Block and Awe

you can’t just sit back and hope your neighborhood stays neighborly

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Michelle Roberts

Looking back, I wish there’d been more stickball. And gangs of 11-year-old kids defending their turf. And little newsie caps. Lots of those.

I grew up on Eau Claire’s west side. When we first moved into our neighborhood, there were some older houses here and there, sprinkled around with new construction. We moved into a brand new home. The place wasn’t swarming with kids, but there were enough of us to play miniature games of baseball. Or, there would have been enough of us to play miniature games of baseball if we hadn’t lived on a hill.

So I didn’t grow up in The Sandlot. I grew up watching movies like The Sandlot. That’s OK, I guess. I just kind of wish everyone had been more connected – all the kids and all the families. We never had block parties or cook-outs.

Our street was angled into a gentle slope, so any group sports to be played in the street couldn’t involve spheres – not unless you wanted to spend half your time chasing balls down to the stop sign. And none of us did.

We played occasional baseball games in backyards, and there was always someone shooting hoops in their driveway (the hoops being bolted to the roof above the garage door). But honestly, there was far more cartoon-watching going on than base-running.

So really, there was no stickball at all. Of course, by the time I was a kid in my ball-smacking prime, “stickball” had long since given way to “aluminum bat purchased at Shopko ball.”

That said, an old-timey kid sport wouldn’t have provided what I wish we’d had – some sort of neighborhood bonding. Some sort of identity. No, by the time I was old enough to run around streets and alleys in a neighborhood gang, nobody really wanted to. Maybe in bigger cities. In movies. From the Eighties.

So I didn’t grow up in The Sandlot. I grew up watching  movies like The Sandlot. That’s OK, I guess. I just kind of wish everyone had been more connected – all the kids and all the families. We never had block parties or cook-outs.

Today I own a house in one of the city’s older neighborhoods, and there’s a lot more of that connectedness happening here. There aren’t any gangs of 11-year-old kids running around defending their turf, and rarely do I see a newsie cap, but you do get the occasional block party and the annual neighborhood picnic.

I talk more with my neighbors than I ever expected to. My next door neighbor has given me cart blanche access to his wheelbarrow. So that’s awesome.

And yet I have plenty of neighbors who look the other way when you walk by them. It depends on the neighbor, but I do see a lot of missed connections.

We’re lucky enough to have a neighborhood association – people who get trees planted and parks planned. People who take some responsibility for the place they call home. They make the difference between a crappy neighborhood and one you’re excited to live in. Those differences just don’t happen by accident.

I never really cared about all that when I was a kid. And I probably shouldn’t have since kids are supposed to be worried about riding bikes and cartoons and daring each other to stick different things up their noses. But now I care about the quality of life in my chunk of the city, and I don’t think you can just leave it up to chance. I mean, there’s no city department dedicated to “Making Mike Paulus’s Life Awesome.” There should be, but sadly there isn’t.

In short, it’s my solemn hope that one day stickball will make a comeback. Why not here?

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