Lilac Time on Prospect Avenue

Photo from the Prokudin-Gorski collection at the Library of Congress

Spring has come early on the Front Porch this year. The Lilac bushes in the back yard are just about ready to bloom, and as I played catch with 20 Prospect Jr. last night the yard was fragrant with them. All over town the crab apple trees, and fruit trees have blossomed. This is almost a full month earlier than most years. In my experience there is no better mood elevator than the smell of lilacs at dusk, as the catbirds and cardinals are trilling in the dying light.

Growing up at 20 Prospect, the people in the house behind us on Ellicott Avenue had lilac bushes that leaned over the 8 foot chain link fence, into our yard. We used to cut the flowers from the low hanging branches and put them in a vase in the kitchen. My bedroom window faced the backyard, and on those first few warm nights when I slept with the window open the place smelled of lilacs.

I say that the bushes belonged to “the people behind us”, and not “our neighbors”, because we never actually knew the people who lived behind us. All along the length of Prospect Avenue there was an 8 foot high chain link fence, separating our backyards from the ones on Ellicott. Growing up this was just the way things were, but as I think back about other streets and avenues in Batavia this strikes me as odd. Why here, between these two streets, did the city erect an 8 foot high chain link fence? Was it to keep the undesirable peasants from Prospect from despoiling the yards of the elites?

The fence was a nuisance to us more than anything. It never stopped us from getting into their yards to retrieve foul balls, (We cut a hole with Dad’s NiMo grade cable cutters) and the fence never stopped us from exploring among their bushes, pools, and summer houses. (The summer houses were a few small brick enclosed patios left behind from the days of lemonade, parasols and gentlemen callers.) To the gang of dirty faced, Sears Tuffskin wearing kids from Prospect they were as fascinating as a Pharaoh’s tomb.

Our backyard - Note the prison grade security fence

When we went out to play, we always knew that every house on Prospect Avenue was “in bounds” for playing. It didn’t matter if kids lived there or not. Sometimes the best hiding places were in the wild, overgrown backyards of the old ladies. It’s funny to think about it now when people seem so uptight about property lines, and worried about serial killers waiting to abduct small children. I guess back then our parents figured there were enough eyes around to keep us from getting into too much trouble. In retrospect, I guess I would agree for whenever we started doing something we knew we weren’t supposed to adults would materialize onto a back porch, or out of a window to catch us. It may not have taken a village to raise a child, but it sure seemed to take half the old ladies on the street.

While we played up and down the length of Prospect, we all knew that Ellicott was “out of bounds”. There never seemed to be any kids on Ellicott, even though I know for a fact a few did live there. Those big backyards, for they were twice as deep as ours, were mostly just big vacant expenses of soft green grass begging for a game of baseball. We obliged on more than one summer afternoon, climbing the fence to play a few innings when we knew the owners were off to work.

Once upon a time there was a clear class divide between Ellicott and the surrounding streets, but by the 70’s the “Nouveau Riche” of Batavia had abandoned Ellicott and fled to the newer homes on Naramore Drive. Was the 8 ft chain link fence their legacy? The instinctual sense that their backyards were off limits was still present in our generation. Over the years I have come to know the answers to many obscure questions, but I am afraid I will go to my grave without knowing the answer to that one.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…


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