David Rodeback's Blog

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Monday, September 6, 2010
One Home at a Time, Over Time

Main Street in American Fork runs east and west; for several blocks it is also US 89. One block to the north, in Utah's inimitable way of reckoning streets, is 100 North. At least, that's true for a while. Then, before it reaches 200 West (or "Second West," as we sometimes say), 100 North veers wantonly away from its historic Mormon rectilinearity and becomes Pacific Drive. So our little block of 200 West is actually between Main Street and Pacific Drive. Today and tomorrow, we'll talk about the block and how it has changed in the dozen years I've been watching it from the inside.

Twelve years ago this fall, my wife and I bought a home in downtown American Fork. Soon we'll sell it, because we bought and moved into a bigger home this summer, halfway across town and up the hill. We love the new place, and the new neighborhood is quite congenial. We moved less than a mile and half, but things feel . . . more different than that. The new environs are quite suburban in atmosphere. There's not a multifamily dwelling in sight, and the nearest retail establishment is about a mile away, I think.

But this essay is about the old home and the old neighborhood.

Location, Location, Location

In that part of town, every block has a different character, and every block is changing -- as it has, perhaps, for more than a century. It's not like living in the cities I've inhabited in the past, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Moscow, Russia; Alexandria, Virginia; or even Boulder, Colorado; but the feel is more urban than suburban. A bus route stops a block away. A major bus route is less than a ten-minute walk away, and the forthcoming FrontRunner commuter rail station isn't very far. People on the block actually use public transit to get to work and school.

You can easily walk to the library, a downtown park or two, City Hall, the dry cleaner. Within a few minutes' walk are an excellent Thai restaurant, the Thai Village; a little shop specializing in hot cocoa; a couple of good auto mechanics; a pair of gas stations and convenience stores; a health food store; a discount movie theater; and a host of other establishments. Just past City Hall, on the way to the park, the library, and the auto mechanic I usually use, is Mona Lisa's, a surprisingly spacious consignment shop where we recently bought a charming love seat and ottoman. Then we bought a painting -- and we'll be back. There are dozens of other businesses I haven't named. The health food store is part of a national chain, but few others are.

When we moved to American Fork, and for several years thereafter, my office was an eleven-minute walk from my front door. When I commuted to Ogden, Salt Lake City, or Spanish Fork, or to Provo, as I do now, I enjoyed my ready access to the freeway.


The home we bought in 1998 was built in 1908, making it a few decades older than the newest homes on the block, and more than a decade newer than the oldest. It was expanded at least twice over the years, most recently, we think, in the 1970s. The original walls are a foot thick and made of adobe; they are excellent barriers to heat and sound. The driveway is broad and flat; others call it "RV space," but I consider it basketball space. The separate garage probably used to be a carriage house. We used it for storage and projects; a previous resident rebuilt classic cars in it.

The additions I mentioned left the place somewhere on the north side of 1800 square feet, with four bedrooms, a main floor office for MFCC, and a basement office/library for me. Like many urban homes, it looks small from the front -- a comfortable cottage, perhaps -- but people who have been all the way to the back and upstairs have expressed surprise at how big it really is.

The quarter-acre lot used to be much deeper. Decades ago it was subdivided, and the rear half became part of an apartment complex. Some of the neighbors' lots are still that deep. A couple of years ago, one neighbor bought the back half of another neighbor's lot, because he wants to keep it from being developed as more apartments.

All in all, if your sensibilities are rooted in suburbia, the place can seem a little crowded; one can only do so much to obscure the neighboring apartments. (To help with that, mostly, we planted several trees.) But if your sensibilities are more urban, you're comfortable with having your own fenced yard and your own walls, even if some apartments are close enough that you could throw a rock through their windows.

Anchoring the Ends

Old neighborhoods are very much at risk of decay. Old homes can be labor intensive, and they sometimes get ahead of your time and money and start to look run down. Buying an old home is often more affordable for people with very limited means, who may be able to afford the mortgage, but can't sink much money into appearances. And sometimes they become rental properties, which may decline rapidly, if tenants abuse them and landlords neglect them. Knowing this, I've enjoyed watching our block of 200 West improve, not decline, over the last 12 years.

At one end of the block stands an old, relatively spacious home on a corner lot. The home was run down and the lot was scraggly several years ago, when a talented and industrious family bought it. They've worked on it ever since. Now neither the home nor the yard looks run down, and the yard recently was named a "yard of the month" by the City Beautification Committee.

At the other end of the block, where 200 West meets Main Street, are two homes I'll call modestly grand. Long before my time, they were competitive showpieces in American Fork and hosted many social gatherings. When we arrived in 1998, one of these was still in superb condition, and the yard was beautifully appointed and impeccably maintained.

The other was an eyesore. It was occupied by a kind but disabled old war veteran, the last member of his once-prominent family. On a good day, he could spend hours sitting on his sofa, watching ESPN -- and KJZZ, if the Jazz were playing. The few who saw the inside of the place in good light noted the grand design and beautiful woodwork under the clutter and dust. Some neighbors used to walk around the whole block, picking up litter, just as an excuse to remove the litter from this house's yard without offending the occupant.

In due course, the old man died, and a young family saw the place's potential and bought it. The neighbors gathered there for major service projects, rehabilitating the yard, and the family did what they could to restore the interior. But it wasn't until a couple of years later, when a family from San Diego bought the place, that it really became a showpiece again. They restored it beautfully, took up residence on the second floor, and turned the main floor into an unpretentious but excellent Thai restaurant. They were successful enough that they needed the second floor for more restaurant space, so they bought the beautiful home on the adjacent corner and moved into it. Both corner places look fine now; the neighbors are delighted; and now the block also boasts the best Thai food in north Utah County.

If you're keeping score, that's two big wins in the quest for an improving neighborhood, one at each end of the block.

Tomorrow, we'll walk the block together, see how it has changed in a dozen years, and draw a few conclusions.

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