Aging in Place: The Highlands

by Eric R. White

It was 1976. My wife and I were house hunting. Our demands were minimal. She wanted a house with a fireplace; I wanted a house clad in stone or brick because I grew up in a New England Cape Cod which needed painting every five years. We needed three bedrooms. And, of course, it had to be in our price range. We had just left a realtor who showed us, once again, houses that didn’t match our criteria. Somewhat discouraged, we drove around town rather aimlessly.

Then my wife said: Let’s go down that street. I said: There is nothing down there except fraternities. She said: Drive anyways. And then she said: That’s the kind of house I want.  Our eyes caught a sign on the front lawn which read: For sale by owner. One week later it was ours and we were now residents of the Highlands. 

45 years later: We didn’t know how long we would stay, but even with two children and a futile attempt to find a larger home in the area, we ultimately stayed put.  Why?

Neighbors: friendly, welcoming, some associated with Penn State, some not– the kind of neighbor you could borrow a tool from or have a long chat with.

A park at the end of the block where the kids could play till dinner time and all you had to do was call out the front door to hasten them home. 

Close to downtown: an easy walk to the movies, a restaurant, to the Arts Festival, and a ten-minute walk to my office on campus. 

A diverse housing stock: I took an arts requirement course in college called Frank Lloyd Wright, thinking—just how many buildings could he have built? I can memorize them all and then identify them on tests. Easy A. Turns out the course was about architecture from the 1500’s to the current time period. We had to memorize the characteristics of all styles over the centuries.  Needless to say, I learned a lot. I can’t remember the grade I got, but there was a lot more memorizing than I had anticipated. And, sure enough, that course helped me appreciate the unique housing stock in the Highlands– recognized now as an historic district, and with some protections from a Borough ordinance establishing a Historical and Architectural Review Board.

Trees: lots of trees. We lost the stately elms, but they have been replaced. A neighbor planted a maple which turned out to be one of the most majestic maples I have ever seen. 

Walkable: sidewalks everywhere. Sure, some of them are uneven because of the tree roots pushing them up, but I suppose that “goes with the territory.”

A unique history: the Highlands is the current home to the majority of Penn State fraternities, which are interspersed among single family homes, creating a dynamic interface and some festive light displays during the holiday season. While we don’t live next to a fraternity or even in a block that has fraternities, I have come to believe that everyone one who lives in the Highlands experiences it somewhat differently based on where they live (on a corner, near a busy thoroughfare, next to a fraternity, at the end of a dead-end street, next to a rental), and that even residents of houses on the same block have different experiences. I have now come to appreciate this diversity of perspective and opinion and to accept their experiences to be as valid as mine. And for those who like history, especially local history, the Highlands offers a rich legacy of people, events, institutions, and businesses to be honored and acknowledged. 

And lastly, for better or worse, dogs, plenty of them. For someone who grew up with dogs and was rarely without a dog as an animal companion, it’s all about walking your dog and meeting up with a neighbor walking their dog, allowing for the dogs to figure out their place in some sort of canine hierarchy (if that is what all that circling and sniffing is about?). Just can’t beat it for that ever elusive “quality of life” that we are all searching for. 

It is hard for me to assess my little corner of the Highlands in terms of stability. Many of my original neighbors have moved on to other locations, both in the State College area and beyond, some have died, and some remain. New people are moving in, a combination of retirees who went to Penn State and want to return to the community they remember fondly and young couples who are just starting families and find the neighborhood “family friendly.” Others come to be closer to their families who are already here. 

There are many choices people may have as to how they want to spend their “senior” years: in a retirement community; with relatives in their home or in a house next door; in a newly downsized home; or staying put in a home lived in for many years. Each of us chooses what we think will work best for us. But, for now (and guessing for many others), I cannot think of a better neighborhood in which to “age in place” than the Highlands of State College.

Eric R. White is a member of the Editorial Board of Hearts in the Highlands