The family house has left the family. Built in 1898, the two-story frame house was sold last fall for far more than I would have guessed and probably more than it was worth. The 1200 block on Carmen Avenue in Chicago’s uptown area is a mix of wooden and brick houses along with low-rise, three-story, apartment buildings-most of them owner-occupied. Chicago two-flats, once ubiquitous, are a tribute to the value put on home ownership and thrift: the owner and mortgage-holder living in one apartment, the rent-paying tenant in the other. Gradually these houses are being torn down and replaced by condominiums of four and six apartments in which everyone becomes a mortgage holder. Deep lots and wide frontage make these frame houses attractive to developers, who have bought up several on the block and replaced them with square brick buildings built to the property edges. Front yards, side yards, back yards disappear; porches are no more. There is no grass to mow or shrubs to trim, no liminal territory, thresholds where inside and outside, private and public subtly mingle.
Our old house, 1257 Carmen, awaits the demolition crew. O’Briens of three generations lived there for more than sixty years, beginning with my uncle and then my father, and ending with my sister and her children. No preservationist sprang to save it, nor did a young family appear, eager to renovate. Were buyers put off by the drab, brown-shingled exterior, an economy my uncle made to avoid painting, or by the concrete stoop, another economy? That square mass of concrete replaced a wrap-around wooden porch once the scene of childhood dramas, story-telling, doll play, a world outside the house but inside the yard. In adolescence, the steps of the concrete porch served as debating posts for sorting out the world with friends and schoolmates. Civil rights, unions, Korea, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, romance, and gossip filled the summer nights as pressing points were argued up and down the stairs and back and forth between the iron banisters. The back porch, with glider and chairs, was mostly family territory, except when my mother, leaning over the porch rail, traded state secrets with the woman next door leaning over hers. Care of the yards, back, front, and side, were the bane of my uncle’s life until he retired to Florida. Then, that bit of land became my father’s territory: flowers bloomed, shrubs were planted, trees fed and pruned. Though my father had been a working man all his life, this planting and tending seemed to come naturally, seemed to be part of the cultivator and peasant that he really was. He had lived on Carmen Avenue most of his life, growing up farther down the leafy street in a house long ago sold to strangers. His children, and his nieces and nephews, lived on his street, went to his school and church, even had some of his teachers, looked at the same houses, trees, sometimes knew the same neighbors. Now, he is gone, his garden to...
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