I remember the day we lost our vacant lot. It was where we played kickball and baseball as kids, racing from the first base pine tree to the second base divot by the alley to the third base apple tree on the edge of our backyard to the home plate patch of dirt in front of the lilac bush. Occasionally, on breezy summer evenings, Mom and other neighborhood moms would gather with babies in their arms to sit on the sidelines and cheer us on.

Our vacant lot was where our neighbor swung his golf club and, on one back swing, removed a chunk of flesh from above my brother Paul’s left eye. We gathered around Paul after it happened, equally attracted and sickened by the blood running down his face. Dad dashed over to assess the situation and rushed him to the hospital for stitches. Once the excitement was over, my brother Eric shrugged his shoulders and bent down to pick up the large rubber ball so we could all begin playing kickball. That’s what we did most summer nights in our vacant lot.

It was in our vacant lot that we built giant snow towns in the winter, creating snow forts and snow walls on the perimeter for our frequent snowball fights. Our vacant lot was hallowed ground. It was where the neighborhood kids gathered whenever we were bored, shooed out of the house by our parents or wanted to find a friend in the days before cell phones.

We believed the vacant lot was ours and ours alone, especially since Dad had a handshake agreement with the vacant lot’s owner to buy it whenever he was ready to sell. But that all ended abruptly one summer morning when I was jolted awake by a lawnmower engine revving up.

We believed the vacant lot was ours and ours alone, especially since Dad had a handshake agreement with the vacant lot’s owner to buy it whenever he was ready to sell. But that all ended abruptly one summer morning when I was jolted awake by a lawnmower engine revving up. I peeked out my bedroom window to see not Paul—who usually mowed the vacant lot in exchange for play space for the nine of us kids and our cohorts—but a stranger mowing the grass.

I raced downstairs to alert Dad. He calmly put down the newspaper he had been reading and said, “That’s our new neighbor. He just bought the vacant lot.” He sighed heavily, offered me a sad smile and walked away. I learned later that a local businessman had purchased the lot from the widow of the owner. She knew nothing about her husband’s verbal agreement with my dad. Not long after, our playground of many years was transformed into mounds of dirt, which we climbed and dug through but with little joy. My younger sister, Myra, took it the hardest, sitting forlornly night after night atop the biggest mound of dirt until Mom called her in for a bath.

In less than a month, the framework of a house took over the space. Though fascinated by the construction project, we found little solace in losing our neighborhood play space. Eventually, our new neighbor put up a fence, cutting off our view of the lot as if to send a final message: Kids are not allowed to play here anymore.

 

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Disappointments are best learned early in life to prepare us for the tougher lessons ahead. We bemoaned the loss of our vacant lot, but eventually found other things to do. Paul and his friends found a large open field to hit golf balls. Myra began riding her bike more often. My friends and I walked down the block to the recreation center and found other friends. And my older siblings ventured forth toward other bolder adventures.

Though the bulldozer and the backhoe did away with our personal field of dreams, they could never dispel our memories of running around the misshaped diamond, scuffing our bare legs on pine needles and twigs, grabbing a branch of the lilac bush and triumphantly proclaiming we were safe at home.

For us, it would always be our vacant lot.

— Beth L. Voigt

Beth L. Voigt grew up in Highland Park and is now living in Summit Hill.

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