Friday, October 13, 2000
Another neighborhood Heald Road celebrates a sense of community
"Community" has become a watchword for what's lacking in modern society. In many Carlisle neighborhoods, two-acre zoning, house setbacks and privacy screens make casual contact between neighbors infrequent. So how do people develop a sense of community? This question was answered in many ways as I interviewed a group of residents of Heald Road, a typical Carlisle neighborhood where privacy is valued and where people connect, even if chats at the back fence are few.
A neighborhood coming to its 35th birthday, Heald Road's original owners are slowly giving way to a new generation, forming a mixed neighborhood of families with children of all ages, as well as working people and senior citizens. Most houses on Heald Road are Deck houses, a style popular for family living with a casual, outdoorsy bent, and most are set away from the road and surrounded by woods. Heald is a connector between Acton and South Streets, and Judy Farm and Berry Corner Roads are offshoots of Heald. In total, about sixty houses form the Heald/Judy Farm/Berry Corner neighborhood.
To get a sense of the neighborhood, I talked to a variety of residents, including newcomers, some who have been here for a while, and a few of the earliest "settlers." All shared an affection for a neighborhood where quiet, privacy, and communion with nature are often valued as highly as interactions with humans.
Often we glorify the old-fashioned neighborhood where children play together without adult supervision and where neighbors know each other like family, but people on Heald Road value their privacy and are not afraid to admit it. In fact, many I spoke to had lived in what one resident called "a neighborhood-y neighborhood" and came to Heald Road to get away from that.
An example is Lois Zambello who moved to Carlisle from Winchester with her husband Joe and five children in 1998. Citing the density and the noise in Winchester, Lois was uncomfortable with young children running around the neighborhood unsupervised. She appreciates that people in Carlisle "respect your privacy but are friendly and nice, without the snobbiness you find elsewhere."
A similar perspective is shared by Lynne DiCristina, who moved to Heald Road with her husband and kindergarten-aged child last September. Having lived in Arlington for nine years, Lynn found the first month in Carlisle, "a shock. In Arlington, everyone knew each other, but here I could walk the neighborhood and not see another soul." After a couple of weeks, however, Lynn saw her child blossom in her new school and "knew we had made the right decision." Lynn also grew to appreciate the peace and quiet and the natural life that surrounds her. She found walking her dog helped her meet neighbors who were "very warm and friendly, and always willing to chat."
Connections through kids
"The schools are the primary method of integration," says Zambello. She relates how standing at the bus stop waiting for the school bus and participating in her children's classroom activities helped her meet other mothers, both in the neighborhood and outside. "The women I met were so friendly and helpful," she says, adding that Carlisle has many new families which "makes it welcoming." Both on Heald Road and in the town at large, there are both stay-at-home and working moms, but Zambello, who worked full time when she first moved and now stays home, senses no divisions. "This is a family-oriented town. Everyone's united in the goal of providing the best community for children." Dads also connect through kids, says Zambello, citing her husband Joe's involvement with youth soccer.
DiCristina also found volunteer work at the school a useful introduction. The other mothers were "willing to include me from the word go," she says, and she enjoyed coffee and lunches with them after the Writers Workshop. Involvement in the Carlisle School Association's Newcomers Group helped introduce her to other mothers new to town. "Activities are really the key to meeting people," says DiCristina, adding "people are very open here, but staying connected takes time and energy."
Activities spawn connection
Susan Evans, a Heald Road resident since 1995, agrees. "In this community, you can't stay in your house and expect someone will come visit. I meet people because I make an effort." Evans and her husband, who formerly lived in the Carlisle town center, have long been involved in town volunteer work, Susan as Old Home Day chair and Scott as Captain of the Carlisle Minutemen. "In the center we knew everybody," Evans says. "If I was gardening or the kids were playing in the yard, people walking by would stop and chat." House setbacks on Heald Road prevent that kind of easy interaction, but, according to Evans, people living here aren't looking for that. "People move here to have privacy and quiet," Evans says, adding, "But this is a friendly town...people here are very down-to-earth."
"Kids, church and sports are the ways you know your neighbors," says longtime resident David Ives. Although his kids are now grown, many of the people he stays in touch with he met years ago through involvement with Cub Scouts and youth sports. In addition, "A number of us belong to the Unitarian Church, and that's where we see each other. Occasionally we may get together for a barbecue." He adds that some of the women go to the Merrimack Theater every month or so. But big neighborhood get-togethers are rare on Heald Road. "Where would we draw the line?" asks DiCristina, alluding to the large number of houses and no obvious geographic subdividers.
Sonya Stevenson, a resident of Heald Road since 1966, remembers early days in the neighborhood, then known as "Fox Hill," when neighbors "did more things together." She recalls neighborhood Christmas parties and Fox Hill floats in the Old Home Day parade,
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adding, "that kind of thing has gone by the boards." She says most mothers were at home then, and perhaps had more time. Fifteen-year resident Paula Trebino, who works full time, expressed a similar sentiment, "Between working and family responsibilities, that's all you have time for."
The walking subculture
"If you want to know what's going on in the neighborhood, talk to one of the walkers," says Trebino. Many of her neighbors walk daily and stop frequently to chat with other walkers. This "walking subculture" brings together all ages and situations. Longtime neighbor Stevenson keeps in touch by "waving and passing the time when I'm out walking...it helps me keep up on who's new in the neighborhood," whereas DiCristina says, "having a dog (to walk) really helped me get to know people in the neighborhood."
While adults walk, neighborhood kids are less likely to be seen biking due to the commuter traffic on Heald Road. "I wish I could let my kids ride around the neighborhood, but people come through here from all over," says Zambello, who limits her older kids to biking to friends' houses, noting that "these are commuters, not townspeople." Zambello mentions that her kids were recently reprimanded by a driver who didn't want to share the road with them and their bikes.
Kids meet at the bus stop and the neighborhood gathers for trick-or-treating on Halloween. Neighborhood playdates are also common, particularly for younger children, but impromptu gatherings are less so, possibly due to the limitations on how far a child can walk or bike.
Trebino expresses some regret that her kids couldn't "just go out and play around the neighborhood," but "my kids found their own friends at school," so she got used to driving them around town. "I couldn't believe how much driving I had to do," adds DiCristina. "But this neighborhood is very convenient. I can reach Concord, Westford and Acton in a matter of minutes" for shopping and recreation.
According to Stevenson, Heald Road has never been a road on which young kids could easily bike. She recalls her four children "stuck close to home and happily did things together." Then as now, a car was necessary for getting around to her kids' activities.
Does neighborhood matter?
So when adults find connection through activities, and kids make friends at school, does a neighborhood matter? The answer seems to be that the neighborhood is there for those who want it. As Trebino explains, "Carlisle neighborhoods (like Heald Road) are unique."
In interviewing for this article, I was struck that several people mentioned a new family moving in and expressed an intention to visit with a casserole. Zambello confirmed that this is typical. "When I moved in, almost all my neighbors came over with something and introduced themselves." But while most people seem open to new acquaintances, it is still possible for neighbors to live close to each other without connecting. Ives, for example, mentioned a "mystery woman" who lives nearby who seems uninterested in knowing her neighbors. Even neighbors who are friendly can get out of touch when paths don't cross. Recently Ives found a neighbor's cat collar in his yard and says, "I was glad to have an excuse to knock on the door" and catch up.
Another definition of "neighbor" was advanced by DiCristina, who says she thinks of the neighborhood as "the people I know I could depend on, the three or four houses in every direction." Zambello agrees this is important. When her six-week-old was injured in a stroller accident, her next-door neighbors, who don't have young children, were there to help. She describes her family's relationship with their neighbors as "just right; we keep our privacy, but they're there when needed."
Is there community?
So does Heald Road have "community?" Perhaps it depends on an expanded definition of "community" that is not limited to relationships growing out of close geographic proximity. In the novel, Spiderweb by Penelope Lively, the protagonist, an anthropologist, describes a rural modern community as "a web, a network, it has many dimensions....All sorts of mutually-exclusive groups coexisting after a fashion."
Lively's character defines "community" as, "The extension of oneself that allows 'me' to dissolve into 'us,' that supplies common cause and opportunity for altruism and reciprocal favors..." Given that definition, I believe most residents of Heald Road would look to groups formed through church, school, or other affiliations not defined by the outlines of a particular neighborhood, but embracing the whole town and perhaps towns nearby, forming the "spiderweb" Lively refers to.
Types of neighborhoods
Is it working? Most residents seem to think so, though this type of neighborhood may not be everyone's cup of tea. Stevenson contrasts two of her children, Doug, now a Carlisle selectman, who "would never leave Carlisle," and her daughter Anne who moved to a neighborhood in Westford "where houses are together and they do those social things -- Easter egg hunts for the children, barbecues..." Speculating that her daughter may have wanted something different from her quiet, private Carlisle upbringing, Stevenson adds, "Our kids enjoyed growing up here" and calls her years on Heald Road "glorious."
Perhaps most residents of Heald Road would agree with Trebino who recalls that when she and her husband Steve first moved to Carlisle from Medford, "It took me six months to get used to the quiet and isolation, but now I wouldn't be able to go back."
For newcomers to Carlisle's private neighborhoods, the transition may take time and requires an openness to joining in on some of Carlisle's many activities. Once connected, most find the ability to combine nature and privacy with satisfying friendships formed through school, church, civic, or other involvement as enriching as living in the idealized traditional community.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito