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One more city loss


THIS ONE'S for any city resident who has lost a treasured neighbor to the suburbs.

My neighbor moved for all the predictable reasons: high taxes, the ever-present threat of crime, a shaky public school system. But for eight years we lived side by side, exchanging babysitting and recipes, house keys and birth announcements.

I miss her now, on this first evening when her house stands dark and empty, waiting for the arrival of new occupants. All the familiar, comforting sounds and sights of the house next-door that, unknowingly, became a part of my life -- the slamming of a stubborn garage door, the van pulling up in the alley, the sound of her toddler screaming for a cookie, the lights being switched off in the kitchen -- are gone now.

My friend arrived in the neighborhood two years ahead of us, and had already begun to transform an old neglected house into a sterling property. We tried to follow the lead, as did the neighbors who came after us. A healthy competition developed, and we, who previously did not know a hammer from a screwdriver, found ourselves in the heat of urban renewal.

Together we worried about crime. One cold October night, when neither one of our husbands was home, and with babies asleep in their cribs, we spent endless minutes on the telephone keeping each other company and quieting fears as police helicopters buzzed over our houses, beamed searchlights in our yards and combed the alley in search of a criminal. Over the years we became immune to the helicopters and armed ourselves with block-watcher numbers and deadbolts. But still the fears lurked; next time it could be us.

One time it was. At the height of a January snowstorm, with all the bus lines clogged by impassable streets, her husband decided to walk the five miles home from his office downtown. He almost made it. Just four blocks from our street he was jumped and mugged. A sympathetic bystander brought him home, but that was the beginning of the end of my friend's residence in the city. After that, her eyes were on one goal: getting out.

The problems of the public schools accelerated the goal. In spite of all her energy and commitment to neighborhood, my friend could not send her children to a school where discipline problems caused classroom chaos and too many fights broke out on the playground. Now, a suburban elementary school will receive my old neighbor's enthusiastic volunteer efforts.

As I watched my neighbor clean her house for the last time and bequeath house keys to new owners, I realized again how much I would miss her.

The city brought us together and made us friends. The city pushed her away.

Judy Reilly writes from Baltimore.

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