Frank the Builder Builds Community

Frank Shields is a builder, in more ways than one.

He’s largely responsible for building an extraordinary culture on his block over the past twenty plus years using a combination of friendliness, fearlessness, wood, nails, a power saw, and Visqueen.

Frank zooms down the Dibble Avenue water slide thanks to a lot of wet Visqueen.

You see, when he’s away from his block working, Frank’s a contractor, and “Visqueen” is one of the common tools of his trade.

I’d never heard of it when I first talked to Frank about his Dibble Avenue block, between 75th and 77th in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.

“Uh. . . Vis-uhhh. Do you mean plastic?” I asked.

“Yeah, OK, plastic.” Frank replied.

It turns out that Visqueen, otherwise known as polyethylene, is pretty darned important to the vitality of Dibble Avenue. You see, Frank orchestrates the building of a water slide for a two-day festival on Dibble every August, called “Nibble at Dibble.”

It’s a massive structure. The slide itself is three stories high and empties into a 5-foot-deep pool. Both the slide and the pool are lined in Visqueen.

Frank created the design, procures the materials, and oversees its construction by numerous neighbor volunteers. At the end of the event, they disassemble it, so they have to re-assemble it again every year. “There’s nowhere to store it,” Frank said. “The whole structure is probably 100 feet long. It can’t fit in anyone’s back yard.”

It looks really fun—and really scary, which made me wonder if there’d been safety complaints.

“Oh yeah, the City (of Seattle) has been after us to shut it down,” Frank replied. “I really don’t worry about it too much at all, honestly. They wouldn’t want to fight with me because they’d get a good fight.” Frank added, “No one’s ever gotten injured on the slide because we always have one adult supervising at the top and another in the pool.”

The only thing that can shut down the Nibble at Dibble water slide, as it turns out, is Frank. He injured his leg a few days before the event this year, so the slide was not built for the first time since the event started 21 years ago.

Nibble at Dibble was still a great party, with a potluck brunch and dinner, a bouncy house, a small inflatable water slide for little kids, a dunking booth, an outdoor movie, and a pudding eating contest. And, regardless of what happens to Frank’s leg and the slide next year, Dibble Avenue will continue to be a remarkably vibrant place.

That’s because Dibble Avenue’s culture is a lot more pervasive than that of other blocks which run block parties every year. The neighbors here bond all summer. “Every June, right after school lets out, we have a camping trip two hours away, and 45 to 50 people from the block come,” Frank said.

Then, for the rest of the summer, every few Sundays, they have a barbecue in front of Frank’s house. Neighbors wheel out their gas grills to the sidewalk to cook, and when they eat, they sit at a couple of picnic tables that reside in the traffic strip (actually City property) in front of Frank’s house and a neighbor’s house.

Outside of these summer events, the culture on Dibble is consistently warm and fun, especially for kids. Pretty much any day when school’s not in session and when it’s not raining heavily, kids can be found playing on front yards. Some might be at the traffic strip in front of Frank’s, next to the picnic tables, where he installed a slide and some rope swings in a cherry tree.

Or, they may be down the street a bit on a wiffle ball field that spans a couple of yards. Wendy Blake lives on that part of the block. For the parents like her who actively participate the Dibble community, Wendy describes the unwritten rule as, “I’ll watch out for your kids, you watch out for my kids.” If a kid scrapes his knee outside, whether we have a kid or not, we’re going to run outside and see if that kid’s OK.”

That mentality has its roots fifteen years ago, before Wendy and her family moved to Dibble. That’s when Frank’s wife, Katie, woke up one morning with a severe neurological condition that left her paralyzed, and she spent over a year in hospitals recovering and learning how to deal with her new condition. Three neighbor families that had kids around the same age as Frank and Katie’s kids, who were 6 and 9 at the time, pitched in to hold that family together in Katie’s absence.

They cleaned and washed clothes at Frank’s house, they cooked for Frank and the boys, and they took the boys to practically all their activities. “They enabled me to continue working and spend a lot of time with Katie in the hospital,” said Frank. “That experience really made our block much closer.”

Even though Frank and Katie’s boys are grown up now, and spend much less time there, the super-friendly, kid-centric culture at Dibble Avenue continues. Besides having a thriving play culture for older kids, Dibble Avenue continues to be a great place for new families with preschoolers. Wendy notes, “When people who have toddlers move onto our block, oh my God, they are so happy to be able to take their toddlers outside and strike up a conversation with three or four neighbors who might be walking by.”

When Wendy and her husband bought their house there eight years ago, the block had quite a reputation in Seattle among realtors. Their Realtor exclaimed, “Oh, Dibble! Everyone wants to live on Dibble!”

Actually, that’s not quite true. One family that moved in next to Frank and Katie a few years ago moved out after a year because they couldn’t tolerate neighbors outside their house talking all the time. Other families that aren’t interested in joining the “in-group” don’t leave as fast, but they definitely exist. Wendy estimates that roughly one-third of families there don’t participate in neighborhood events.

The block’s culture does have unspoken limits that prevent it from becoming “too close and too creepy,” to use Wendy’s words. Pretty much all the activity happens outside, not inside, people’s houses. “You don’t find people knocking on each other’s doors and bringing casseroles and saying ‘Hey, why don’t we sit in your living room all day?'” she said. “It’s very much, ‘If you want to join us in the public areas, we’re happy to have you in our group.’ People who take us up on that generally find that we’re not about invading your space and telling you how to live.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d join them.

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