I grew up on the very first block of Santa Clara Avenue, near the corner of Santa Clara and Lincoln. Wait, aren’t Santa Clara and Lincoln parallel? Yes they are — all the way through town — except where they curve and cross each other at their origin in the West End. The first block of Lincoln starts off at Central, right at the western edge of Encinal High School.
Except for a little extra soot and noise due to our proximity to the Naval Air Station, in the '60s our neighborhood was fairly average. I’ve seen pictures of our development when it was new, during The War. Granted, the pictures were black and white, but you can tell that each house was painted a harmonious pastel color and there was an identical tree in each front yard. The houses didn’t come with garages. The cars parked on the street were rounded 1940s models.
I was born in the mid-'50s, and by the early '60s, when I began to pay attention, the neighborhood had gradually altered from its cookie-cutter look and there was a greater variety of landscaping and paint colors.
Certainly some homeowners expanded, but there wasn’t a lot of variation from the 3 bed/1 bath, 1000 square foot original. I don’t recall that anybody had a family room or formal dining room, but everybody had a front and back yard and most had put in a garage.
The first houses I visited apart from my own neighborhood were the homes of school friends who lived in either off-base Navy housing or “The Buena Vistas,” the large apartment complex on Buena Vista at Poggi Street.
Even though the Buena Vistas had a pool, I felt bad for my friends who had to live there. They had no back door, no yard, no garage and paper-thin walls. Navy housing was worse. At a slumber party in off-base housing, our midnight snack raid was interrupted by an army of scattering cockroaches. The girl who lived there was humiliated, so we tried to act as if it was normal. But it wasn’t normal. It was unfair that my friend had to live in a home infested with cockroaches.
The morning I came home from that slumber party, I climbed up in my tree house. I hadn’t been up there in a while, but wanted to regard my house from a different vantage point. It was a nice house and I felt very lucky to live there.
In high school I joined a couple of clubs and thought that my home’s close proximity to campus made it the perfect place to host after-school meetings. I don’t remember if it was the Poetry Club or the Ecology Club, but the first time I had a group over, a kid named Bob complained that my living room was too small and that we should move to the family room. He didn’t understand that the living room was what we had. My parents had graciously cleared out and were hanging around in the backyard, just so I could have my friends over.
Bob hosted the next meeting. He lived at the foot of Bay Street and as I rode my bike there, I looked forward to seeing the inside of one of those beautiful Gold Coast houses. When the meeting was getting started, a uniformed maid brought in a tray of Cokes and potato chips. My jaw dropped. I’d only seen servants in the movies. I didn’t know that anybody in Alameda — any of my friends — would have a maid. I didn’t want to look like a rube, so I shut my mouth.
Another time, I was invited to the home of a classmate who lived in one of the “Big Whites,” the officers’ housing on the Base. Her door was opened by a man in a white dinner jacket. When I asked who he was, she said “Oh, that’s Jimmy, our houseboy.” I didn’t understand how a teenager could call a gray-haired man a “boy.” And later on, I learned that Jimmy was the father of another of our classmates.
In a short span of time I had gone from feeling lucky to have a backyard to feeling inadequate because I didn’t have a family room or servant.
But eventually I lived a little longer in the world and gained a broader viewpoint. Somewhere between my grim little first apartment and owning with my husband a home that was much more grand than my parents ever had, I discovered that “home” — however modest or elaborate it is — is only a matter of perspective.
I’ve never lived very far from Alameda, and at this stage in my life, I seriously doubt I’ll ever leave. But important formative years spent in a snug little house on the West End of the island town of Alameda gave me valuable perspective. Wherever I choose to live, it is my castle.