by Constance Sleger
In urban renovation, the focus is often on the interior and exterior building. Plumbing, paint, roof, granite counters, engineered floors, blah, blah. We stumbled across a piece of land that happened to have a house on it. This is an account of the land.
I had a modest East Side duplex with a very small yard, which I owned with an estranged ex-boyfriend. We were both still living in it in different units. Eventually through lawyers we agreed on sales terms and the end came quickly. Rosemary Sandretto from Terapak Realty came to see it and list it. She and Norm unloaded the property for us in less than a week. After splitting the proceeds, there might have been enough for a down payment on another modest house.
I saw that very house on the Terapak website, lyrically described as an old farmhouse in the northern reaches of Riverwest with a wraparound porch and an apple tree. In the frothy housing market of 2003, the place had been listed for more than two months. Something was probably wrong with it. Of course I wanted it.
My niece and I drove up to see the place one drippy night in April. Cool! Boo Radley! she said as we pulled into the drive.
Well, kind of. The place was trashy and neglected and in the mist it looked haunted. The yard was choked with old doors, rotting lumber, rusty corrugated iron, and weeds.
But still I wanted it. A row of tall straight poplars with pale grey trunks fronted the property. And there was the porch, the old apple tree, and plum trees getting ready to blossom. Nearby was the river.
The offer was accepted and so we closed in spring of 2003. Scott and I moved in on the last and rainiest weekend of May.
First, we had a deadline with the City: fix up the exterior in sixty days or else. After the occupancy certificate came clearing the land: digging up stumps, removing endless garbage, pulling up bales of garlic mustard, picking out glass and nails and old toys imbedded in the ground. As my parents had done when they bought a wrecked farmhouse out in the northern Kettle Moraine almost forty years ago, so did I. I knew there was nothing to be afraid of.
We collected bricks and granite pavers and other hardscape materials lying around the yard, and created paths. There was a lot to collect; the longest-lived owners of the house had been a German mason and his family. Hardworking and maybe obsessed with masonry, he paved over much of the front yard. Scott sledged it out, I built retaining walls out of the pieces, and we hauled the rest away. Then a dump truck came and left tons of topsoil in the yard. We covered over the moonscape, planted grass and yews, and shaped a berm to control wind and create privacy on the alley side.
Over the past two years we have turned over almost the entire yard to at least one spades depth. Considering all the abuse the land has undergone, the soil is amazingly black and loamy. To cover it, we broadcast pounds of white clover seed all around. We visited nurseries, plant shows and farmers markets, and accepted plants from family and friends. I built a compost bin. Both wild and cultivated flowers bloomed. Passing neighbors smiled and gave compliments, and we shared with them a bumper crop from our red plum tree.
One day a while ago when we were both at work, all of our garden tools as well as a red wheelbarrow filled with compost disappeared. Whod want a rusty old mattock? A plastic yard rake? The compost? Maybe they turned up at a rummage sale somewhere else. We learned that ownership is sometimes not respected by some few passers-by, and so we learned to keep our tools out of sight.
This neighborhood is debatable. Sometimes strangers with no seeming good intent knock on our door in the middle of the night, or enter the yard to work a scam. Occasionally, police cruise by searching for suspects, or we get rumor of a nearby mugging or burglary. Still, I like to think that we are fighting the forces of chaos up here with a lawnmower and pruning shears. When we sit on the porch on a warm day with cold beers and the Weber grill going, and a view of the trees in the river valley, we know we created this.
The lesson is?
Do there have to be lessons?
We learn from what we do and then we want to talk about them (I do anyway). So heres one: you get dirty but dirt washes off.
Or: just because nobody else wanted it, doesnt mean it doesnt have value.
Or: if you dump your baggage, opportunities open up. Old houses appear just when you need them. Everything we are or aspire to is right splat there in the yard like a big old billboard. You may roll your eyes, or you may admire, or you may just observe for a while to see what will happen next.
Riverwest Currents online edition – January, 2006