Friday, September 29, 2023

The good neighbors: How community spirit helps an aging suburb thrive


Melvin Diaz, above, a former police officer in New Jersey, and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Meadowbrook Estates in 2009.

They found their “forever home” on Falstone Road, in a well-manicured subdivision in North Chesterfield during a long weekend trip 10 years ago.

After spending their working lives in New Jersey, Melvin and Elizabeth Diaz figured their money would stretch further if they moved south. Elizabeth, a former schoolteacher, and Melvin, a 26-year veteran of the Jersey City Police Department, had already sent their two kids off to college, and they were ready to retire. “You can’t live there on a pension,” Melvin, 63, says of their three-bedroom home in New Jersey.

It helped that they already had a cousin who works in real estate, Steven Rivera, living in Chester. Rivera moved to Chesterfield in 2006 for the schools (he had two young girls) and low-cost of living, and encouraged Melvin and Elizabeth to do the same. He’d email them houses that were on the market, arranging visits on weekends.

“We looked at four or five homes,” says Melvin, taking a mid-morning break from yardwork in early August, his shirt soaked with sweat. “The new wood frame homes didn’t appeal to us,” he says. “They were houses, but this was a home. We spoke to our neighbor across the street, we spoke to Bossie [next door], and that was on Saturday. On Sunday, we wrote the check.”

The stately yet modest brick colonial on Falstone was a “good, solid home,” but needed updating, Melvin says. He and his wife have spent more than $100,000 on renovations – including a new kitchen, patio, fencing and a shed; French doors in the living room and hardwood floors, even adding window boxes to the second-floor windows. They invested, well aware that the improvements might not dramatically improve resale value. “There is no loss on the money that was spent,” Melvin insists. “This is our forever home.”

For the Diaz family, discovering Meadowbrook Estates seemed like a happy accident. Situated at the northern border with Richmond along Cogbill and Hopkins roads near Chippenham Parkway, the 423-home community is a throwback to 1970s-era suburbs – neatly trimmed lawns, large ranchers and colonials with Grecian columns, mature landscaping with sprawling oaks and magnolias. Anchored around a golf course that was once the site of a tobacco plantation, Meadowbrook’s first homes were built in the late 1950s on halfacre lots, along narrow, interconnected roads near the winding Falling Creek.

While unremarkable in the broader context – lots of well-pruned suburbs exist in metro Richmond – Meadowbrook seems to defy a half century of shifting demographics. Even after significant westward migration in the 1980s and 90s, and in-migration of lower-income families in surrounding neighborhoods, Meadowbrook Estates remains largely unblemished by the suburban blight that afflicts other older residential corridors in the county.

Just off Hopkins Road, Meadowbrook Estates has a reputation for well-manicured lawns, and clean streets thanks to neighborhood walkers who pick up litter.

“They have a great location. It’s super convenient. I think that helps preserve the value in ways that maybe other neighborhoods might not enjoy,” explains Carl Schlaudt, revitalization manager for Chesterfield County, adding that most of the homes were built by William Samuel Carnes, the late patriarch of W.S. Carnes Inc., a local construction company known for its workmanship.

The late Carnes would insist that carpenters use only hammers – nail guns weren’t allowed, to avoid inadvertent misses – and walls were constructed with double sheetrock to prevent waves and protruding nails. “So the community has good location and good bones,” Schlaudt says.

Still, there’s something else that sets Meadowbrook apart. There’s an esprit de corps among homeowners that feels almost outdated. “The main thing that they’ve done right is that they’ve self-organized as a community, and they’ve raised the expectation of what being in that neighborhood means,” says Schlaudt, referring to the civic association, which he describes as “politely aggressive in watching out for their neighborhood. … So there is an expectation that people are the good neighbor, that they act like good neighbors.”

About a year after buying the house, Melvin discovered by happenstance that his neighbors were a little different. After the Diazes bought their house in 2008, they wound up renting it out for a year before moving in. With boxes still to unpack in mid-March 2009, they realized that their neighbors had been mowing their lawn. Melvin had no idea.

“We came back a year later and we see somebody out in the backyard cutting the grass,” Melvin recalls. “I said, ‘Who’s cutting the grass?’”

Melvin tells the story on a late August evening while sitting on the porch of his next-door neighbor, Bossie Martin, who’s 83. Bossie was the man in his backyard mowing the lawn that day in March nine years ago. He was simply doing what he’d always done – jumping in to help neighbors with whatever they needed, often unprompted.

Bossie Martin (left) and Melvin Diaz catch up on Martin’s front porch, a regular hangout. “We sit up [here] and have a beer,” Diaz says, and “solve the world’s problems in one afternoon.”

Born and raised in Hartsville, South Carolina, Bossie retired from his job as a paper handler for a printing company in Farmingdale, Long Island, in 1989. He and his wife, Carolyn, relocated to Petersburg to be close to her family, and eventually found their retirement home in Meadowbrook Estates in 1996. His wife passed away in 2013 (“If I see her on the street, I’ll go and marry her again,” he coos playfully). Bossie spends his days tending to his yard and garden out back, regularly leaving tomatoes for Melvin and Elizabeth in a bag hanging on a white fence that separates their yards.

“I like it here,” he says, sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, next to Melvin. “You can’t find a better one than Mel.”

The well-manicured lawns and the volunteer lawn mowing aren’t the exception here. The Meadowbrook Estates Civic Association is actively engaged in community upkeep – there are biennial cleanup days, anti-litter teams and a 15-member neighborhood watch patrol, one of the few “mobile” watch patrols in the county.

Julius Huggins, president of the civic association, says the patrol works directly with the county Police Department, and drivers take two-hour shifts about twice a day. They don’t carry firearms and don’t intervene when confronted with potential criminal activity. They observe, and fill out a logbook kept in a metal lockbox near the community pool. During a Sunday morning patrol in August, Julius explains that the goal isn’t to police the community, but to provide the eyes and ears that help neighbors stay connected.

“We’re not dictating to you, you know,” says Julius, 58, a retired Marine Corps combat cook. “But if you moved here, you liked what you saw. We’re trying to keep it that way.”

For example, about five years ago, someone reached out to Julius about an elderly neighbor who appeared to be home but wasn’t answering her door. A couple of days’ worth of newspapers had collected in her driveway, and her car was still parked out front.

“I just drove over and knocked on the door, and I kept knocking and I could faintly hear something,” he recalls. So, Julius called the police to do a welfare check. “The policeman came and we both knocked together, and then we hear somebody saying ‘help, help’ in the background,” he says. “She fell and hurt her hip, and she was on the floor like that for three days and couldn’t access her medicine.”

The elderly woman recovered from the fall, Julius says, pointing out that the real lesson is that neighbors can make a difference. Of the neighbor who reached out to him, he says, “She walks through the neighborhood every day. … Some people think she may be a little bit nosey, but we need nosey people like that. I mean, she saved a lady’s life.”

Established as an upscale suburb more than 50 years ago, Meadowbrook owes its stability in large part to a simple fact: Many of the residents have long ties to the area, and never saw much reason to leave. As a result, many of the homeowners are seniors, and the overall population skews older – 38 percent of the residents in Meadowbrook are over age 55; compared to a countywide average of 26 percent. The number of households in the Meadowbrook area without children, 70 percent, also outpaces the county average of 56 percent, according to county demographer Catherine Bray.

Hilda and B.B. Taylor, for instance, moved into their home on Marquette Road in 1966. B.B., a former investment banker, is 90 and suffers from Alzheimer’s; Hilda, 86, is a retired nurse. They raised four children in Meadowbrook – Backy, 63; Cathy, 61; Susan, 59; and John, who died at age 49 five years ago – and never really considered moving.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate out here,” Hilda says. “I think in general the years that we’ve been here the roads, the streets have been well-kept, neighborhood yards have been well-kept. Right now, we’re waiting for the shrub man to come and trim, ours look sort of hectic. We used to do it, but we don’t anymore.”

While some of her older neighbors are now gone, those who moved in are “just as nice as they can be,” she says. “Our plan is to stay here until we can’t.”

Hilda and B.B. Taylor have lived in Meadowbrook Estates since 1966. They’ve always had good neighbors, Hilda says: “We’ve been very, very fortunate out here.”

Good construction and neighborhood stability have kept property values steady. About 10 percent of the neighborhood’s homes are rentals, and when one of Meadowbrook Estate’s houses lands on the open market (which isn’t often; only a half-dozen or so of the neighborhood’s homes were for sale last week) prices tend to hover between $200,000 and $300,000. Scroll through and you’ll find listings as low as $195,000, and as high as $600,000 (see “Pretty in pink”).

Larry Edmonds and his wife, Sandra, found something close to their “dream home” on Edgemere Boulevard in 2004. A federal contractor who conducts background investigations, Larry was in the process of moving his family from Arkansas to Virginia for a job at the Federal Correctional Complex in Hopewell. After years of bouncing around, they both wanted to settle down and raise their boys – Jacob was 4 at the time; Jackson less than a year old – near family in Virginia. (He’s from Halifax County; Sandra grew up in Danville).

They looked at other houses in the Richmond area, but Meadowbrook Estates offered everything Larry and his wife wanted – for nearly half the cost of a similarly sized home in the West End.

“We looked at it and said, spending $180,000 to $200,000 for a house versus spending $350,000 to $400,000 to be in the far West End, it didn’t make sense,” Larry says. “You’re spending almost double the amount per square foot to be out there. … I said, unless you find another house that is our dream house, I think this is going to be the place, our domicile, where we are going to stay and raise our kids.”

The Edmonds’ house, built in 1977, sits at the corner of Edgemere and Falstone, a central point in the community. Every day, particularly early in the morning, Larry says the neighborhood streets fill with walkers. “We have so many people who are octogenarians, so many people that are in their 60s, 70s and 80s that literally walk this neighborhood every day,” Larry says. “And they feel very safe and secure.”

Larry Edmonds and his family moved to Meadowbrook Estates in 2004. The housing quality and the neighborhood’s convenient location, he says, were deciding factors.

Brenda Atkins, a longtime resident and editor of the community newsletter, The Meadowlark, grew up near McGuire Park and was among the first students to attend Meadowbrook High School, which opened in 1963. She moved into her home on Monza Drive about 20 years ago. The community has aged, she says, but there’s a work ethic that permeates: the litter pickup, neighborhood patrols, helping older residents with yardwork.

“It takes work,” says Brenda, 68, who also works regular neighborhood patrol shifts. “It’s not a chore. It’s really not, because we know each other. We’ve been working together for years.”

Ben Thorp, a longtime resident and treasurer of the civic association, says the association shifted its focus about a decade ago. Instead of broadly enforcing code violations, which some in the community saw as “nitpicking,” they shifted their attention to the neighborhood’s more vexing problems: properties that were in need of intervention.

“We found there are good ways to do code enforcement, and bad ways,” says Thorp, who also serves as vice chairman of the county’s Revitalize Our Communities Committee. “We’d rather find isolated problems. We attack the bad problems and then garner support.”

The community has also borrowed heavily from the revitalization committee, regularly distributing the committee’s “Be The Good Neighbor” pamphlets, which outline best practices for property upkeep and include other neighborhood resources, and participating in the annual Empowering Neighborhoods Forum.

Thorp says Meadowbrook also distributes welcome baskets to new homeowners, providing contacts and information regarding the civic association and other community resources.

“We want people to call us if they have problems,” he says. There’s a neighborly ethos at Meadowbrook that’s difficult to quantify, says Schlaudt, the county revitalization manager. “Many people forget that neighborhoods are living, breathing entities. They age, they change,” he says. “Communities are not things to throw away, but to celebrate and invest in.”

It’s a message Schlaudt tries to impart when visiting communities throughout Chesterfield. Homeowners in older corridors, where the demographics are shifting and the housing stock is aging, shouldn’t sit idly by and accept neighborhood decline.

“It’s just people choosing to not give up, but to roll up their sleeves and get busy,” Schlaudt says. “I think that’s happening in Meadowbrook. … If I go out to a different community, I would use them as an example of that: Don’t despair, get busy.”

This story was featured in Casa, a special house and home section of the Chesterfield Observer.

3 responses to “The good neighbors: How community spirit helps an aging suburb thrive”

  1. Donna Cole says:

    This article captures the essence of all neighborhoods Every time a home is purchased in an older neighborhood by residents who are proud of their home, everyone in the subdivision is rewarded. I love what Ben says about changing focus to address biggest issues! Keep it up Meadowbrook!!!!

  2. Chris Terrell says:

    Thank you Chesterfield Observer for a nice article about our hidden gem. I know all of the folks in this article, and they do great work for our neighborhood and we really appreciate all of their efforts. A coworker of mine, a millenial, recently bought a home in Meadowbrook Estates. Like a lot of folks I know, the location did not excite him, especially working in Glen Allen. But I insisted he take a look at a brick rancher that was about to hit the market and the rest was pretty easy. His new home is an exceptional value in a great neighborhood. Another good friend of mine bought on Hopkins near the schools during the foreclosure crisis and scored a great house that just needed a little love and sweat equity – and he saved tens of thousands on the purchase. Schools and shopping don’t compare as well to the rest of the county, but if those two things aren’t your primary concern then I highly recommend our neighborhood to prospective buyers.

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