5. Phoenix 1954-55: The House on Melvin

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Me in front of the house on Melvin

There is a different quality to my memories of the house on Melvin than those of times before then. I feel more aware, more myself. I was on the cusp of adult life, and I was eager for it. The long years of being a child in my parents’ home was reaching an end. My future was now up to me. That was exciting. What was the life I imagined for myself? Nothing definite, just a continuation of my current reality—visiting with neighbors, walking to the shopping center to buy greeting cards at the drugstore in the shopping center on the corner of Van Buren and 27th Avenue, walking through the neighborhood to Bible Chapel. Walking, being outside in the winter sun, walking and enjoying being alive. Yes. I could live in one of the small, inexpensive houses I saw as I walked to Bible Chapel. I had no house-remodeling fantasies about them. I didn’t try to live in them in my imagination. But I was ok with living in a house like those in this neighborhood.

~ ~ ~

About six weeks after school started in the fall of 1954, my family moved out of the house where we lived when I met Ben. The move felt sudden. Dad just said we were moving, and about a week later we moved. The move was a short one. The house Dad had rented was on Melvin Street, just a couple blocks south and east of Bible Chapel, near the intersection of 27th Avenue and Van Buren, the main arterial that led down downtown. Everything was downtown then: the department stores; the city and county offices; Dad’s mission building; Phoenix Union, the high school I attended. The location was convenient. The move would make no real change in my life.

The place was a few lots east of 27th Avenue, an L-shaped white concrete block house set way back on a big lot. A low, white rail fence surrounded the yard and lined a narrow gravel driveway that led up to a carport on the east side of the house. A sidewalk connected the carport to a small porch tucked into the corner of the main part of the house and the wall that formed the short arm of the L. The house had been empty for some time. What had been a lawn was crisp and dry, a tangle of puncture vines and old Bermuda grass bleached almost white. The windows were double-hung wood sash, not the steel frame casement windows that was standard in Phoenix houses built in the 1950s. Looking at the house I thought it had probably been owner-built by someone who bought the lot and put the house up in stages as money was available, a common practice back in the 1930s and immediate post WWII years. Even though it looked like it had been built on the cheap, it was not ugly. It was not a plain, exposed, boring rectangle. The carport and porch provided shade and shadow, the L-shape created dimension. The house was not naked: a Pyracantha bush next to the house had managed to survive the summer drought; a huge oleander hedge with tall trees behind it edged the east side of the lot and provided shade.

Looking around I could see tall trees on the horizon every direction I looked. This was Old Phoenix, the area of town that had been served with irrigation water for a long time, water that came on a regular time schedule to flood trees and lawns. Not all pieces of land had access to irrigation water in this part of town, though. The house we were moving into did not, nor did any of the houses across the street, but it was obvious that the old trailer court that bordered the east side of our lot did, as did many of the old houses around Bible Chapel. This old neighborhood had grown up on the edge of town where land was cheap, an area where hard working people with little money could, with care, buy a piece of land and slowly develop it.

The move to the house on Melvin was a small step down the economic ladder for my family. I had been acutely aware of social gradation since I was a young girl, had in my own way been a social striver, dreamed of living in the world of teachers and doctors and lawyers, the world I now know as the professional middle-class, but I don’t remember feeling depressed by this latest move I would make with my family. I actually rather liked the house and neighborhood. It wasn’t charming or pretty, but it was interesting. It had a distinct character, felt connected to the past, giving a glimpse of what life must have been like here in this desert city before World War II, before the rapid growth that Phoenix was now experiencing.

The house on Melvin was small and a bit run down, but it was safe. It was acceptable. The neighborhood was close to poverty level, but still above it. It was also temporary. My parents were just renting, renting while my father built the Rescue Mission, the work that had brought us to Phoenix. My parents were “living by faith,” a choice that was deeply respected by Evangelicals, even by wealthy businessmen, those at the top of the economic scale. This was socially acceptable poverty in the Evangelical community. Status was not entirely determined by financial wealth in this world. Dad’s work made this humble house and neighborhood respectable.

The Richardsons

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Ben (center back) with his brothers and sisters (c. 1954)

Ben and his family belonged to this world of almost-poverty. Ben took me to meet them soon after we began dating. Picking me up in his parents’ GMC van, we drove out Grand Avenue to Glendale. His parents’ home was a couple of blocks south of Glendale High School in an old neighborhood that was much like the one around Bible Chapel. The house, which looked like it had been built in the early 1900s, was small with a broad uncovered concrete porch across the front. The yard was overgrown and struggling in the August heat. The air in the van had been stifling, and when we entered the house there was no relief from the heat. It was almost as hot inside as it was outside on the porch and in the van. This was August in the desert heat, but there was no swamp cooler, not even a fan to create a breeze. The house was undergoing some remodeling—the interior looked raw and unfinished, but I could see no evidence of any attempt to cool the house. One simply accepted and sweated.

Stan Richardson, Ben’s father, was an Independent Baptist preacher who had served a succession of tiny churches in low-income communities in south central Colorado and Arizona, churches he served without pay. A skilled machinist, he was able to find work wherever they moved and was able to support his family of six children, but very humbly. His latest church was in the small farming community of Peoria, halfway between Phoenix and Glendale. I had seen the dusty yard of the church on the drive to Glendale and later entered the small, worn meeting space on a visit to the Richardsons after Ben left for the Far East. The church was of a piece with the Richardson’s house, and according to Ben, all the churches and all the houses his family had lived in were hard-scrabble places like this church and the house in Glendale where his family now lived.

Ben was critical of his father’s decisions to keep moving from place to place, resented the fact that he’d had to move from school to school, getting further and further behind, finally quitting and joining the Air Force when he turned eighteen in the middle of his junior year in high school. He was determined to do better than his father. He wanted some good land and a nice house; he wanted stability. But he would not do it by going to college with an eye to entering one of the professions, nor was he at all interested in becoming a business men. He was a skilled mechanic, good at figuring out how things worked and how to fix them when they ceased to work. He wanted to buy a piece of land; he wanted to build his own house. He was confident that he would always be able to find decent paying work wherever he chose to settle

Ever since I was a child I had dreamed of living in a pretty house in a pretty neighborhood. I had loved the old farm houses in the orchards and vineyards in California’s Central Valley; I had loved the big old houses on Stockton’s tree-lined streets. I had wanted big rooms and staircases and intriguing nooks and crannies to explore and hide away and read. Had I given up my old dream of living in a pretty house in a pretty neighborhood? Had I completely given them up? In a way Yes; in a way No. The longing was still there, but I was realistic. Ben and I might find a way to someday have the kind of house I’d dreamed of, but the possibility looked remote. The house on Melvin, however, somehow made not achieving that dream okay. Even though it was far removed from the middle-class life I’d aspired to, it was interesting, and interesting was high on my scale of values. I could imagine building a life here that was satisfying and good.

~ ~ ~

Loretta Willems, Belllingham, WA  July 4, 2020

 

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