In the 1980s, Crestwood was a mess. Homes were becoming rundown as the generation who had built the community in the 1960s either moved away or died off. The baby boomers like me went off to college and settled into more fashionable neighborhoods, as kids from upwardly mobile families do when they grow up.
There is no denying that “white flight” was a major factor in the transition. The current Crestwood leaders have a great appreciation for all that our parents built, and they’re using that period as an inspiration and source of ideas. But the ugly reality is that Crestwood in the 1960s and 1970s was a strictly segregated community. Our parents and grandparents lived in fear that their block might get “busted,” and when indeed blacks began to move in, the white residents fled over the mountain to communities that were perceived as “safer” — code for “whiter.”
Those who were left behind became bitter and fearful. I know of one who would not go outside to rake the yard without carrying a pistol.
But as we know now, diversity makes a community stronger. Saturday night, Crestwood North president Darrell O’Quinn reviewed the neighborhood’s progress during the past year, speaking to a packed room in Woodrow Hall, the old Masonic Lodge in Woodlawn that has been transformed into a popular venue for events, meetings and other gatherings. The old lodge serves as a symbol of sorts for what has happened in the area, with beautifully restored and finished tile and hardwood floors from the 1960s, but a very different kind of community walking on them. The 100 who gathered (admittedly, there was free food involved) for the annual Idea Gumbo covered the full spectrum of white, black, gay, straight, old and young. The best part of this is that the diversity struck nobody as particularly remarkable.
I’m not bringing this up to beat our parents over the heads. They were a product of their own upbringing (my grandfather who lived a few blocks away was a Klansman, and that wasn’t unusual). Rather, I mention the context to point out that what the Boomer generation had was very, very good, but what’s happening now is even better.
Like our fathers, the current “grownups” in the community are building around a combination of civic efforts, businesses, churches and schools (primarily Avondale). This creates a strong foundation that allows the area to overcome obstacles. We saw this in 1962, when Comer Elementary opened and many of my friends from first grade were sent there. Ordinarily, in the small world of a bunch of seven-year-olds, this would wipe us out of each other’s lives.
But it didn’t happen that way, because we were bound by multiple strands. We still attended the same churches (the biggest being Woodlawn Baptist and Woodlawn Methodist). We scouted together. We played pee wee football at Crestwood Park and baseball at Avondale. Our parents still did business with each other. We swam together at Cascade Plunge and listened to the Swingin’ Medallions at Oporto Armory. And the geography of Crestwood itself — with plentiful sidewalks and relatively few major barriers — made it possible for us to safely mingle even on both sides of Crestwood Boulevard. To use Darrell’s metaphor, there were many ingredients to the gumbo of life we enjoyed. Many of us remain friends today, brought back together through Social Media and, occasionally, through the intersection of our lives and families outside of Crestwood.
That is all happening again. I drove through the area before the Idea Gumbo and could see the pride current residents take in their homes and community. Homes are well maintained, and newly installed Crestwood banners fly proudly from utility poles.
So much of what happened before is happening again, but without the ugly racism of our parents’ generation and even ours. It was easy to see that the people coming together at Woodrow Hall know each other and have established friendships that transcend geography, race and lifestyle.
I draw encouragement from it, and am grateful for what these folks are doing. I am glad they’re willing to share it with a geezer from the generation that got away.