My Love Affair with Squirrel Hill

            Central to our writing, most authors would say, is place, the location we come from, the setting in which we grew up.  Poet Kathleen Norris calls this our “emotional geography.”  With this definition in mind, my kids’ “place” is the city.  Our son Joel always says, “I need concrete.”  He can enjoy the wilderness, the beach, but he has to have his urban fix. 

            I grew up in rural northeastern Pa.  I wandered among fields, woods, lakes, creeks, and mountains. I probably didn’t learn the word “symphony” or “museum” till late into my teens.

            But since becoming blind, I’ve lived in the city.  As a disabled person, I need sidewalks and buses and shopping within the city limits.  I need mobility services and medical care within easy access, and all are much more readily available in a city than in my former town of 2,000 people.  And frankly, I need traffic.  The noise of cars and buses and trucks and ambulances—these are music that lead me straight along a sidewalk.  I need people traffic, too.  If I get confused or lost, I can pause and listen for footsteps and secure the information I need.

            “Aren’t you scared with the houses so close together?”  One of my niece’s daughters asked.

            The question surprised me.  Homes within the city limits are closer together obviously than in the suburbs.

            My daughter answered, “No.  It feels cozy.”

            Living in the suburban or rural settings as my extended family does, they all have multiple cars.  Even without being upper middle class, each teenager gets a second-hand car, something our kids could really envy.  Their environment also determines much of their recreation, boating and fishing, for instance.

               Recreationally, if that’s a word, I also need a city.  I enjoy the symphony, a lecture, or a play and can reach them independently, if need be—by bus or foot or cab.

            So my “emotional geography” has shifted from rural to urban, specifically to Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in the east end of Pittsburgh.

            When we were first married and had kids, we lived in a very nice neighborhood, also in the city limits, Stanton Heights.  But I needed to take two buses to get my kids everywhere, time wasted in waiting, which could be brutal in raw, wintry weather.

            When our children were eight and five, we moved to our dead end street, (Marlborough Road) one block north of the second busiest street in Pittsburgh, Forbes Avenue.  As a resident of Forbes Avenue said once, “Forbes Avenue is the city; Marlborough Road is the suburbs.”

            Marlborough Road is a rarity in the city, a dead end street and very quiet.  Still within five minutes I can walk to restaurants, coffee shops, a library, Movie Theater, and almost any shopping I could wish.  Because of the bus deficit in my former neighborhood, my kids hadn’t been dragged from store to store, like so many kids their age.

            So when I took advantage of the liberation of being able to walk to meet my needs, my kids cheered to friends, “Mom’s taking us shopping.”

            Pittsburgh has other neighborhoods that offer wonderful shopping and entertainment just a few blocks away that also include regular public bus service, Oakland Shady Side, and the South Side, for instance.  For the disabled, whose independence requires public transportation, such neighborhoods are essential.

            I cannot recommend Squirrel Hill enough. Sure the houses are close together.  But that can build good relationships. 

            And there’s one final advantage.  In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer says that creativity comes most often out of cities, where people are piled on top of one another, where they rub up against each other, feel in conflict.  Ideas are expressed and debated and stimulated through rubbing elbows with many and diverse people.  Often we think that fresh ideas come from solitude and calm.  Lehrer, I understand, says, “No.”  Fresh ideas need scrutiny.  We bounce ideas off others, not for praise, but for candid reactions and suggestions.

            So come to Squirrel Hill.  Bbe cozy and creative.


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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