After renting for the first four years of our marriage, Dale and I decided it was time to buy our own home. We had limited financial resources, however, so as we searched the market for something we could afford, we gravitated toward the city of Harrisburg. About the same time, a pastor acquaintance was selling his home on Mulberry Street in the city. We checked out the house, liked it well enough, decided the price was right, and closed the deal. We were able to assume the pastor’s family’s mortgage, which had 15 years left on it, at an interest rate that was very low for the time. We moved into our new home – a semi-detached house on the corner of Mulberry and 18th Streets – at the end of August 1975, when Dana was not quite two years old.
Moving into the city wasn’t something we initially planned to do, and it probably would not have been our first choice if we could have afforded anything else. When we announced our decision to friends and family, one of the first questions was almost always, “What about the schools”? The Harrisburg City Schools didn’t have a very good reputation then (and they certainly don’t now!). Our best answer at the time was that the people from whom we bought the house assured us that their experiences had been good in the city elementary schools their kids went to, so we planned to take it one step at a time. At that point, we still had three years until Dana would be ready for school.
We lived in that house in Harrisburg for more than 17 years, and celebrated lots of milestones there, including Derek’s birth in 1978 and Dana’s graduation from high school in 1992. Our end of the street was relatively stable; many of the neighbors who were there when we moved in were still there when we moved out. The neighborhood was also ethnically diverse: a Greek family lived in the other half of our house (and we often enjoyed baklava, stuffed grape leaves and other Greek delicacies they shared with us), and there were African Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Caucasians living at our end of the block. A large Indian family – who had come to the United States as refugees from Idi Amin’s reign of terror in Uganda – lived right across the street. Dana had ready-made playmates in that family, including a little girl who was almost exactly her age. Tarnum and her brothers and younger cousins (all boys) spent lots of time at our house, and Dana spent lots of time at theirs, including frequently eating their Indian curries with them after she had already eaten dinner at home. Our house was also only a few blocks from the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church where we had friends from college, and so we had a built-in support system, especially later on when the kids were in school.
When it did become time to make a decision about school, we chose the city schools. I have always been a supporter of public education and so it seemed like the right and natural thing to send Dana to the local public elementary school when she was ready for K-4 (the Harrisburg City Schools’ name for pre-K in those days), and to do the same five years later when Derek was ready. They both had a series of excellent teachers, especially in elementary school, who were as skilled and caring as in any school anywhere; some names that come to mind are Mrs. Mahey, Miss Herman, Mrs. Rutt, Ms. Armstrong, Mrs. Fontane, Ms. O’Brien. (I’m sure Dana and Derek can remember a lot more names than I can.) Despite a few challenging episodes along the way, after 14 years in the city schools (K-4, K-5, grades 1-12), Dana graduated from Harrisburg High School third in her class, quite adequately prepared for college. On the other hand, perhaps because he came through five years later, perhaps because he was a boy, the school situation wasn’t as good for Derek by the time he went to middle school.
Besides school, another issue some of our suburban friends raised when they heard we were living in the city was whether it was safe. I distinctly remember being dropped off at our house one time by someone with whom I had traveled somewhere. As we entered the outskirts of our neighborhood, she made sure her car doors were locked because she was convinced she was entering dangerous territory. To be sure, it probably wasn’t a bad idea to lock the doors, and I’m glad now that my car has a feature that automatically locks the doors when I start the car, but at the time, I found her actions slightly insulting – especially since she was going to drop me off at my home right in that “dangerous” section of town! For the most part, I felt very safe living in the city, although we did have a few incidents: batteries stolen out of our car, another whole car stolen (later found by the police somewhat stripped but fixable), yet another car broken into, our house burglarized while we were away. The burglary was probably the most disconcerting, especially since the only items that were stolen were toys, mostly Derek’s toys, and we always suspected it was an acquaintance of Derek’s who broke into the house. As a result, the last few years we lived in the city, I think Derek often felt very vulnerable. Thinking about it now, more than 20 years later, still makes me angry and sad.
As I read back over what I just wrote, I worry that I’m giving the wrong impression about our experience of urban living and contributing to negative stereotypes about the city. I really don’t want to give the city a bad rap it doesn’t deserve and the important reality is that we had a good life in Harrisburg. The 17+ years we lived there were good years, filled with lots of wonderful family and community memories, and the bad things that happened could have happened anywhere. Looking back through old photographs reminds me of all the life we lived in that house, the good neighbors we had, the good friends both kids had, and the rich diversity we experienced on a daily basis that we don’t have where we live now. There are so many more stories I could tell that I should probably write another post! When we moved out of the city in early 1993, it was the right thing to do, but it was also hard to say goodbye to a place where we had learned a lot, made many memories and marked many milestones as a family.