Characters make up the fabric of our communities. Everyone has a story about someone who livened things up, usually in a comical way, such as the kid who would escape his mother’s clutches at bath time and run naked through his neighborhood. My husband’s cousin Melanie still laughs about this every night occurrence, which was just as predictable as the ice cream truck driving down the street in the summertime. The characters from my own home county are too numerous to count, but all wore their idiosyncrasies with pride. Just those folks alone could fill an entire book with stories. In my current neighborhood, the main character of interest is a songster (and a quite talented one) who serenades us with everything from opera to Billy Joel while riding by on his motor scooter. Hearing the “bzzzzzz” coming down the street brings a smile to my face.
One of my favorite neighborhood characters, Mr. Wehunt, was a World War II vet whose creativity was often on display in the creations he made from things most of us would discard. A farm boy who came to Raleigh on the GI bill, Mr. Wehunt was part folk artist, part aspiring engineer. He crafted a working elevator from a small motor and a couple of worn-out screen doors. This did not please some of the neighbors, but they failed to appreciate the problem-solving skills he honed while on a battleship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean long before they were born. One of the more charming things about Mr. Wehunt was his fearless acknowledgement that he was old and not hip.
I was in downtown Raleigh earlier this week and as I passed the Century Post Office Building, a lady caught my eye. She was an older lady, wearing a pink dress, sitting on one of those uncomfortable polished marble benches found near municipal buildings. I approached her, introduced myself, and asked if I could take her picture. She looked a little bemused, but she sized me up as harmless and granted me permission. She posed for a few shots and afterwards I showed her the results on my iPad. She chuckled approvingly. When I asked her if she’d like a copy, she shook her head and said, “Nah.” I gave her my card in case she changed her mind, but her focus had changed to her ride, which had just arrived at the curb.
I began to construct her story in my mind as I drove away from downtown. I wondered, was this sweet lady one of the people who would be displaced from the Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments? Maybe she had children who had moved to the suburbs or far away, leaving her in their forgotten hometown? Or maybe she was a retired schoolteacher who encountered enough misbehaving children that she made the decision to never have any of her own? Whatever her story, we want people like her around us. We should value the people and things that made our neighborhoods welcoming before we even knew how desirable they were.
As a society, have to be careful not to displace the people who make our neighborhoods vibrant. That doesn’t mean we don’t welcome new things and experiences. To paraphrase an old proverb: “When an elder dies, an entire library burns down.” Instead of dismissing things — and people — why don’t we tap into that knowledge? There’s much to be gained. Had it not been for the late Mr. Wehunt, a lot of the history of our neighborhood would remain unknown to my family, denying us a deeper sense of place.
Why can’t the vintage — ghost signs and old establishments — complement the new? Most designers and other creatives will tell you that they draw inspiration from the past. Knowledge and skills are amassed over a period of time, not instantaneously manufactured. Plus the inclusion of different time periods and styles shows that diversity is valued. Without diversity, things can go beige in a hurry.
So, here’s a nod to the sweet lady who let the crazy design nerd take her photo. I told her she was pretty, and I meant it. Although I don’t know her name, she’s one of the characters that make up the rich tapestry we call Raleigh.