Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Identity Crisis

“Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood,

in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood,

Say who are the people in your neighborhood—

The people that you meet each day?”

Jeffrey Moss, Song, “People in Your Neighborhood” Sung by Bob McGrath

My neighborhood is suffering from an identity crisis. You see, Cambridge is divided up into areas, and (almost) each one has a name. One neighborhood is called “Agassiz” (And the school within its limits had the same name, until a student was researching the man named Agassiz for a report, and found out he’d made some racist comments. Now the school goes under a different name, but the community's name remained). There’s the Harrington area, where I used to live, and Huron Village, which is just as cute as it sounds. Every area has a name, except mine – I live in Area Four. We used to be part of Cambridgeport, but at some point it was split in half along Massachusetts Avenue, and was never renamed.

Several years ago, our newspaper “The Cambridge Chronicle” had a contest to choose a name for our area. I was chosen among the winners, for North Port, which I liked for two reasons: 1) We are north of Cambridgeport, and 2) I grew up in East Northport (Which is really was South of Northport, and was originally called Larkfield). For my efforts, I won a gift certificate to Toscanini’s ice cream shop, and my area name, along with a few other winners, were submitted to the Cambridge City Council. Just like my manuscripts, none of the names were chosen. They may have died in committee.

I’ve lived in Cambridge for eight years, and have lived in Area 4 for the last six, which many consider the least desirable neighborhood in Cambridge. Just before we moved, there was a drive-by shooting about three blocks down, next to a big cluster of low-income housing units. I don’t want to make it sound like this area is dangerous, because I feel relatively safe, and I don’t even live in the poorest part. It’s also significantly improved – we haven’t had to call the police to break up fights for a couple of years. I also should mention that the façade of our house is the shabbiest in the vicinity, with dog-eared peach asbestos siding. Area 4 isn’t the most crime-ridden, but it has the largest proportion of low-income homes dotted about the area. And while it may not be as beautiful as some neighborhoods, and a handful of residents are not concerned about their volume levels or adhering to some common courtesies, I’m quite fond of it.

My biggest dilemma regarding the neighborhood (believe it or not) has been on the subject of where to trick-or-treat for Halloween. As a child, I just begged for candy where I lived. The first time my children trick-or-treated in the new neighborhood, it was fine, except for some teenagers pushing one another into the street. The real downside was that we rang a lot of bells at condos and apartment buidlings where nobody answered. There’s a rule of thumb that if people have their porch lights on, then kids can ring those bells. Since we have a greater number of larger houses, with a bunch of apartments inside, it’s not realistic to ring all the doorbells. And if people want to give out candy in those kinds of places, they usually set up shop on their stoop. By now, we know which houses give out sweets. One older neighbor at Hampshire and Elm Streets, gets into the Halloween spirit, with life-size monsters and smoke. But many families leave the neighborhood to trick-or-treat in nicer neighborhoods, sometimes leaving candy on their porches (Only to be greedily gobbled up by the first few groups of kids).

We’ve almost always divided our time between our neighborhood and one that’s been more festive. Most years, we’ve spent time in the Inman area, where a family friend lives. Last year, we trick-or-treated with my son’s friends in the Cambridgeport area. I couldn’t believe how many people decorated to the nines, wore costumes, and sat on their porches, giving out candy and homemade sweets. This year, we spent half of our time in the Agassiz area, where they close off a large block, and the residents decorating around a theme. This year’s theme was prehistoric – larger-than-life dinosaurs, a volcano, and the vehicle from the Flintstone’s that said “Prehistoric Prius” in the rear.

Looking around in awe, I said to my husband, “Why don't we do something like this in our neighborhood?” He laughed. But it got me thinking about the possibilities. We live at a corner, and the side-street would be perfect to set up a two-block Halloween-themed extravaganza of our own. For the most part, the two blocks are pretty residential. And if we had a party, it might keep people from leaving our neighborhood to trick-or-treat in a better one.

I remember when I was young; growing up in New York City, we never had anything like block parties – that was something that my cousins had in the suburbs of Long Island. But my childhood city streets were busier. And now that trick-or-treating seems more family-oriented since the first years we moved to Area 4, why not make it even better? I have some months to mull it over.

I voted a couple of hours ago, and just before I went inside the polling place, the mayor, who also lives in Area 4, shook my hand and asked for my number one vote for City Council (I won’t even get into our crazy system of voting here). After voting, while I was making my way home, watching the several-block-area of low income rentals get scrubbed and repaired, I passed by the house across the street (where the man was killed years ago), owned by a friendly older dreadlocked Haitian man who fixes the old place a little at a time, I kicked myself for not mentioning the North Port name to the mayor. In the moment, she may have agreed to present it to the council, just to secure my vote. We have a diverse, vibrant community here that just needs its own name. Hopefully, North Port.


  1. hey, you're just 47 areas away from area 51. : j That's pretty neat.

    The prehistoric prius is pretty rich! I'll bet that's one prius that isn't going to go runaway. ; j

    North Port sounds like a good name... I wonder how your neighbors feel about it?

    I've never been to or near a block party, I suspect that such things wind up putting a lot of work on one person... But maybe that is just my optimistic nature speaking.

  2. @ Alesa, is Area 51 where you live?

    I don't think most people in Area 4 know about the newspaper contest and the city council not acting on any name.

    It's funny you commented on the block party idea. I forgot all about my declaration to have one. Now I'm not so keen. It would be a lot of work. Though now would be a great time we just got new sidewalks. It looks much nicer.

  3. What do you mean by that? ; j
    Are you calling me a spook? Or an alien perhaps?

    That's right I live in the secret annex of area 51, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Heheh.