Friday, September 24, 2010

Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It's been a long time since I've lived in a city neighborhood where everything you need is within walking distance and the folks on the street greet you with a smile of recognition. Twenty years of living on a country road in Alabama have lulled me into the contented quietude of lush green landscapes and dark night skies where the nearest neighbor is half a mile away and every errand involves getting in the car. But dormant within has been the girl who grew up on the streets of New York City, walking the pavement with long-legged strides that never counted the miles while making the rounds of bodegas, dry cleaners and cafes where all the faces were familiar.

In Denver, where my husband now lives and works and where I visit for a month at a time, I've laid claim to a neighborhood: my walkable section of Capitol Hill, from 6th to 13th, from Broadway to Cheesman Park. My first visit to Denver was in the heat of July, and while many Coloradans stayed indoors and complained about the unusually high temperatures, I leashed up my little Shih Tzu, armed myself with sunscreen and a bottle of water, and took to the streets. The sun, a mile closer than in Alabama, felt good as I walked, and freed from the suffocating humidity of the deep South, I soaked it up like a tonic.

The neighborhood charmed me. I loved the small, stylish apartment buildings with names like "Bermuda," "Gaucho," and "Doris." I loved the big, grand corner houses with wrought iron gates and curved turrets. I loved the carefully-tended gardens with profusions of hollyhocks and purple sage, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. Returning in September, I found the gardens evolving towards fall with golden marigold, mums and late-blooming roses.

And then there's Poet's Row, a one-block stretch of Sherman Street that has captured my fancy. A showcase of Art Deco and Art Moderne styles built mostly in the 1930s, nine of the apartment buildings on this block are named for great American writers -- seven of them designed by the same architect, Charles Dunwoody Strong, a lover of literature and poetry. From the "Mark Twain" to the "Emily Dickinson," each three-story building is an eye-pleasing gem of fine proportions and elegant detail.

Walking east on 11th, the neighborhood changes to a family flavor. Along with the joggers and dog-walkers and bicyclists, I now pass parents carrying babies in papoose sacks and pushing toddlers in strollers. This is my favorite part. I like to see children growing up in friendly, diverse neighborhoods where they can learn tolerance, self-expression and good-citizenship -- the fundamentals of true community. As we neighborhood elders watch the little saplings grow and thrive they become, somehow, the responsibility and the hope of us all. Walking the track in Cheesman Park, I always swing through the playground where the sturdy little bodies and tousled heads remind me of my granddaughter Myra Laine, my family's first contribution to the generation that will take the reins halfway through this century.

As I walked to the park on a recent Saturday, a gentleman sitting in his lovely yard with a frosty pitcher of lemonade on a little table and an extra, empty chair beside it invited me to stop and have a cold drink. I map the neighborhood with feet on pavement, still an outsider, always ready for a conversation that will allow me to enter in, to connect, to hear a story. This gentleman, a neighborhood fixture, draws the neighborhood to him with an inviting tableau of refreshment and the aura of a benign spider in a friendly and welcoming web. I sat down to a cool glass of lemonade and a delightfully interesting conversation which I hope to continue.

From Tony's Market to Buffalo Exchange to Penn Street Perk to Cheesman Park, I've found everything I need in a nicely walkable neighborhood where cars yield to pedestrians and people greet one another with a smile. I like to think that, should I stay here for any length of time, I would be recognized as a neighborhood regular. "The fast-walking woman with the long legs and the little Shih Tzu keeping pace? Oh yeah, I've seen her around the neighborhood."

Photos of Poet's Row by Nik Layman
(Robert Browning, Mark Twain, detail of Louisa May Alcott)

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