Big bad changes are afoot in my old neighborhood. Dismay has led me to some strange places, including a children’s picture book, a local history text, and a 2009 Pixar movie.
The picture book is Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. Published in 1942, it depicts the story of a pretty pink house in the country surrounded by apple trees and farm fields. The man who builds it declares, “This little house shall never be sold for gold or silver and she will live to see our great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.” But she empties out as the parents age and their children disperse.
As the little house remains on the hill, the landscape around is transformed. From its embrace by green fields and a horizon-skimming sky, the house becomes crowded by other, bigger, houses. City streets supplant the farms, and more houses are built, then torn down to become apartments, then skyscrapers. Busy passersby no longer notice the little old house.
This may remind you of the premise of Pixar’s wonderful movie “Up,” which features a similar house, lived in by a loving couple who grow old together. The death of Ellie leaves Carl a crotchety loner. His solution? Attach the house to enough balloons to fly it away into amazing adventures. Even when he must let the house go, it lands in just the spot he and his wife had dreamed of.
I love a happy ending. But if this rezoning goes through, three of Dubuque’s own little houses will be demolished, their lots rezoned “Commercial—Shopping Center” for a laundromat plus other “multiple options” under consideration by the man from DeWitt who now owns the lots.
These are dwellings that once housed our across-the-street neighbors. Granted, University is not some bucolic country road, but my kids and I managed to cross it safely many times in the two decades we called it our own. My son’s friend Jason lived in one of them; next door lived a wonderful family who babysat when I worked nights.
For decades, it was a pleasantly mixed neighborhood, close to a bank, a drugstore, and Nanny Goat’s, the ice cream shop that came back to life every summer. (They gave out coupons for free cones to all of us nearby, compensation for anything dropped in our yards by their customers. What a nice way to make yourself welcome.) Fire Station 4, at the corner of University and Grandview, contributed periodic bursts of excitement, and the firefighters were friendly to any curious kid or adult. After all, they lived there, too.
Allison-Henderson Park, just to the east, allows kids to swing in the summer and coast down a gentle slope in the snow. My daughter loved that place so much, she spent most of one long afternoon picking up litter—not for glory or cash, but because that’s how you treat a place you love.
Not long after we moved there, the city condemned a half-dozen perfectly good houses east of Grandview. New healthcare facilities were built, along with a new bank and drugstore. Though we didn’t know the people living in those houses very well, they were familiar to us, because we delivered newspapers to them every day for years. My daughter told me she had watched these displaced families as they stood on the other side of the street, watching their front porches and living rooms and bedrooms fall to the ground, turned to rubble in a day.
Of course those families had been paid for their houses, and made new homes elsewhere. But they stood watching with tears rolling down their faces. Allison was equally sad, wondering, “Could that happen to our house?”
I wanted to reassure her, but I watched with dread as other nearby houses became rentals. Those behind our alley seemed safe—larger, more expensive, not quite as close to the gas station and restaurants. When we moved, we hoped the new owners would love our tall house as much as we had. Now over 150 years old, evidence of that house can be seen in a Sanborn fire map on page 266 in Dubuque on the Mississippi. Its ceilings are high; the wood floors glow in the sun.
Now, though, I fear its days are numbered. I wish we could move it out to the country, the way the Little House’s people had done. Lacking that, maybe someone can attach it to a zillion balloons, taking it far from harm.
But the man who now owns the three houses in the 1600 block of University has other ideas. Where I see homes and patios and lamps coming on at night, he sees profits to be made, and stuff to be sold, at businesses already abounding in Dubuque. At least one member of the Dubuque Zoning Advisory Commission has already written off the area’s future, declaring, “To me, it doesn’t look like residential is going to be sustainable there anyway.”
It may look commercial to her, but that’s only because past rezoning decisions have already allowed commercial encroachment in what used to be a neighborhood where people lived and thrived. If the City Council gives up on this area, what’s next? Will other old homes and leafy trees give way to even more strip malls?
It shouldn’t take a house-moving truck, or a bright bunch of helium balloons, to keep a neighborhood alive. We need leaders who look at a row of houses and see homes, not commercial opportunities.
Please don’t let my family see our old—but sturdy, and lovely—house come down. Do you want inviting, sustainable neighborhoods to attract and keep good people in Dubuque? Then take off your blinders and see the possibilities. “Sustain” is a verb. Do it.