When Familiar Landmarks Disappear …

 

I remember Harrison Street.

If you asked me, I could draw you a detailed map of it. The first feature on my drawing would be the little hill in front of our house. The hill would be small enough that a seven-year-old, peddling with all her might, could ride a bike up it. And there would be a river at the end of the street.

I could draw the  houses of all the children that lived on that block: Lois and Keith’s two-story house; Janet and Jerry’s house, where I learned to twirl a baton; and Linda and Dale’s house, where the neighborhood kids gathered on the living room carpet to watch TV for the first time.

the Harrison Street gang

I could add old Mrs. Torrey’s house across the street and her fish pond and her two big trees filled with cherries we weren’t supposed to pick but did anyway. And the house of the old man whose dog, Puppily, decided he wanted to be our dog instead.

I haven’t seen Harrison Street in a very long time. We moved away a few days after my tenth birthday.

Years later, when my husband and I were in the area, I thought I’d show him where I used to live. I was sure I’d be able to find it. I had a clear mental map of the street, and I knew the surrounding area well. Every school day from first through fourth grades I walked to school and back. I made my way up Harrison Street, around the corner, and down street lined with hawthorn trees. Then I passed the feed-and-seed store and a friendly horse in a small nearby field, continued across the railroad tracks, and walked down the main street to the school.

It should have been a cinch to find Harrison Street. But it wasn’t.

Looking at Google Maps now, I see the problem. Our old house is still there, hidden under some leafy trees. But the little hill and my friends’ houses and Mrs. Torrey’s fish pond are all gone, replaced by a freeway.

So why am I thinking now about Harrison Street?

The other day I was searching for a hotel to use in the novel I’m working on. Early scenes in the novel take place in Manila in 1989, and I wanted my characters to have dinner in a hotel restaurant on Manila’s Roxas Boulevard. So I googled the hotel I had in mind. No luck. In the twenty-seven years since we lived in Manila, the hotel must have changed hands. Maybe it changed hands more than once.

Roxas Blvd. on a quiet day in 1988

Next I tried a Google satellite map, but Manila had changed so much since 1989 that I had a hard time recognizing anything. I suspect population growth had a lot to do with all the changes. So I looked up Manila’s population and found that in 1990, the population of Metro Manila was 7,973000. Now it’s estimated to be 13,322,000. Quite a change.

So what’s the lesson of Harrison Street and the hotel on Roxas Boulevard? Keep your memories, but don’t use them to navigate around a place you haven’t seen in years. Use your cell phone or Garmin instead.


Interesting related fact: Metro Manila is the world’s most densely populated city. It has 111,002 people per square mile (42,857 people/square meter). For comparison, Mumbai has only 23,000/square meter.

I knew Manila was crowded, but still, this is a surprise. Now I live in a city with a population density of 4,437 people/square mile.


Happy Mothers’ Day to all you mothers out there.

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

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24 comments


  1. Must have been a lovely trip down memory lane for you, Nicki. Harrison street must have had many heartfelt memories for you to remember it so vividly. It sounds like quite the challenge for you to find that hotel in Manila. Have the road changed? Buildings going up and down is one thing, but when new highways are coming up so often in many Asian cities over the last couple of decades and today, a piece of history is so easily lost. I never knew Manila was that crowded today. Very packed and it must be a bustling city more than ever, more than when you left 🙂




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    • It was fun, Mabel, to travel back to the street of my childhood. I have many more memories of that street, but I didn’t want to bore you. They say our early memories are stronger than later ones, and I believe it. I sometimes have a hard time remembering the names of all my current neighbors. I can excuse myself by saying that there are about 65 people in my village, but there’s no way I would forget the names of my childhood neighbors.

      The hotel in Manila I was thinking of was one I never actually visited. I was hoping to see if it had a restaurant. The roads in that area haven’t changed, but there are more hotels than there were before.




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  2. Writing a story that takes place in the late 80s sounds challenging. My hat is off to you for all of the effort you’re putting forth.

    I went to my old neighborhood in Chicago last year. Though my block looks relatively the same, so many places in the area had changed. I think about that block as I write my middle grade book. One of my characters used to live in that area. XD

    Happy Mother’s Day, Nicki!




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    • Thank you, Linda.

      The late ’80s doesn’t sound that long ago to me, but then, when I think of all the changes since that time, I can see how much life has changed. One example is international phone calls. They used to be so expensive, you didn’t make one except on very special occasions–and then you kept it short. Also, you wrote letters to friends and family instead of emails.

      It’s fun that you’re thinking of your old Chicago neighborhood as you write your middle grade book. Fiction writers can invent characters and events, but we tend to want to keep the setting real–unless, of course, we write fantasy or science fiction.




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  3. My niece lives across the street from my old home so I get to see it often. Over the years there were “improvements.” The hedge was ripped out and a beloved locust tree removed. The siding changed and so did the windows. About two years ago it was for sale and there were interior pictures on the website. It was wonderful to navigate around and see what they did. Out went the old dusty radiators replaced with smaller heating units. The kitchen and back porch were combined into one large room and a new kitchen. The house was built in the 1800s so it still had that old Victorian look with rooms in a row but the new owner had done a lot to it. Fortunately no new highways.




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    • That must have been fun, to keep track of your old house and then to see the inside via the real estate website. The houses we lived in after Harrison Street were more accessible to us. Our parents lived in the same town (Sedro-Woolley) for many years, so when we visited, we could drive by the old houses. The first house (the one that was supposed to be Dad’s shop) was expanded and given a Spanish look. The neighborhoods in Sedro-Woolley didn’t change much, but after the nearby mall was built, the main street did.




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  4. Bob

    Happy mother day Nicki have a nice day!




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  5. I grew up on a Garrison St. and googled it recently. The trees we planted are a lot bigger and the house is much nicer now. Google Earth’s street view made it a pleasant trip down memory lane.




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  6. When I revisited the house and street where I grew up, I remember thinking the house seemed so small. Taking a trip down memory lane can be enjoyable, but also sad. I love the photo of the “the Harrison Street gang,” Nicki. Happy Mother’s Day!




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    • Houses used to be so much smaller. Two bedrooms and one bathroom wasn’t so unusual. Now builders prefer large houses. I hear that first-time home buyers have a hard time finding anything they can afford.

      When I visited an old elementary school, I also thought everything in it seemed a lot smaller than I remembered.




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  7. So much changes over time. When I moved back to my hometown few years ago I was surprised how much it had changed in just 10 years! For my wife it is even more extreme when going back to her hometown once a year/ every two years as cities in China are growing so quickly and changing non-stop, even streets are suddenly totally different within a few years.
    Talking about population density, my hometown in which we live now has a density of 1100 people per square km. The town where my mother comes from in Finland and where we have our cottage has a density of only 10 people per squarekm !




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    • It’s fun to compare population densities. Seattle is dense (7,962 people per square mile in 2014) and intending to get denser. The idea is to save farm land and open spaces from sprawl and to have people live in apartments and condos closer to their work so they can walk or take public transit. Seattle is located between Puget Sound and a large lake, Lake Washington, so there isn’t a lot of space for new highways.

      Every place changes, but China’s growth and change is off the charts.




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  8. Great photos . . . and all the girls in skirts! That doesn’t happen these days. 😀




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  9. Love all the old pics!

    It’s amazing how much things change over time.




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    • Some places change gradually. We barely notice, especially if we’re around to see the changes happen. Harrison Street, on the other hand, was quite a surprise.




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  10. Life moves on! Lovely black and whites of you kids. 🙂 Hope you found your inspiration elsewhere, Nicki.




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    • Yes indeed, Jo. Life does move on. These black and white photos are among the few I have from my childhood. They’re saved in two albums. Such a contrast to the thousands of photos people take these days. You must have hundreds of thousands of photos.




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  11. Isn’t it odd how vividly we remember those childhood landscapes? Fifty-odd years on and I could even tell you the wildflowers and show you where they grew… and I have not lived in the area for decades. When I did go back, I was almost offended to see what had changed, because the little girl in me had not.




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