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My Ghost Neighborhood


Loley Line Drawing_edited.jpg

35°11'57.794"N   111°39'45.240"W

THE DREAMS FIRST ARRIVED NOT LONG AFTER we bought our house and began the long process of fixing it up. Had we known in advance how much work it was going to be to maintain and upgrade a 70-year-old house in the face of cold mountain winters, we might have lacked the courage of ignorance. But what we lacked was money, which is why we came to spend most weekends for years spending our time instead: scraping, sanding, painting, tiling. We tore out a 70s-style pink bathtub and replaced it with a walk-in shower. I crawled through the tight attic to seal up ducts, learned to hack out rudimentary trim and baseboards. Soon enough, we found ourselves converting a neglected room off the kitchen into a nursery for our new son.

Every year brought a new challenge. One summer we hired a crew of Hispanic laborers to tear out the base of the kitchen wall and install a partial new foundation where deficient drainage and rot had chewed out holes that let in both mice and cold air. I dug a long trench through rocky soil and laid a French drain. Another year the project involved my drilling more than a hundred two-inch-holes through the hard exterior stucco so that we could blow in insulation. Slowly, we learned: plumbing, electricity, carpentry, how to feel comfortable on ladders. (The crawl space: I never did learn to embrace that, despite ample trips.)

The ongoing renovation tinged my dreams. In them the house feels much the same—clearly home, the space of much time and care—but looks different. It has two stories rather than one. The rooms are larger, their doors opening onto new spaces, unexpected hallways. For a while, maybe back when we often visited my mom back in Chicago before she died, it was the top floor of a giant brownstone in an urban neighborhood. Later, maybe when I came to embrace gardening more, the house developed a huge yard where tangles of vegetables grew. Sometimes doors toward the back opened onto entire new suites of rooms. Unlike ours, they were immaculately appointed and seemed to require no cleaning or maintenance. It was like stumbling onto a flashy AirBnB unit in our own house.

Most mysterious was the staircase. Often I found myself realizing that the house had a hidden central staircase that we could never enter but still somehow knew was there. I caught glimpses of it through chinks in the walls, or else intuited its presence by measuring the length of walls, the height of ceilings. Its destination was unclear. It was like living in Hogwarts. 

In reality the boundaries of home expanded in a different way, beyond our walls and fences. We walked our son to school, taught him to ride a bicycle on the hill-sloped street, got to know the neighborhood houses and yards, people and dogs. On some snow days, with school canceled, we’d snowshoe up the steep mesa side and into the woods. An elderly landlord who’d owned more than two dozen dilapidated properties in the area died, and they all went up for sale at once. New neighbors moved in. Some of the old houses were lovingly renovated, others torn down and replaced with bigger ones. Like many who hold a mortgage we became real-estate nerds who tracked how prices fell with the great recession, then spiked with the city’s swelling population and popularity.

Other dreams came. In them we begin walking up the street toward the mesa, but instead of ending after two blocks we find an expanse of streets continuing upward. They’re lined with small houses that bear the patina of age, as many in our actual neighborhood do. The blocks are a mash-up of my mountain-town fantasies— pickup trucks, good-natured hiking dogs, plumes of pungent smoke from woodstoves—and my older neighborhood ideals built up years ago in midwestern college towns—clapboard siding, couches on porches, people playing guitars. 

In reality I like having the woods so close by. I’m glad they’re protected from building because they belong to a research observatory—to say nothing of their steepness. But in the dream I love having so many new and unexpected neighbors; I’d rather have them there than the ponderosa pines. In this alternative history, more people are an unalloyed good, something I hardly take for granted today when it comes to the cookie-cutter subdivisions sprouting at the edges of town. 

As our son’s geographic horizons were expanding and mine were becoming finer-grained, I began learning more about the neighborhood’s actual history. In the university library I found a set of old plat maps. To my surprise, I found them depicting something like the ghost neighborhood from my dreams. Drawn up in 1909, the map shows our block clearly enough, with twelve identically sized 25-foot-wide lots lined up on each side of the street. But other blocks march far to the west up the mesa, its contours invisible under hundreds of tiny rectangles. Suddenly the phantom streets I crossed in my dreams had names: Cedar, Vine, Oak, Pine, Cypress, Manzanita. It’s a real estate development fantasy of more than a century ago, the streets laid out in entire disregard of the steep mesa topography.

We’ve lived here long enough now that I’ve learned tantalizing bits about the dreams of some of our neighbors: how one cries out in what sounds like lingering PTSD, how another never turns the bedroom light off. But I don’t know what they see when—or if—they wander the neighborhood. Nor can I imagine how this particular patch of what was once gnarled oak and yellow pine and blue grama appeared in the dreams of others long ago. What ideal map of place did they see, before any streets were here, as they slept near where one of the area’s most regular springs continues to burble from among basalt boulders?

Lacking those insights, what I try to hold in mind is the thought of how each of us creates our own baseline of place that helps define what is normal, and right, and desirable; of how many ghost houses, and ghost neighborhoods, must be layered wherever people have lived; and of how history is born of this layering of countless shared senses of place. In these divisive times, we could do worse than to encourage each other to share our visions of how we see our home places—whether in waking or in sleep.

FriedericiHeadshotJanuary2024 - Peter Fr

PETER FRIEDERICI is a Professor in the School of Communication and Program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University. He writes, teaches, and works on community initiatives involving ecology, food, and storytelling on the southern Colorado Plateau. His most recent book is Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope.


My essay is about my backyard--not in any sense that designated property boundaries recognize, but in a larger and deeper sense. I think there's a stronger connection between dreams and places than we generally acknowledge, and that once we begin to dream of the (possibly alternative) conditions of places we love, it means we really belong there. Maybe the most important question to ask of a place is not "who owns it?" but "whom does it own?"

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