What is one important factor to consider when selecting a future home? Safety. This was definitely something that was a concern to me when we were thinking about living in the city. Back in December 2002 after first touring what would become our home, Alex, Mel (our cat) and I would perform weekly drive bys of the neighborhood and surrounding areas to just...well...check things out. (And yes, we really are those crazy people that would bring our cat along to see his future home. But not quite eHarmony cat girl crazy.)

Based on our initial assesment, we came to the following conclusions:

  1. The person who would be our next door neighbor must be a good person, or at least an animal lover. This was based on the "In case of fire, please recue my dog" sticker in his front window.
  2. Two doors down lived an elderly gentleman, who noted our presence each time and who appeared to be a built in security patrol for the neighborhood.
  3. The area was definitely "transitional." At that time, the movie theater was boarded up, and the area close to the metro left less to be desired than other parts of Old Town. We were cautious, but hopeful.

Conclusions two and three proved to be spot on, especially the second. After purchasing the home, we were soon approached by our elderly neighbor, who introduced himself as Paul Harris, self-proclaimed neighborhood watch. He quickly gave us the lay of the land, which included filling us in on proper parking and garbage protocol, told us about previous owners of our home and the history of the neighborhood, and expressed a persistent yet genuine interest in our house projects.

For the eight and a half years that we knew him, Paul had his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood. He knew when people came and went, stopped people in the alley to ensure they were visiting someone, and took it upon himself to point out projects or improvements he saw necessary, our home included.

He hated the people across the street who chained their bicycle out front. The occupants of one rental unit were told repeatedly that their landlord had hung their front light too high. He could also, at any given time, tell you the exact number of dogs in the surrounding area, and which owners didn't pick up after their pets or who let their dog bark incessantly. And he often made sure to remind Alex of the minor projects he had yet to finish on the exterior of our house.

There were even occasions when people found Paul in their homes when they had workers present, just checking on the progress of their improvements. And I'll never forget the day he wandered into our home before we moved in, as we were meeting with the flooring contractor. This forwardness earned him the nickname "The Snoopervisor" among neighbors.

It wasn't all nosiness though. Paul did us a huge favor when we were installing new siding on the back of our house. He loaned us the use of his backyard to lay out the boards so we could prime them. It was a huge help to us (and also provided some entertainment for Paul, as he could keep a close watch on the project). Here he is, overseeing the work my brother and I were doing.

 

In the beginning, I found Paul's behavior to be very forward, bordering on rude. But over the years I grew to love him, and accepted his boldness as endearing. Without family here in town, he grew to be a pseudo grandfather to us. His constant watch was a source of comfort, as I knew that someone always had one eye on our house and the neighborhood.

I'm so very sad to say that Paul lost his battle with cancer yesterday morning. Before he died, Alex and I wrote a letter for Paul and visited him in the hospital to let him know just how much he meant to us, and how the neighborhood just won't be the same without him. He was in his final hours, quite tired from the toll the cancer had taken on him, but he was still the Paul that we know and love. I don't know who will buy his home, but I hope it's someone who cares about the neighborhood and neighbors even half as much as Paul did.

After learning of Paul's passing yesterday afternoon, we all had a chance to reflect a little bit more on what Paul meant to our lives. This was capped off last night by an impromptu gathering of neighbors on the sidewalk, a champagne toast, and an open sharing of memories, stories, and feelings about Paul and who he was to each of us.

 

We recognized the importance of safety when looking for our new home, but one thing we grossly underestimated was the value of good neighbors. I'm so very fortunate to say that we have the best neighbors one could ever hope for. Paul was part of a larger inner circle that I'm so very happy to call family. People who open their homes, their refrigerators and their lives to us and welcome us as part of their family. When moving from Ohio to D.C. back in 2000, I never thought we'd be as close with those that live around us, or have such deep and valuable relationships as we do now. A warm, heartfelt thank you goes out to all of you -- you know who you are.

To memorialize Paul and to recognize the extent that his legacy is woven into the fabric of our neighborhood, Alex and I, along with the assistance of the rest of our neighbors, are working to have the alley to the left of our house named after Paul, Harris Alley. When we visited him in the hospital, we told Paul of our plans to ensure his legacy in our neighborhood. His nephew said to him, "Wouldn't that be cool, if Alex and Wendy were able to pull that off?" To which Paul responded, "Yes, and if anyone can get it done, it's these two." This is the very reason why, in spite of his potentially off-putting first impressions, we ended up caring so deeply for Paul.

Do you have a special someone in your neighborhood that keeps watch and makes it a better place to live? Or even a crotchety old lady that yells at all of the kids to keep off her lawn (who you secretly like and would miss if she were gone)? We'd love to hear your stories about what, and who, makes your neighborhood the place you love to call home.

Comments 6

Comments

Susan
6/14/2011 at 8:42 AM
I know you were special to Paul. Thanks for shaing the story.
6/30/2011 at 8:54 PM
Wow. That story gave me some goosebumps!

I've been meaning to comment on some of your other articles (in particular, the one where you describe how you made the staircase wainscoting, VERY nice). But this one hit a chord.

My wife and I live in a Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood that sounds very similar to yours, in terms of the kinds of neighbors we have. Only been in this house a little more than a year (and plenty of DIY projects behind us, too) but yes, some of these people are already like family.

Our "Paul" lives next door; a lovely couple who has lived here for some time. They're not quite as nosey as your Paul was, but they certainly do help keep watch over what's going on.

I hope you're successful with your alley renaming project; it seems like a fitting memorial to the man. And keep it up with this awesome blog.

Regards from Philadelphia,
--Thad
Wendy
7/1/2011
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Thad. It's so nice to get this type of feedback, and it's also wonderful to hear you're lucky enough to have a "Paul" in your neighborhood too. We're making some progress on the alley project - we delivered letters to all of the neighbors last night in fact - and will keep everyone posted on any new developments. Thanks for reading!
12/30/2011 at 1:35 PM
What a precious gift of friendship you found. Any success on this project?
Alex
12/30/2011
We're still working on it. We have signatures from our neighbors but I want to make sure we have a thorough presentation to the city before we move forward. I know the city doesn't like to make a habit of naming alleys, so I want to take lots of photos of other alleys and show that a precedent has already been set. I figure we'll have a much better chance if we really do our due diligence.
1/3/2012 at 8:42 AM
What great news on your progress. You will have to share with us readers an exciting post when it works out.
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