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The wrong side of the tracks

Growing up in that part of Fort Dodge known as ‘The Flats’

May 15, 2011
Messenger News

As I recall, the term they used to turn my childhood neighborhood into a soggy golf course was "urban renewal." Which is a politically correct way of saying "You're not good enough for us."

Indeed, it was the most notorious neighborhood in town. While other parts of the city were given pretty names that conjured images of cool green trees and white picket fences, our neighborhood was known as "The Flats," which rolled off people's tongues like a slap across the face; hardly a handle to inspire respect, or pride.

The houses were mostly modest and old clapboard - decently kept up, but a far cry from the cookie-cutter modern split levels with pink flamingos in the yards that were springing up as the sign of success everywhere else around town. Even the river that flowed past seemed as if it had seen better days.

The city's opinion on the place could be easily perceived - streets were seldom repaired, police patrols seldom bothered with it and the old elementary school overambitiously named "Pleasant Valley" got the hand-me-down everything as attention was focused on the new buildings that served the children of the more powerful and affluent folk.

Ours was a place of diversity before society ever stumbled upon the term. I was one of a few "white" kids in the 'hood, but there was a little of everything. My buddies included the lanky black kid next door who went on to play pro ball, the red-headed Italian immigrant kid across the street whose dad spoke the language straight out of Sicily, a quiet Eskimo kid from down the street, a pretty little Latina girl from the next block over who is now an exceptional educator in her hometown.

It hardly came as any surprise when the city announced a project to "improve" itself by eliminating the entire neighborhood. It closed the old school, forced out a little family grocery store, took down the backstop of our little sandlot baseball field and sent people packing so that it could bulldoze all of their homes in the name of progress.

This is development in our society - if people don't fit our definition of pretty, we find ways to push them out. Out of sight, out of mind. Get rid of the affordable old houses and trailer parks and put in new condos that look like the ones in magazines and inspire people to a lifetime of mortgage overspending.

In the scheme of development, older schools and churches are expendable or just left empty - better to put in a nine-hole golf course, a yuppie dog-walker park or yet another strip mall.

Lately, the city I grew up in had placed much of its hopes in building a gambling casino. Our latest idea of community development - building our success on the losses of others. The city's leaders seemed crushed when the state denied their gambit. Like it or not, the failure of that effort forces Fort Dodge to look for other ways to grow that may pay off in the long term. The city has streets in dire need of real repair. A couple of parks where my friends and I played as children are now blocked off. A city must care for what it has before it can take on new growth.

In the same sense, a neighborhood must in part take care of itself to survive and thrive.

When they tore down our house, my family moved to a slightly more respectable neighborhood with slightly whiter people, and in short order, everyone forgot The Flats ever existed. There is no sign of it today, and I make a point of never re-visiting the area, which strikes me as a slightly melancholy and lonely place. The noise of kids playing ball in the street or snowball fighting is gone for good.

I'll admit that for years I was ashamed of where I grew up. Not because it was bad, but because of the look on people's face when they asked and you said, "The Flats." As if they had bit into something sour.

Clearly, I was from the wrong side of the tracks. Where "those people" lived. We didn't look very Brady Bunch. Thank goodness for development.

Recently, I finally gave in to some friends who pressured me to belatedly join a social network, dragged me kicking and squirming into the 21st LOL-ing century.

I had no real use for this. But after a few days, a lady named Pam pinged me - did I remember her? We were friends when we were about 5, like siblings almost, and I hadn't seen her since they tore the neighborhood down. Pam led to Mindy and Mindy to Natesa and Natesa to Darrell and Darrell to Angie, and on it goes, growing by the day. The Flats kids, it seems, are alive and well.

I'm not a reunion kind of guy, and I don't spend a lot of time looking backward. But after all of these years, a flood of memories came back. Not memories of poverty in The Flats, but of a very good life there.

I was going through some things when the old gang started to find each other. People I hadn't seen since fourth grade reached out and cared like people seldom do these days, and with them I have celebrated the highs and survived some of the lows of their lives, spread around the country and beyond though they are.

True friends, it seems, are not separated by miles or time. These are the giving, caring kind of people - always were and always will be. In that on-the-wrong-side-of-the- tracks neighborhood, the one that was so bad it had to be erased, people brought a casserole dish to your door whenever you had trouble. Your kids were their kids - everyone looked out for everyone else. There were no fights there (only when you wandered into a "better" area). No drugs either, as far as I know. Again, those were coming from the "better" neighborhoods. Maybe we couldn't afford them.

In The Flats, everybody knew everybody else. It never mattered what color you were or what native language you spoke. You shared what came from your garden and your oven without a thought. There was no welfare - people worked mechanic or janitor jobs or whatever they needed to do to support their families. There were no locked doors - nobody in that neighborhood had much, but they were raised right and wouldn't dream of stealing. When it was needed, everybody pitched in and helped. Somehow, at that crappy school, the teachers nobody wanted at the good buildings busted their butts and gave rise to some of the most intelligent and productive people I know. In short, it was the kind of real neighborhood where friendships forged as tiny children would still run strong 40 years later.

I have nothing against development. Fancy houses and big box store tabernacles to consumer greed and even those gaudy casinos have their time and place, I suppose.

But in today's definition of development, I sometimes wonder if we have overlooked what we really should be developing: a community soul. People who care about each other and see no divisions among neighbors.

I've been a lot of places. The Flats was the worst neighborhood around, to the outsiders, but its people were and still it seems are the best you could ever hope to find.

Dana Larsen is a Fort Dodge native and former Messenger staff member who now is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.



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