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Halloween can tell you a lot about your neighborhood

Posted on October 31, 2018

By Manisha Bewtra

MELROSE --- While preparing for my son’s first time trick-or-treating after moving to our new home in Melrose in 2013, I called my mom in Ames, Iowa to share my excitement over buying too much candy and the tribulations of finding the right costume for an 18-month-old boy.

“It seems like kids just don’t go trick-or-treating like they used to. We barely get any trick-or-treaters anymore,” my mom lamented.

I thought about it for a minute, my mind immediately flashing to the trick-or-treating scene in E.T. where dozens of kids in costumes are out in force (see what I did there). Were things really different in the 1980s and 1990s – was this American tradition on the wane? Certainly, some things are different, but from what I’d heard and seen, the tradition of trick-or-treating was alive and well (or at least, undead). 

Then it hit me. My mom’s observation that there were fewer trick-or-treaters in her neighborhood was due to changes in neighborhood demographics. My parents, along with many others in the neighborhood, were now empty nesters. It was a great illustration for how even if no one moves, neighborhoods don’t stay the same.  

“A lot of the people in your neighborhood are the same families that were there when we were kids,” I reflected out loud to my mom. “Trick-or-treating is alive and well, in places where there are lots of kids!” I added on, just to make it clear I’d done a quick-and-nerdy analysis – “You live in an aging neighborhood.”

In the five years since this conversation, a few more homes have turned over in my parents’ neighborhood in Iowa, from empty nesters to families with young children – and trick-or-treating has picked up accordingly.

Melrose has been experiencing much of this turnover, with homes changing hands from empty nesters and retirees to families with young children. My family is part of that demographic – we bought our home from an empty nester and added another trick-or-treater to our neighborhood in the process. 

Halloween spatial patterns

When I brought this conversation to MHP after starting here six months ago, it kicked off a lot of reflection among my colleagues. We discussed our own childhood trick-or-treating experiences, and which neighborhoods made for the most sugary loot.

A few years into our time in Melrose, I noticed that while my block gets a fair number of trick-or-treaters, the best area nearby for trick-or-treating was two blocks north of my home. My gut feeling was that the homes on this block were a little close together and it wasn’t as busy a street as mine, and that perhaps that contributed to why it’s a particularly great spot for trick or treating.

Since I’m keen on analyzing spatial patterns, I took a look at our neighborhood in satellite view on a map, as well as the parcel map, where I verified lot sizes. Ultimately, the homes, lots they were on, presence of sidewalks, and the width of the streets was similar for these blocks and my own. Most of the neighborhood was built in the Victorian era, and the typical lot size is about a fifth of an acre. On a closer look – the best block for trick-or-treating had homes that were a little closer to the street, and it was less interrupted by cross streets and through traffic.

When scouting good places to go trick-or-treating, look for homes closer together and streets with more foot traffic than car traffic.

The images above are sections of the parcels, roads, driveways, and building footprints for the block north of my Melrose home, on the left, and my block, on the right. The tan shapes are the outlines of the buildings, gray lines are the parcel edges, the green numbers are parcel sizes in square feet, black lines are the driveways, and brown lines are the street edges. The areas circled in red show how the homes on the block on the left are closer to the sidewalk compared with the homes on the right. Additionally, the red circles show how my block is broken up by cross streets. Nevertheless, my street still makes a pretty good destination for trick-or-treating given its relative density compared to other suburban locations.

Dense zoning = more candy

 I looked up the dimensional and density requirements in Melrose zoning, and noticed that the minimum lot size requirement for this zoning district is 7,500 square feet. Most lots on these two blocks are roughly that size, about a fifth of an acre. This is already relatively dense compared to many suburbs and towns, though likely common for streetcar suburbs – communities like Melrose that are relatively close to Boston, and that were developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century when railroads extended out past the most urban communities. Some communities have changed their underlying zoning, so redevelopment or new development cannot happen at this density. 

This also got me thinking about when we lived in our high rise condo building in Cambridge, apartment buildings I’d lived in before that, and of living in a dorm. When I lived in multi-story apartment or condo buildings, I rarely knew my neighbors – though in all cases, I did have a shorter commute than I do now. On the other hand, it was easier to meet our neighbors when we first moved in to our home in Melrose. I enjoyed dorm life – there were shared facilities that necessitated more interaction, but also, there was programming that helped to break the ice in tight quarters. Though I do recall Halloween parties and door decorations, I don’t recall trick-or-treating within my building when I lived in those locations. Of course, there were fewer kids living in those places as well. 

What about you – what were the places like where you trick-or-treated when you were a kid? Have those places changed? What about your neighborhood now – do you get many trick-or-treaters? Do you think there’s an association between neighborhood design – uninterrupted blocks, how close homes are together, how well streets connect, how far back homes are from the street or sidewalk, whether there are sidewalks present, etc. – and places that make for great trick-or-treating? How do demographics fit in – has your neighborhood had a lot of turnover? Who lives in your neighborhood – lots of kids, empty nesters, college students, young professionals? I suspect all of these mix together in a spooky way and I’m happy to have found a location where I don’t have to walk far to load up on lots of candy – and see a very earthly scene of extra-terrestrials, superheroes, pumpkins, ghosts, creatures and characters of all kinds. 

Happy Halloween!

(Manisha Bewtra is a senior program manager on MHP's community assistance team).