and sidewalks are community projects.
What’s been called a “small-town feel” was there for us before it had a name, and it came to be more meaningful when the city and the county announced plans to close Main Avenue, cut off the downtown, run County Road 21 down Pleasant Street and destroy the neighborhood. That threat pulled people together in a way that I’d read about, but never personally experienced anywhere before.
Christmas is Sunday, and it’s no time to revisit these issues, but in a cynical era it’s good to live in a community and a neighborhood where people say Merry Christmas in December but live the Christmas spirit every day of the year.
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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)