Back On The Block
Older Valley neighborhoods are becoming re-populated by the adult versions of the same hooligans who used to haunt their streets. Will T-P’ing the neighbors ever be the same?
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix Magazine, May, 2006
Toilet-papering houses is a time-honored tradition around the old Arcadia neighborhood of east Phoenix, especially along Lafayette Boulevard. This quiet, tree-lined main drag cuts diagonally across an enclave of ranch-style homes and pastoral front lawns between 44th and 68th streets south of Camelback Road. And it's not uncommon after any given weekend to find the stately orange trees in front of three or four homes here elegantly draped in streamers of Charmin Mega Roll or Angel Soft.
There's a precision to the decorating that's rarely seen in the common teenage prank, an always-hurried midnight toss-and-run practiced by giggling young cut-ups who seldom take the time for artful details like symmetry, balance or - dare we suggest - humorous presentation.
Here, along Lafayette, long white ribbons of twin-ply pulp hang scrupulously adorning their selected targets like Christmas tree garland, almost geometrically blanketing the mature, lush greenery, as if laid by experienced hands. There is a particular attention paid to the tops of the trees, too, which is confounding since the ozone-scraping summits of some of these 50-year-old perennials would appear out of range for even the star quarterback of the high school football team.
Of course, it helps if junior is able to toss the Mega Roll from the roof of Dad's Hummer.
"That's how it's done here in Arcadia," says John McArthur, a 39-year-old Paddock Pools project manager who grew up just a hop, skip and a jump from the house he now lives in, along with his wife and kids. "On my street, I see the parents pull up in a minivan, drop the kids off, go around the corner - and then come back to help them finish the job!"
"A lot of times, the parent will even call in advance," adds Polly Wintergalen, a former Arcadia High cheerleader who actually married the star football player and resettled into the same general neighborhood they both grew up in. "They will say, 'We're going to toilet-paper your house, but we'll come and clean it up afterward."
If you've ever wondered what would happen if the kids from your old 'hood all moved back to the same streets, this time with kids of their own, Wintergalen, McArthur and the four other Arcadia High alumni meeting for coffee this Friday morning at La Grande Orange Grocery can tell you at least this: The same dunderheads who used to T-P your house would still be at it. Only now, their work would be professional grade. And aided by little assistants.
"Etiquette," says Steve Nelson, who, like everyone at the table, now owns a home less than three blocks away from the house where he grew up. "That's the difference now. They make sure a T-P'ing does not conflict with your schedule."
Arcadia has become one of several older neighborhoods in the Valley that's now finding itself re-inhabited by the grownup versions of the very same scamps that used to troll its streets. Downtown Tempe, Paradise Valley and the Willo district of Downtown Phoenix are but a few other sections welcoming back many of their former fence-hoppers as new homeowners.
"Its definitely a trend," says Richard Ruelas, an Arizona Republic columnist who lives in an old neighborhood in Tempe not far from the house where he was born 36 years ago. "1 saw a recent census report that said half of Arizonans are now native Arizonans, which was not the case when I was growing up. Everyone was from somewhere else, and I kind of bought the notion that we had no history, we had no culture here. Now, it’s starting to mean something to be an Arizonan. And there's a pride people are taking in moving back to the areas where they grew up."
Pride, and a backpack full of adolescent memories. Coffee at La Grande today includes an attorney, a successful Realtor and even the son of a former Phoenix mayor. But when old high school friends Trevi Grant Harris (the attorney), David Jones (the Realtor), Adam Driggs (the mayors son) and Wintergalen, McArthur and Steve Nelson begin talking up old times, even the chic surroundings of the market morph into their earthier early '80s incarnations.
"It's appropriate that we're meeting here, at what used to be the old U-Totem," says a lightly bearded Nelson, waving an arm at the storefront of the fashionable eatery on 40th Street and Campbell. It shares an always-packed parking lot with the equally hip Postino, which the gang remembers as the blocks old post office.
"I mean, I don't know if I should be saying this," he tells the former Polly Burke, whose husband, Ed Wintergalen, was one of Nelson's best buddies in high school. "But your husband and I were arrested for buying beer at this U-Totem back when we were 18! We got caught by a cop after soccer practice one day, and the cop told us, 'If you point out who sold you the beer, I'll just take you home to your parents and we'll call it even.' But when we came back here, we said we didn't recognize him. We let the guy off the hook - and we were off the hook, too."
Suddenly, the table of professionals, all dressed in Casual Friday business attire except for the T-shirted Nelson, tapped to stay home today with a sick daughter, is snickering like the cast of Porky's. McArthur remembers getting busted for going joy-riding on a classmate's motorcycle. Driggs remembers the summer he spent working for $3 an hour at the Village Racquet Club, folding towels and fetching ice water while his job-shunning friends rode by laughing on their bikes.
"All my cool friends told me they were going to be working there with me," he says, with a whine and a smile.
Pedaling around the neighborhood on their bikes - still a favorite activity for Arcadia residents -Wintergalen says she's constantly jolted by flashbacks.
"Isn't it crazy to ride by certain houses and think, 'I used to play in that house all the time?" she asks the group.
For thirty-somethings who come home to roost among the same backyards and alleyways they darted around in 20 years ago, flashes of more fun-loving days glow at every turn, like thermal imagery revealing the spot of each youthful tryst or mischievous moment now buried behind renovated exteriors and fresh coats of paint.
"All of us have ridden our bikes around every little cul-de-sac and back street here," Wintergalen says. "So, we probably see the neighborhood differently than somebody who just moved here."
"Plus, we all grew up in the same floorplan," says Jones, leading the group in another round of laughs. Most of the homes in this development, built in the 1950s, shared "that Allied Homes, two-bedroom, one-bath layout," until wealthy buyers began taking advantage of the sprawling half- and full-acre lots and aggressively building out.
Trevi Grant Harris says her husband, a grad from Mesa Mountain View High - center of another hot move-back neighborhood - experienced serious sticker shock when she took him looking for homes in Arcadia, which today can sell in the seven figures.
"He told me, 'Trevi, these were all 1950s tract homes," she says. "I told him, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're gonna love it.' The thing is, unless you grew up in this neighborhood, you just don't get it."
The ceiling of a teenager's bedroom has always projected the best wide-screen entertainment in the house. Viewed by the night-light from the bed of a 16-year-old with limitless dreams of the future, it is the canvas for a thousand midnight movies, full of the adventure, conquest and romance every high-schooler imagines for himself just over the horizon - and miles away from his own sleepy surroundings.
"Oh, yeah, I was itching to get away - and I did, for 20 years," says Maria Bahr, a graduate of Tempe High's Class of '81, who left town right after high school and lived in several distant cities before finally moving back to her old neighborhood five years ago. "I left the state and never returned, except for the occasional family visit. But it never occurred to me that Tempe was my home."
Like many of today's move-backs, Bahr, as a child, never had the sense that she was growing up in what would eventually become one of the Valley's most desirable areas. Her section of Tempe, the old residential neighborhood just south of ASU (behind the iHop), is now a sought-after spot for those angling for a slice of Tempe's revitalization. But back when Bahr was slogging through high school, the University Park section was little more than a lot of dinky homes with too much lawn to mow.
"A lot of these homes had only one bathroom, originally," Bahr says. "And they were pretty small."
Raquel Gutierrez grew up in the Sunset-Riverside section of Tempe, southwest of Priest and Rio Salado, and returned after a 10-year absence. She says she finds it ironic - and a little concerning - that the homes in her neighborhood now fetch such handsome price tags, many going for more than 70 percent of what they were selling for just five years ago.
"It was all working-class people, and a lot of Latino immigrants," says Gutierrez, who runs the Community Coaching Network, a consulting firm with a social-activist bent. "Which is what I loved about it. It was just working people trying to have a life."
Even the Arcadia kids didn't feel particularly well-off growing up in what is now a million-dollar neighborhood.
"As a kid, I didn't realize that I was living in nirvana," says Jones, noting that the turned-up noses of the wealthier kids living up on nearby Camelback Mountain always shadowed his neighborhood.
Ditto for the kids raised in the 'hoods surrounding Paradise Valley, another ribbon of town now drawing lots of return residents.
"Back in 1973, my parents paid $37,800 for their house, which was a fair chunk of change in those days," says Tim Thomas, a general contractor now living in a home about a mile west of his childhood digs near 65th Street and Cholla. "But is not like what they were paying just a few miles east, around Scottsdale Road. We weren't the rich kids."
Today, moving into any of these established neighborhoods requires either a gigantic chunk of change or some good connections - which is, in fact, another big reason why a good portion of the homes in these areas are being filled by former neighborhood kids. Many have either inherited the properties or talked Mom and Dad into retiring to the newer 'burbs, to a place without all that yard and old plumbing to take care of.
"There are a lot of people who are moving back into their parents' houses," Bahr says. "Because you sort of need an 'in' right now - the prices have gone up so high in these neighborhoods. So either you move into a place your family already owned, or a place close by that your parents had bought as an income property years ago."
In a few cases, former 'hood rats are even moving right back under the same roof with the folks, either to care for their aging parents or as a temporary refuge between career changes or marriages.
"I had my 40-year high school reunion a couple years ago, and I was staying in my old bedroom again at the time," says Doug McQueen, a 60-year-old Tempean who says he has returned on several occasions to the house where he was raised, in the Mitchell Park subdivision southwest of Mill and University "That felt kind of weird."
Now living with his wife in a guesthouse just behind the one where his 89-year-old father still lives - "to be close to him, and help him out, since my mom died last year" - McQueen says moving back to the same address can be a humbling experience.
"Every time I come back, I feel a little defeated," he admits. "When you're growing up, you want to go somewhere else. And a few times, I've done that. But I guess I do find comfort in familiarity"
Ruelas feels the soaring property values in areas like his patch of downtown Tempe kind of soften that beaten-down feeling for most of those moving back on the block.
"I ascribe a lot of it to luck," he says. "I mean, if my parents had raised me around, oh, 35th Avenue and McDowell, moving back there might feel like defeat. But the areas we are talking about - downtown Tempe, Arcadia, Willo - have remained nice places to come home to. They were spared the sort of decay that's hit areas like, say, Maryvale. These are very inviting environments, with houses that look homey, and giant trees, that you can't get in Anthem or Maricopa. So, no, I didn't have much trepidation about coming back to a place like this."
If the former kids of the Valley's hot move-back zip codes didn't grow up in opulent McMansions, they were more than compensated with those gigantic trees and football-field-sized yards that are so rare in the Valley.
Doug McQueen says the first Tempe homes, like the one his family moved into in 1953, were built small to allow animal privileges on the other three-fourths of the 200-foot lots, and were left largely un-gated. The yards were open, allowing easy access to the rest of the neighborhood's "kid community," who treated the common lots like their personal Adventurelands.
"All the backyards joined together, so it was one big playground for us," McQueen says of his Tempe neighborhood. "And it was the Baby Boom generation, so there were a lot of kids. We just ran through each other's yards all the time."
Tim Thomas and his neighbor and fellow Chaparral High grad Roger Schneider paint a similar picture of their old digs as they hang out in the living room of Schneider's early '70s ranch house, which is situated in Paradise Valley, one of the Valley's premier zip codes.
"As a kid, I used to ride my horse up around where the PV Mall is," says Thomas. "There were always pockets of desert to go out and do stuff in."
"Everyone had a huge yard, with horse alleys behind the yards that you'd cut through to get to your friends' houses," adds Schneider. who now works in the forensics laboratory of the Phoenix Police Department.
"If you walked down the alleys, there would be pomegranates and citrus hanging over the fence, and you were always grabbing a snack. It really was a great place to be a kid."
Not surprisingly, many of those moving back to their old neighborhoods now have young children of their own, who they are hoping will benefit from attending the same time-tested schools they did and running amuck in the same generously sized yards.
In most cases, of course, the kids remain as unimpressed with the surroundings as their parents were in their pre-homebuyer days.
"My kids? Nah, they don't get it," Jones says, chuckling at the reality "But my wife and I do. When I walked through the halls of Hopi Elementary again for the first time, it was more than déjà vu. It brought back all these great memories. I was like, 'Yes! This is why I'm here!"
The desire to reconnect with those memories - and, in the best cases, the actual people you created them with - may be the psychological stuff at work behind some of the move-backs.
"Part of the desire to go back to the old neighborhood, where growing up we had all these experiences, is the drive to be a part of a community," says William Nerin, a Washington state family therapist and professor whose books, Family Reconstruction and You Can't Grow Up 'Til You Go Back Home, studied the importance of returning to one's roots.
"It's like we were a community then, with all those playmates and their families. And if they're still living there, it's like going back and finding that community again, which is an enormous human drive."
But some back-on-the-blockers worry that the current price tags on their old neighborhood homes will create a situation where only those named "Most Likely to Succeed" in the senior yearbook will be able to return.
"The character of a lot of these communities was built on the backs of working-class people," says Raquel Gutierrez, enjoying an outside table at the Mill's Landing coffee shop on Mill Avenue, a one-mile bike ride from her neighborhood. "And I'm afraid that community is going away"
Gutiérrez insists she still loves Tempe, and gets a nostalgic buzz whenever she catches a whiff of creosote during her walks around the neighborhood, or when she sees a big old tree that she and her friends used to climb upon. "There's still something in the air here," she says, smiling.
But the true flavor of a neighborhood can't be preserved by just showing respect to the original landscaping and the architectural style of the homes.
"It's the people," Gutiérrez says. "That's what we come back for."