Researching and writing about Wellston has got me thinking about what makes a great neighborhood.

When I hear my mother and my aunt tell stories about growing up in Wellston – how safe they felt, how they knew everyone, how they could buy anything they needed right there in their own neighborhood – I envy them that special time. “The old neighborhood,” to use Ray Suarez’s term, was alive, bustling, teeming with activity.

In my adult life, I’ve had the good fortune to live in three vibrant neighborhoods – the east side of Madison, Wisconsin; the small but artsy and progressive Shepherdstown, West Virginia; and now the Holiday Neighborhood of North Boulder, Colorado. Each of these places has a strong sense of community – and a recent viewing of Designing a Great Neighborhood got me thinking about what makes each of these neighborhoods so vibrant. This 54-minute documentary by filmmaker Dave Wann follows the development of the Holiday Neighborhood and the building of the 34-unit Wild Sage Cohousing Community, where I live with my husband Jim.

Madison’s Willy Street neighborhood – including our beautiful Spaight Street – is, as Madison’s alternative weekly, The Isthmus, puts it, “eminently walkable.” Anchored by the Willy Street Co-op and filled with “locally owned shops, restaurants, and entertainment establishments,” the neighborhood is described by the City of Madison website as “Bohemian. Hippie. Green.” I loved living in this happening corner of Madison,  but I don’t recall knowing my neighbors. As a graduate student and renter, perhaps I was just too much of a transient to invest deeply in the community.

I was much more invested in my next community – the lovely and marvelous Shepherdstown, West Virginia. For the next fifteen years, I called the Shepherdstown area home. The oldest town in the state of West Virginia, historic Shepherdstown is both the epitome of and the exception to the notion of a small town. Everyone knows everyone in this town of 803 people, 410 households, and 168 families. Located just 90 minutes from downtown Washington, D.C., Shepherdstown is cosmopolitan, hip, artsy, funky .  . . not at all the sleepy small town one might imagine. German Street – the main drag in town – is home to gourmet restaurants, specialty boutiques, a fantastic coffee shop and an equally fantastic bookstore, neighborhood bars, even a restored movie theater that features art house films. I lived smack dab in the center of town (right behind the library on whose Board of Trustees I served) and worked a block away at Shepherd University (where I was a Professor of English).

Five years ago, I moved to a Colorado neighborhood that is every bit as distinctive as Madison’s Willy Street and West Virginia’s Shepherdstown. Built on the site of a former drive-in movie theater (the Holiday Drive-In, of course!), the Holiday Neighborhood is one of the nation’s premier new urbanist neighborhoods. My husband and I are really lucky because we live in the core of Holiday – the cohousing community known as Wild Sage. Formed in 2004, Holiday is a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. Like Madison’s Willy Street neighborhood and like Shepherdstown, it is “eminently walkable” – and it’s almost impossible not to run into people you know when you are out walking the dog or strolling to the neighborhood coffee shop. Of course, from my perspective, Wild Sage is the best part of Holiday – but perhaps an introduction to cohousing will have to be the subject of another post.

For now, let me highly recommend Designing a Great Neighborhood. You can rent it on Netflix – or if you have streaming capabilities, you can watch it right away via Netflix. If you watch it, be sure to check out the great interviews with our dear friend and neighbor, architect Bryan Bowen. Bryan was one of the architects who designed Wild Sage (and our beautiful common house!).

As I reflect on what makes a great neighborhood – from Wellston to Willy Street, from Shepherdstown to Holiday – I’m interested in what you think makes a great neighborhood. Feel free to leave a comment – and suggest articles, books, websites I might read.

Next up for me (this spring? this summer?) is Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I want to learn even more about new urbanism and think about the ways “old” urbanism might influence “new” urbanism. What can Wellston – both in its heyday and later in its demise – teach us as we consider building and growing new neighborhoods?

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