From its beginning, the River Street neighborhood was different.
Its roads were cockeyed, more or less aligned with a dirt path someone built in 1863. What became known as Lovers Lane and then Pioneer Street ran a few degrees off the original city grid on its way to the Boise River from Downtown.
But it was people, not streets, that made the area so remarkable. Over the years, Boise's black, Hispanic, Basque and Japanese populations concentrated in the River Street neighborhood because nonwhites couldn't buy property in most other parts of the city.
Whether it was tolerance or the fact they couldn't afford to live anywhere else, the races mingled in the working class neighborhood, by all accounts in some measure of harmony.
Dick Madry played with white, black and Hispanic friends near his childhood home on Ash Street. They dug forts. They played baseball in the streets. They went to the river - to their parents' chagrin - to fish and play in the water.
"There's a little island under that steel bridge down here on 9th Street," said Madry, 66. "We'd crawl across the undergirders and then drop down on that island. We'd have weenie roasts and cook marshmallows and play down there."
PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP
The people who lived in the neighborhood didn't have much money, but they were proud of their homes and kept them up.
After the civil rights movement, other areas of Boise opened up to minorities. The freedom to live where they wanted was a hard-won victory for many of the River Street neighborhood's residents.
At the same time, their opportunity brought decline to the neighborhood. People who rented from the recently departed homeowners didn't keep the homes the way their landlords had.
WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS
In River Street's early days, the neighborhood was predominantly home to white, middle-class residents. Gradually, things changed after Union Pacific extended its railroad into Downtown in the 1890s and built a depot at the corner of 10th and Front streets.
Gambling, drinking and less reputable activities grew out of homes in the area, said John Bertram, owner of the urban design company Planmakers and the neighborhood's unofficial historian. The River Street neighborhood became known by the cliche "the other side of the tracks."
Partly, that reputation was due to racial prejudice. With the railroad came black employees. Basque residents who spoke no English arrived and settled there. In the 1940s, a few Japanese families showed up after being interned in wartime camps.
"I think the people in the North End thought they were better than people that lived in that area, regardless of what their race was," said Warner Terrell, who grew up near the corner of 15th and River streets. "There were a number of the kids from the North End that didn't really accept the kids from south of the railroad tracks."
The River Street neighborhood was no slum. Too many people cared too much about keeping their properties up. Many of them worked in the hotels, restaurants and shops in Boise.
"Even though people were poor, actually it was one of the better neighborhood relationships. People knew each other a little bit and they helped out," Bertram said. "It was better than today, when you might not even know who lives next door in your apartment building."
By the 1940s, the area was known as the place where most of Boise's black residents lived, but that label was misleading. It was, after all, still Idaho.
"There were a lot - a lot - of white folks," said Cherie Buckner-Webb, a state senator whose family lived in the neighborhood until she was 5. "Although people try to say that was the concentration of black folks - that may be the case, but still, the largest population there was white."
Even after she moved out of the neighborhood, Buckner-Webb spent a lot of time in its streets, homes and lawns. Her grandparents and two aunts lived there for many years after her family moved to the North End.
Her father worked at a car dealership near the corner of 11th and Front streets. She'd go with him some days and make the short walk into her old haunts while he worked.
"Little memories. There were just people that were your family by choice, family by blood, people you'd grown up with," Buckner-Webb said.
Erma Andre was born in 1907 in Nampa, the 12th of Amanda Chouteau Dodge's and Charles Edward Andre's 13 children.
The same year, an unassuming stone house was built at 617 Ash St.
Erma would buy the house nearly 40 years later after being denied a place on the Bench because she was black.
The Andre family had its own orchestra, Bertram said. Erma played the piano. Her father played the violin. They were one of the first families in Nampa to own a car, which they used to travel back and forth to performances. They moved to the River Street neighborhood in 1927.
In 1928, Erma married Navy Madry. The couple had three children before Navy Madry died of leukemia. During World War II, Bertram said, Erma worked as a sheet metal riveter, repairing aircraft at Gowen Field. She married Laurence Hayman in 1943.
After the war, Erma Hayman bought the house at 617 Ash St. A few years later, her grandson, Dick Madry, came to live with her.
He grew up in the house, moving out only when he got married in the late 1960s. Hayman lived there until a few months before her death in 2009.
THE HOUSE ON ASH
Erma Hayman had a longer uninterrupted view of the River Street neighborhood than anyone else.
Her house was the last one left on the southern end of Ash Street when the city moved River Street a few hundred feet north and extended it to Americana Boulevard. The footprint of a demolished home is still visible in an empty lot just south of her house.
She was there when the neighborhood kids grew up and moved on from baseball and football games in the streets. She stayed behind when blacks earned the right to buy homes elsewhere in the city.
She saw her former neighbors' tenants come and go, and the slow slide in the quality of their homes. Perhaps she understood that, even though blacks had won a tremendous battle, the neighborhood would never recover from their flight.
"When you're a renter and they say, 'I want to run a highway through here,' you say, 'Well, I'm going to move,'" Bertram said. "But if you're a homeowner, you can't sleep at night, and you figure out, 'I'm going to write a letter or something, or go to a meeting.'"
She was there in the 1970s when a few businessmen talked about turning the River Street neighborhood into an industrial corridor. She was there when the businessmen stopped talking.
YEARS OF NEGLECT
Over the years, many of the homes in the River Street neighborhood disappeared. They were replaced by apartments, sacrificed to roads projects or bought for the ground underneath them and left vacant or torn down. Fire damage to a small apartment building on Ash Street has yet to be repaired.
"Our sidewalks started to break up. Our street trees died," Bertram said. "Weeds grew here and there. Vacant lots. Neglected houses. It had an unkempt appearance, which kind of perpetuated a negative image, you know, of the area."
Erma Hayman died at the age of 102. Madry sold her house to the Capital City Development Corporation, Boise's urban renewal agency. He could have sold it to a private buyer for more money. But the agency was the best shot at preserving the house, he said.
Now the house stands empty as CCDC tries to gain its bearings following the abrupt departure of executive director Anthony Lyons in February. Even before Lyons left, the agency's focus had shifted to bigger projects and new development. Preserving a 900-square-foot house wasn't the biggest blip on its radar screen.
Eventually, the agency wants to request proposals for new development in the neighborhood, including a use for the Erma Hayman house, project manager Jane Reed said.
Bertram wants CCDC to convert the house to a short-term residence for artists.
CCDC's focus in the area is completing the Pioneer Corridor Pathway, a path for bikers and walkers that roughly traces the old Lovers Lane. Crews should soon finish up a section of pathway that stretches between Grand Avenue and River Street.
The idea is to invigorate economic development in the River Street neighborhood, where reinvestment has been sporadic.
The City Side Loft townhouses went up a few years ago on 13th Street, and construction of a 53-unit apartment building was completed last year just west of the pathway.
Children still play on the sidewalks from time to time, mostly around the apartments that now dot the landscape.
But the River Street neighborhood remains an area in transition, much as it has been since the late 1960s, when Bertram first moved in, a wide-eyed, federally funded volunteer looking for answers to the neighborhood's future. In those days, the 21-year-old paid $55 a month to live in a house on Lee Street, just around the corner from Hayman.
Bertram's vision for the neighborhood hasn't changed. He still sees it as a place for moderate-income people to live within walking distance of Downtown. Besides preserving the little houses that have survived, he sees an opportunity for new townhouses.
"We're on that path," he said. "I just didn't expect it would take 40 years."
Sven Berg: 377-6275