I grew up in a block-party neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, though our street stopped hosting them when crime rates rose. It was the mid 90s. Blue-collar workers were moving out. Gangs were moving in. When our garage was robbed, my parents announced we’d be leaving soon, too. But until then, I went to my friends’ block parties on the safer side of Pulaski.
Their streets were draped in festive streamers. When the sun bore down, we tossed water balloons at each other until we were laughing hard and dripping wet. The grill smoke dried our clothes. Every front lawn displayed a buffet of fruit salad and coleslaw. For dessert, we sat on curbs and sucked cherry-flavored freeze pops. We jumped in air-filled castles until dusk.
As the sky went dark, my favorite sound was the squeak of a porch door, because it was safe to go into anyone’s house to use their bathroom or sneak a Sprite. It’s the way things had been on my block until gunshots sounded in Marquette Park and everyone started locking their doors.
In the 20 years since we left, my old neighborhood has become notorious for its homicide rates. Streets are draped in police tape and the red splatters on the curb come from blood, not freeze-pops. I’ve relocated my own family from Illinois to Massachusetts and back again, searching for something I couldn’t quite describe until we moved to Wilmette and summer started.
I was trailing behind my son’s tricycle when a neighbor offered to let him jump on her trampoline with her boys. Another mom taped a note to my door inviting us over for a playdate. Lemonade stands popped up on front lawns. This August we’ll have the first block party I’ve attended since I was twelve.
But it all clicked the other evening, when our neighbor walked through her backyard to ours holding a bouquet of pink peonies from her garden. “I figure we’re back porch neighbors now,” she said, and she was right.
So we opened our squeaky door and welcomed her.