The pleasures of pocket neighborhoods

My parents just entered retirement and, for the first time in their lives, are shopping for a house.

As the supervisor of a summer camp for nearly 40 years, my dad’s employer provided year-round housing for our family and a few others. Like a year-round Cuckoo clock, a bell would ring three times per day announcing the start of meals and campers and staff would gather together in the dining hall over long tables and family-style serving platters of greasy camp food.

Now, as my parents look at houses and report back endless opportunities — I can tell you the housing market is quite good for mortgage-free retirees with a do-it-yourself mentality. I find myself wondering how they will ever replace the sense of community they shared at camp.

Then I picked up “Pocket Neighborhoods” by Ross Chapin. Chapin is a Minnesota-born and-educated architect practicing in Washington. He was in town a few weeks ago to promote his new book, which depicts historic and newly built developments that embrace and sustain a sense of community.

Chapin builds on Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” phenomena on a communal scale. He created the first “new” pocket neighborhood in Langley, Wash. in 1995, but identifies precedents dating back to the 15th century. By today’s standards, the homes in Chapin’s developments are small — less than 1,000 square feet — but delightful! Described as “cottages,” they present useable porches and colorful gingerbread-like detailing, photographing as well-behaved children of San Francisco’s “painted ladies.”

Though clustered, the cottages maintain privacy without sacrificing community by creating spaces for all occasions. My own condo building is filled with kind and respectful neighbors but I would be hard pressed to call it a community. Our 36-unit building is much larger than the 12 to 16 households that Chapin recommends as a Pocket Neighborhood maximum, and as with most new condo buildings, all units are accessed by an interior hall and face outward to the larger neighborhood, turning their backs on each other.

Contrarily, the Fair Oaks apartment complex just down the street is a kind of pocket neighborhood, with multiple units overlooking lush and open central gardens. I met two of my best friends over boxed wine and a block of Velveeta in one of its courtyards nearly a decade ago, and passing the building on 3rd Avenue still brings a rush of nostalgia. That is a pocket neighborhood success, and Minneapolis has others.

Milwaukee Avenue in the Seward neighborhood is actually featured in the book, and its stalwart residents are commended for saving the pocket from demolition in the 1970s. Areas of Linden Hills and neighborhoods along Minnehaha Creek also spring to mind with successful pockets.

Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects.