At fifteen, Stacy is still yearning for “something” to happen. Teen life isn’t like what her sister experienced (formal dances and dates at the soda shop). Instead it’s a group of kids hanging out “talking about how bored they were.” Until the day she meets Greg Martinez, cousin of Stacy and her friend Julie’s nemesis, Richie. Richie’s a bloviating showoff, but Greg is something else: not only cute and athletic, but interested in some of the same offbeat things as Stacy–things Julie is always trying to get her to stop talking about in front of boys.
Greg’s presence signals that the regular summer Saturday night teen hang at the Arboria Park playground will be more fun than usual. As her friends sip beer, smoke pot, and make out on the playground equipment, Stacy and Greg are watching the stars and talking about all kinds of things. Too bad he’s only visiting for the weekend.
The Arboria Park teens listen to AM Top 40 radio at their gathering, but Stacy and Greg learn they’ve both discovered hard rock music through older siblings living interesting lives in New York City. Stacy even confides that she’d like to learn to play electric guitar. Free-form progressive FM rock radio is making its way into the scene in 1970. Compare the kinds of songs Stacy’s friends are listening to and the kinds Stacy and Greg seek out:
A year of international upheaval and change is reflected in Stacy’s own life, though she initially views the summer of 1968 as “boring.” She’s edged into the teen years but not enough to really matter, except for making some cash babysitting for people other than her sister. This includes new black neighbors, just some of the people she’s hanging out with regularly of whom her mom decidedly does not approve.
Mary’s working and taking college courses at night, Don’s about to be sent to Vietnam, and Olga has a boyfriend. Daisy and her roommate, Helena, smoke weed and host parties featuring the guitar-playing grad student Arch, who Stacy worries is up to some “funny business” with her sister. As she spies on Mary and her friends (while taking guitar lessons from Daisy), Stacy is also keeping track of what’s going on at the neighboring Oakley farm. It’s about to be developed into a subdivision nicer and fancier than Arboria Park, and Stacy’s mother Evelyn is lobbying for the family to move there. Because the only thing flower child Daisy and uptight Evelyn agree on is that Arboria Park is nothing but “houses made of ticky tacky.”
Before summer is over, Stacy’s loyalties are tested: to her family, to her new friends, and to her neighborhood. While many American cities are in flames, the only fire Stacy sees is when the Oakley farmhouse is put to the torch by the new developers. But she also observes the symptoms of “white flight” in Arboria Park and how sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are tearing generations apart, even within her own family.
It’s 1967.The word “love” is on everyone’s lips; love songs dominate the charts. The Beatles claim it’s all you need.
But it’s definitely not the Summer of Love over at Mary and Don’s house. In fact, Mary doesn’t even want to accompany Don, who has joined the Air Force, to his training destination. Stacy, who’s just trying to rush through her last year before reaching her ultimate goal of being a teenager, still hopes they’ll work it out. But she can also see why things aren’t going well.
As Stacy hangs out at Mary’s looking after her toddler niece, Autumn, she’s also getting to watch TV shows her mother doesn’t want her exposed to (like Dark Shadows), listen to Bob Dylan, and meet Mary’s newest neighbors–flaky hippie Daisy and the gorgeous, exotic Olga. Olga is from Spain and married to a control freak; like Mary she’s yearning to break free. Maybe Olga’s listening to Englebert Humperdinck sing “Release Me (Let Me Love Again)” as she hustles to get dinner on the table before her demanding husband gets home.
At home, brother Tommy has announced he’s joined the National Guard and a traveling theater troupe, angering his parents by refusing to attend college. Stacy just wants to support her siblings and keep her own toe-hold in the wider world of adults and cultural changes. As she listens to Mary’s new Dylan album, she thinks “She Belongs to Me” could relate to her sister’s life. But maybe “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sums up the discordant summer of ’67 for Stacy’s family overall.
Some of the great love songs from the Summer of Love:
Dedicated to the One I Love The Mamas and the Papas
1964 is a year of real change for Stacy and her family, the world at large, and definitely the music charts.
Stacy’s disgruntled again, this time on behalf of her older sister, Mary. Newly graduated from high school, Mary is being forced to wed her boyfriend, Don, after becoming pregnant. Though euphemisms are used in front of Stacy and arguments between Mary and her parents primarily take place after Stacy is supposedly asleep, she’s nine “but not stupid” and understands what’s going on—to a point.
What she can’t figure out is why no one is happier about the marriage and why the wedding is scaled down. Enamored of the ideas of love, marriage, and fancy white dresses and cakes, Stacy is annoyed that everyone is treating her sister as though she’s committed a crime rather than celebrating the event with lavish gifts and good wishes. She’s also puzzled by Mary’s lack of enthusiasm about getting to move into her own home (though a visit to the new house in “the Pines,” the least desirable part of Arboria Park, provides a partial explanation).
As Stacy feels things changing too quickly and confusingly, she’s not alone. The nation has weathered the Kennedy assassination and is embroiled in a war that isn’t a war; civil unrest and cultural clashes are regular happenings. The changes even affect something as simple as how Mary’s future husband wears his hair; while Stacy has admired him for looking like teen idol Ricky Nelson, he’s now growing out his hair into a Beatles do.
The pull of tradition is strong, but so is the rush toward change. Mary’s church wedding illustrates the price of rebellion (and its possible rewards), as Stacy’s brothers clown around and the priest is unable to hide his disapproval. A reception at the Halloran house divides along generational lines: Mary and Don’s friends in one room and the adults of both families in another. (The Halloran siblings improvise their own places to be.) Stacy’s attempt to be supportive of Don reveals him to be both bitter and resigned to his fate (while exhibiting some rather old-fashioned notions of gender roles for someone attempting to look like Paul McCartney).
Stacy’s brothers Tommy and Matt have prepared a musical surprise to send the couple off on their honeymoon, leaving Stacy with a good feeling (and a small bouquet of flowers), but when Don’s mother makes a rude remark, Stacy decides she’s had enough of adult sanctimony and stages a protest, complete with foul language picked up by spying on Mary’s new “white trash” neighbors.
We need only to look at the pop music charts to see how dynamic and fluid the world was becoming in 1964. The Beatles dominated, with lots of Top 10 hits, and they brought along a number of other British Invasion bands like the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Kinks, and the Dave Clark Five. The black music of Motown was also becoming a vital chart presence, with the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Mary Wells, among others, scoring hits. The Beach Boys, the Ventures, and Jan & Dean kept the sunny California beach/surf tunes going. Roy Orbison updated the ‘50s sound while girl and boy groups singing about death and accidents lingered on. But while American teens had this wealth of new sounds to listen to, the music of their parents’ generation was still hanging on by its fingernails, with Dean Martin crooning away and Louis Armstrong belting out a top show tune. If Mary and Don were listening to the radio in Don’s ’56 Pontiac as they sped away on their honeymoon, what they heard probably reflected the tumult of the last few months of their lives—and the months to come.
By 1963, Stacy has a bit more freedom to roam, but it’s still not enough. She’s curious about what’s beyond the spaces she’s allowed to inhabit. It’s a similar time in the U.S. as a whole. Events outside the country intrude; things are mostly going pretty well but are a bit unsettling.
Stacy gets a chance to defy her parents when she and her friends follow some older boys down to “the woods” across a creek from their neighborhood. It’s a fun adventure, but also a dangerous one: The children are trespassing on a farm owned by Mrs. Ramsey. Though Stacy doesn’t believe the woman is a witch (as one of her friends does), she realizes quickly that their presence on the farm is not welcome.
Just a few weeks after Stacy’s adventure, President Kennedy will be assassinated and the world will become a less certain place. Lines and boundaries will be drawn, just as Stacy experiences being grounded by her parents and fears that even her limited freedoms could be coming to an end. But there are also larger opportunities and changes afoot: Stacy’s dad correctly interprets Stacy’s longings even as he must rein in her impulses. He realizes she’s ready to learn a lot more about the world around her; past and present, good and bad. Many young people in this era were waking up to the world beyond the safe spaces where they were raised in the 1950s, even as films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds portrayed how danger lurked in the most innocuous places.
Music doesn’t play a big role in this chapter, but things were in flux there as well. A lot of pop music had been neutered since the rock’n’roll rebellion of the 1950s; sugary-sweet girl groups like the Chiffons and the Angels and clean-cut pop idols like Bobby Vinton dominated the charts. But things were stirring: Though the Beatles and the British Invasion were still a few months away from conquering America, the Beach Boys, the Kingsmen, and Paul Revere and the Raiders were making stabs at the big time. Folk music was seeping out of the cafes of New York City into the mainstream, with Bob Dylan’s socially consciousness anthems sharing chart space with Lesley Gore’s teenage laments.
But Lesley was doing more than just whining about a spoiled party. She was also throwing down some proto-feminist warnings to go along with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. (Joan Jett would cover the song in the punk era several years later.) And as Stacy spends a hard week of being grounded, stuck in her room or her back yard, she may well be longing to tell her parents “Don’t tell me what to do. You don’t own me.”
Chapter 1 of Arboria Park takes place in 1960, when Stacy is only five and just learning that there’s life beyond the yard to which she’s largely confined. Until the fateful afternoon described, she’s always thought that everyone she didn’t know was pretty much like everyone she did. It’s the beginning of an expanding view of the world–one her parents sometimes wish she didn’t have to have.
This is the first of a series of posts describing the world in Arboria Park. I always start with the music, and there will be a playlist for each chapter. This video has the Top 10 songs of the year, and a bit about movies, TV, and sports as well:
The Number 1 song of the year, “Theme from A Summer Place,” could be what Stacy’s mom Evelyn listens to on the radio while she’s doing dishes or sewing. Stacy’s older sister Mary is probably swooning over Elvis and looking forward to dancing to songs by the Drifters and Brenda Lee at her first high school dance.
As Stacy notes in the chapter, her sports-mad brothers Tommy and Matt like to watch car races on TV with dad Tom. They also might have watched the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series a few weeks after Stacy’s adventure on Arbor Circle, or the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Green Bay Packers for the NFL championship (this was before the Super Bowl existed!).
Just a few weeks later as well, John F. Kennedy would be elected president.
As the Johnny Preston song in the video illustrates, there was also plenty of racism around. Since it was built in part for Air Force families, Arboria Park would not have had deed or covenant restrictions against African American families moving in, but it is likely that in 1960 the neighborhood was primarily if not entirely white.
1960 happens to be the time of my own earliest memories. My brother was born that year, and my father took me downtown to buy him a teddy bear. We also got a new car that year (replacing the Studebaker pictured on the cover of Arboria Park), a silver Rambler station wagon with fins! It also had a roof rack like the station wagon featured in the video below:
Stacy mentions riding in the back of the station wagon, but she’s much more impressed with the Volkswagen Beetle that speeds down her street blasting Bobby Rydell’s “Wild One.”
Fun facts: I actually did bring a “diamond” to kindergarten (and got scolded), and my friend Davy and I threw rocks down a manhole once.
Fictional Arboria Park, like its real-life counterpart Rodney Village, is surrounded by two farms. The Park is built on part of the Ramsey farm and orchard along a creek. Also to the west is another farm that, in the course of the story, becomes the housing development Oakley Estates.
In real life, the Kesselring farm was to the west of Rodney Village, just outside the city of Dover. After we moved out of the Village, our new house in an Oakley Estates-type development was directly across from the Kesselrings’ farmhouse. A new elementary school, which opened the year we moved, had been built on the edge of the Kesselrings’ land. One day my mother was walking our dog near the school and paused to admire a patch of daffodils. Mildred Kesselring happened to be working in her garden that day, and she and Mom got to talking. This led to a lifelong friendship. The incident was the inspiration for Stacy meeting Mrs. Ramsey in 1987 when she stops to admire her azaleas.
Another farm, long owned by a family named Howell, was across a creek to the south called Howell’s Branch, where my husband and his brother had their first nautical adventure in an old rowboat. Elizabeth Howell Goggin did not want her land developed after her death. So, like Mrs. Ramsey in the book, she donated it to the county for parkland.
Mrs. Kesselring was also determined not to lose any more of their family’s land for development unless it was for a positive purpose like the school. Her son has tried to be true to her wishes, selling land only for a Boy Scout camp and a recreation center.
He may also have thought doing so would protect the rest of the farm from the road being proposed to connect the growing west side of Dover to the highway. In the State Department of Transportation study of the area, the historic farm and the school were noted as impediments to placing the road near my family’s house. The lovely Brecknock Park on the Howell property blocked it from being built further south.
So the only viable route (according to the highway planners) was behind the Kesselring farm and through the edge of Rodney Village. Houses along the creek were demolished, and the road is still being worked on. Here is what it looks like now:
Brecknock Park contains a playground, athletic fields, and some lovely trails along the creek:
Here is Mrs. Howell’s old house, and some of the farm’s outbuildings.
Here is another old tenant house on the property:
This was an old mill along Howell’s Branch. It could have been the Ramsey cider mill that burns down in the 1950s:
Here you can see the remaining Rodney Village houses beyond the trees and the road under construction. This could be where Stacy and her friends run across the creek in 1963 after being scared away by Mrs. Ramsey, whom they believe is a witch:
“Punk rock saved my life” is kind of a cliche in the punk community. I collect punk quotes, and many are a variation on one widely credited to Mike Ness of Social Distortion: “Punk rock sounded like I felt inside.”
Most punks will tell you this revelation occurred when they were about 14 years old, whether it was hearing the Ramones or the Clash for the first time in the 70s or discovering Green Day in the 90s.
I was more like 50.
The early punk days of the 1970s didn’t quite hit me. I lived in places where my only contact with music was commercial radio and magazines. At age 14, I devoured news about the New York Dolls and other glam rockers, but I seldom heard them, until eventually David Bowie and a few bands like Mott the Hoople pierced commercial radio and TV. I was in college when punk began to bubble into general public consciousness, but I was still tied to commercial radio and to the local scene. Newark, Delaware, was a folk and blues town. George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers were playing locally and starting to hit nationally, and other blues bands and artists like Tom Larsen and Rockett 88 dominated. I was heavily devoted to political concerns (poli sci major, with a journalism concentration), and had discovered the more political end of folk music (and local singer-songwriters in that vein). Commercial radio and my folkie friends mostly made fun of punk. I was exposed to Patti Smith through a friend of a friend, but that was about it.
Meanwhile, my younger brother became a New Waver who dabbled in a bit of punk. He saw the Ramones several times and got the autographs of three of the original four on a paper napkin. (Which disappeared somewhere in my mother’s house, and we were never able to get our hands on it.) Though his tastes ran more to Blondie, the B52s, and Echo and the Bunnymen, he still encountered more punk than I did. He went to lots of shows, which I didn’t do, partly out of finances, partly because my boyfriend (now my husband) and I mostly followed local bands around northern Delaware, and partly because, coming from a small town far away from the action, I’d grown accustomed to thinking that concerts were always “somewhere else” and only people with cars and lots of disposable income (I generally had access to neither) could go. And boys, like my brother. Plus, the few big arena shows I did attend left me cold. I’m grateful I got to see one of my favorite non-punk old-school bands, the Who, in their prime, but the Spectrum seats were lousy and the experience wanting. I recently heard Henry Rollins talk about his teen experiences with big shows, and it resonated. Your heroes were too far away, untouchable. You hoped for some kind of transcendence, based on your love for the records, but you weren’t feeling the love back.
So I entered adult life with a passion for music, but limited access. Again, I read about the Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Black Flag, and other 1980s punks. There were a few local punk bands, but I never went out to hear them. Then in 1990, the first stirrings began. In those pre-Claritin days, I used to take Benadryl if I had a bad allergy attack, and it would thoroughly knock me out. So one day, my husband and I had to be somewhere after I’d taken one. He was driving my car with the radio on, and I was passed out cold in the passenger seat. Suddenly a guitar riff broke through the fog, and I sat straight up. It was the beginning of Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain,” which became my all-time favorite song. It was a fluke; the Philly radio stations didn’t play them much. Later I discovered a Baltimore station I could pick up in the car in certain places that did. I still associate Social D with driving, since I first heard “Bad Luck,” “Story of My Life” and “I Was Wrong” in the car.
Social D, Green Day, Rancid and a few other punk or punk-influenced bands broke through the radio barrier in the 1990s, especially since Kurt Cobain and the grunge crowd were open about their influences and “modern rock” radio had become an alternative to the ossified classic/crap-rock formats. I was drawn to punk more and more.
In the early aughts, I reached a tipping point. I had once loved my job of over 20 years, but the affair was over. Other factors–a series of family deaths, health issues, a mental breakdown in the mid-90s–played a role. I was restless, and the small amounts of punk I heard made me hungry for more. Then Philly radio god Jim McGuinn unleashed a “punk rock weekend” on Y100, Philly’s premier modern rock station. Jim had previously worked at WDRE, a pioneering alt-rock outfit I only discovered mere months before it folded. Jim and others from that station washed up at Y100, my usual listen at home and in the car. Punk Rock Weekend sealed the deal.
Flash forward to the mid-aughts. I’d gotten out of my job and into a new one I loved–managing editor of an American history journal. It was only part-time, so I had a lot of time on my hands, plus I could listen to the radio on my computer at work because I was usually alone. Y100 had ended in 2005, but Jim and some other hardy DJs had started their own online station, Y-Rock (which eventually evolved into Y-Not Radio). There were two shows devoted just to punk rock, and I ate them up. I won tickets from Jim to see Mike Ness in 2008, and that unleashed something. I realized I COULD go to shows; I was in Philly several times a week for work anyway and seeing Mike even from the balcony of the Trocadero (my husband wouldn’t stand below, closer to the stage) was an experience more like watching George Thorogood or my bar-band friends in 1979 than sitting in nose-bleed seats at the Spectrum. I was hooked for good, and I devoted myself to finding out more about old and current punk music.
That year, 2008, I turned 50, went through a harrowing menopause, lost one-third of my net worth like the rest of America, helped my mother and my best friend through horrific cancer treatments, endured that friend’s eventual murder–and started writing, in fits and starts. For the next two years at least, I clung to my sanity through punk. Since 2011, I’ve seen 130-190 bands a year, mostly punk and mostly from the front row. At first it was a way to get through the day and have something to live for, then it became something to share with new friends (and one old one–she of the Patti Smith album), and now it’s my life.
Arena rock is virtually dead, but other kinds survive and thrive in the margins. To me, rock was never meant to be something made by rich white men in gigantic stadiums (with an exception for Bruce Springsteen); it belongs in what my favorite artist Frank Turner calls “bedrooms, bars, and bunker squats.” It truly is a SCENE, where artists and audience mingle and appreciate one another. I’ve met and even become friends with countless musicians, both living legends and people you’ve never heard of. I’ve talked to Mike Ness, held hands with Iggy Pop, exchanged email with Henry Rollins. I get hugs, and stage shout-outs, and once waved to the entire TLA as the audience yelled my name (at the behest of my favorite Philly band, the late Holy Mess). I met some local punks in a band called Victory Boy and they introduced me to house shows (an important influence on Arboria Park, which I will detail in a later post). I’ve met people of all ages I’m proud to call my friends, people I see at various shows who all have their favorite bands (but in the Venn diagram many coalesce around Frank Turner). I listen to the old-school punk I missed the first time around in the 70s, 80s and 90s who played RIGHT IN MY OWN TOWN all those years when I desperately needed to see them and didn’t know it; didn’t realize they existed or were playing right up the street. I listen to local bands and new bands, folk punk and thrash punk and orgcore and hardcore. It all means something.
I’ll let the Celtic punk Mahones take it from here:
Dec. 8, 2016. Various things inspired the writing of Arboria Park, but the main one was the place I grew up and lived until I was 12 years old: Rodney Village, near Dover, Delaware. That’s my house on the cover of the book. The photo was taken in 1958, soon after we moved in (I was about 2 months old). The real house was gray, and my father’s Studebaker in the driveway was dark green. Like Tom and Evelyn in the book, my parents faced a housing shortage when they moved from Maryland to Dover while my mom was expecting me.
Rodney Village was one of a number of developments responding to the need for housing around Dover. Most of our neighbors were Air Force folks, which led me to expect that my friends would usually move away. Initially, as is often the case with new neighborhoods, people tended to be close and know everyone around them, but the transience of the Air Force families (and later people who worked for General Foods, who often got transferred) broke down some of that cohesion over time.
We moved to another neighborhood about a mile away in 1970. That neighborhood was in the city of Dover, which made a world of difference. The main one for me was that we could finally use the public library, but it meant a difference politically too. My parents now voted in city elections and followed local matters more closely. Our new development had a civic association, as did others around us, which meant a bit more political clout. This would become important later on.
My mother died in 2013, and my brother Mark and I were faced with cleaning out, fixing up, and selling her house. She had become something of a hoarder, so it was an 18-month ordeal. During that time, we became aware that an entire street in nearby Rodney Village (Charles Polk Road) was marked for demolition, to make way for a connector road from West Dover (where major development had been going on for years, including dozens of housing developments, shopping centers, medical complexes, and even the new public high school). Various routes had been discussed and discarded; the local civic association in my mom’s neighborhood had been actively involved in blocking another route close to her house (fortunately a historic farm and an elementary school made that possible route unworkable). My husband’s cousin, a local judge, was also involved in building awareness and political pressure in that southernmost section of Dover as a final route was decided upon.
I believe one reason Charles Polk Road was chosen was because, unlike the middle-class neighborhoods where my mom and Roland’s cousin lived, Rodney Village was in an unincorporated area outside the city, home to many renters,and becoming a bit run down. In short, it lacked political clout. For whatever reason, during the summer of 2013 Mark and I watched in fascination as people moved out of the houses, which were then boarded up and marked for demolition.
Several times as I left to drive home, I’d detour over to the Village to see what was happening, only to spot Mark’s car already there (or vice versa when he followed me). All of the south side of the street was slated for demolition. One house had been home to some childhood schoolmates of mine. Another had belonged to our mother’s best friend, who originally lived across the street from us (her husband was the realtor who sold my parents their house). Her family had moved to a larger split-level on Charles Polk Road in the late 1960s, and she died in a car accident in 1970. So we felt a personal connection to the street, arguably one of the nicest ones in the neighborhood. I took photos of several of the houses.
I thought a lot about Rodney Village in the coming months, and about what a good story the neighborhood’s history would make, from the time it was a farm field until it was threatened with destruction. Eventually I got the idea to tell it through the lives of a family who, unlike mine, had kept ties to the community from its inception to the end. As the story coalesced, I realized I needed to go beyond Rodney Village and Dover itself, in order to bring in some other elements, like racism, economic dislocation, and the tensions between towns and universities. I live outside of Newark, Delaware–a college town, with its own odd housing history. My house is in another 1950s housing development. Like the fictional Arboria Park, it is a few years older than Rodney Village. While it has had its ups and downs, it has held on as a remarkably diverse, stable community. I plunged into finding the history of similar communities to further inform the story, and I added some imaginary sections to my visualizations of Arboria Park. One was based on a duplex development, built in the 1940s, where I lived briefly in the 1980s (George Read Village in Newark, originally built for munitions plant workers during World War II–like Rodney Village, its history related to military concerns and its streets were named for Revolutionary era Delaware patriots). Houses like the ones in George Read Village became “the Pines,” a section of Arboria Park that’s always just a little bit poorer, odder, and rowdier than the rest of it, and where succeeding generations of girls in my imaginary family (Mary, Stacy, and Autumn) go to seek both trouble and salvation.
One major reason I wrote this book was because this part of suburbia isn’t portrayed often. Look up literature about suburbia, and it’s either very upscale, vaguely 1950s in nature (see Cheever, Yates, or George Costanza’s comment in Seinfeld about “stockings, martinis, and William Holden”), or about its banal, cookie-cutter, Levittown sameness. There’s not much from a working-class perspective, or that acknowledges that some of us have vivid, even good memories of growing up in this slice of Americana, despite its shortcomings and dangers.
So I took my old neighborhood, my current one, and some knowledge of 20th-century culture, music, and architecture and mixed in an actual event (the building of a road), and some flat-out imagination. (Part of Arboria Park’s history is that it is a hotbed of punk rock music from the 1970s on. Which my real neighborhoods, to my knowledge, never have been. I’ll be getting into how punk rock influenced/created this novel in a future post.)
Later on, closer to book publication time, I will also post some short stories set in Arboria Park. These will be tales of eras and people not covered in the book, though some minor characters from the novel will play a bigger role in these stories.