Young moms find community in Strathmore

Thursday, March 10, 2005

DICK CASE

NEIGHBORHOODS

I met some of my Strathmore neighbors the other night at Stacy Dubiel's house on Robineau Road, most for the first time. They call themselves the Strathmore Margarita Moms.

Sure enough, there's Stacy at her kitchen counter mixing a pitcher of margaritas, and chatting with friends. These neighbors - all women in that "thirty-something" era - gather once a month to "hang out and talk."

Stacy and Leslie Schoen pulled them together last year.

"This is a neighborhood of young people," Stacy explains. "We see each other in the park (Onondaga), and at school. This is a way to get us together."

The Strathmore neighborhood curls around Onondaga Park and its Hiawatha Lake, which used to be the city's main water supply. Development began about 25 years after Wilkinson Reservoir closed in 1895.

Strathmore connects to Bellevue Heights, an older section north of the park. The original "Strathmore by the Park" development opened in 1919, advertised as lacking fog and businesses, conditions that pretty much prevail 86 years later.

The immediate neighborhood includes five schools, two churches, Woodland Reservoir and a small mom and pop grocery, on Stolp Avenue. Many of the houses were built in the 1920s, including several designed by architect Ward Wellington Ward which have National Landmark status.

The Strathmore moms reflect diverse backgrounds, professions and interests. What they share is a passion for Strathmore, and city living.

Our hostess, Stacy Dubiel, told me reports of a "brain drain" from our town puzzle her.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," she explains. "I moved back here after living in Massachusetts and Vermont for years. I chose this area for its rate of pay to cost-of-living rate. You can't beat it - especially if you live in the city."

I heard from Stacy, and her neighbors in the group, that our image of Strathmore as an area of higher-priced homes may be out-of-date. Stacy and her husband, Tim, bought their place on Robineau three years ago as a bargain starter.

It was a HUD sale and the house was "in rough shape," according to Stacy, who has one child and is expecting another. "We've been working on it ever since."

Stacy wants us to know the neighborhood's housing costs "are low enough that we can afford to decide whether or not to be a stay-at-home parent, instead of being required to work to make mortgage payments."

Just now, she's taking time off from her decorating business.

I heard similar raves for Strathmore from this mom's mother, Marcia Schaefer, who's been here 37 years. The Schaefers moved to Syracuse from Chittenango, much to the chagrin of their families, according to Marcia.

"We like it here," Marcia explains. "It's nondenominational and nonpolitical. I feel comfortable."

It pleases her to "see the young kids moving back," including her daughter.

Like Stacy, Marcia belongs to a neighborhood club. It's the Strathmore Tea Group, which has been gathering on Monday afternoons at members' homes close to 50 years. "We're the grandmothers of the neighborhood," says Helen Popp, who looks after keeping in touch with neighbors she calls "the girls."

For years, Helen says, the women met "every Monday, even though many of us had small kids. Now we're getting together once a month" except during the summer. The Tea Group has about 20 active members.

Some of the Margarita Moms work, some don't. Back then, none of the Tea Group women had full-time jobs. "We do have a few younger members," Helen Popp explains.

Strathmore also has two book clubs. Margarita Mom Karen McPeak is part of the Elizabeth Roberts Reading Circle, which started in 1941. Elizabeth, an artist and writer, was married to John T. Roberts, namesake of Roberts Avenue and school.

Karen and her husband, Steve, have been in the neighborhood since 1998. She says the McPeaks were attracted by Strathmore's small, close-knit feeling and interesting, affordable architecture.

"This house, and the area, have so much character that although we were thinking of it as our first house, we were comfortable with the idea that our career and life choices might make this our last house," Karen explains.

"If we're going to stay in the city, this is the neighborhood we want to be in."

Karla Littlewood grew up in New Jersey and moved with fiance John Murphy to Syracuse from Boston. He's an Eastwood native. Karla, a therapist at Onondaga Pastoral Counseling Center, decided on Strathmore because of the park and finding "my style of house," an older home that was within their budget.

Debbie Melvin was a social worker until her son was born. She and husband Buster moved from Connecticut five years ago when he enrolled at Syracuse University's College of Law. They made a conscious choice of city life, which Debbie says is affordable "and close to my husband's work."

Wendy Vaughan and her husband, Stacey, are Colorado natives who relocated to Syracuse in 2003 after he was recruited to work at Stack Veterinary Hospital at Onondaga Hill.

Wendy, who's expecting their third child next week, says our town is a "huge change" from Denver, but the Vaughans love it. The staff at Stack's helped them find a house "we fell in love with," and they've adapted to our long winters. The season is balmy in Denver, compared with Upstate New York, and "we can buy a house here on our income."

Denver's median home price is $236,000, and "we have all four seasons here."

Wendy says the Vaughans were bowled over by the welcome they got from neighbors at Strathmore as soon as the moving van arrived on Wellesley Road: "Our neighbors are like an extended family. We've never seen anything like it."

Middle-sized versus big-city living is appealing, too. Stacey's two minutes from work. In Denver, it seemed to Wendy the family spent a lifetime commuting.

"I think my 5-year-old son was raised in a car seat," she says.

2005 The Post-Standard