By Sally Duros
Chicago Sun-Times December 21, 2007
It’s time to celebrate the end of the era of the Grinch, that crabby green fellow who lives in an isolated cave above the warmhearted community of Whoville, aiming to spoil the Who’s festivities.
He bears a resemblance to some real estate speculators. Only a heart two sizes too small could take delight in making money off the land and structures that define a place while sacrificing the intrinsic value of home and community that give that place its identity and form our emotional bond to it.
That’s not to say that change is bad, or development is wrong. But it takes a neighborhood to grow a home — and that’s a fact.
If you don’t believe me, ask me old dad — who will be 87 come the new year and still lives in the century-old house in Rogers Park he has lived in for 50 years of his life.
Although my dad’s house is certainly not the fanciest house on the block, my dad is the kind of neighbor you want in your Chicago neighborhood. He relishes clearing the ice and snow from his walk, and he can’t wait to rake. He’s not into fancy landscaping and statuary, but he likes a birdbath or two, and you can bet he plants a mean peony, and looks forward every Thanksgiving to the hardy rust- colored mums that bloom near the fence and the neighbor’s driveway.
It takes a neighborhood to grow a home, and that was proved last autumn when a mean wind blew into town and took down two large dead branches from the tree my dad had planted on the front lawn 45 years ago when my sister was born. Just a week earlier, we called the city to cut down the branches, but my dad’s not the kind of guy to push back against a recalcitrant city worker. The guy from Forestry said he was working overtime. “What do want me to do?” he asked, shrugging.
So when the big wind came, it blew the branches down and they crashed to the ground, tearing a big hole in the old-fashioned Sears chain-link fence, the kind with steel posts anchoring the corners and at regular intervals with long rolls of steel links stretched from post to post.
It took my dad several days to saw the big branches into manageable pieces and clear the timber debris from his fence and make a large but tidy pile of hard wood on his front lawn. He and my brother had done most of the labor by the time the city workers came to lend a hand.
But, still, he had a fence to be mended.
It’s not one of those fancy iron fences, but it supports the shrubs and for years it worked fine to keep the kids from running pell-mell through the yard and trampling the flower beds chasing after 16-inch softballs.
My dad, of course, wouldn’t pay anyone to fix it. He’s one of those fiercely independent homeowners who takes great pride in his ability to repair any problem with his house.
So he bought a new top pole for the wire to set against, and he went to work trying to re-align the crossed-wire with the corner post. Before he was through, two passersby, the block’s friendliest dog walker and two neighbors had lent a hand.
They stood huddled with my dad at the corner post, scratching their heads, puzzling the navigational dimensions of the problem, and then finally took charge of the pliers, holding the wire tight and straight so my dad could use both hands to screw the bolts and rebuild that corner of the fence.
The downing of the tree-branches turned out to be quite the neighborhood event.
And the fence mending in its modest, Chicago neighborhood way took on some of the positive characteristics of an old-fashioned barn-raising.
And that’s how it is in my dad’s neighborhood. People are always pitching in to lend a hand. That’s one of the benefits of settling into a place and getting to know well the people who live there.
That’s a big benefit of letting the neighborhood grow your home.
It’s a fact some of us might have forgotten during the hot speculative market in Chicago real estate of the past few years, when some Grinches among us were buying and selling homes simply to drive up prices.
This is not to say that everyone should live this way. But it is to say, that if you find yourself living in the house you are in for a while longer than you thought it might have unexpected benefits.
The next perennial holiday favorite could very well be “How the Pinch grew Christmas.”
Please pass the roast beast!