This is the story of Noel’s Knoll and how a Group of Neighbors Came Together During the Pandemic

It was ear­ly Decem­ber 2020 when I was arrang­ing my solar pow­ered hol­i­day lights and saw my next-door neigh­bor Mar­i­anne. She was com­ing from across the street in the dark. She stopped to chat and share the news that our neigh­bor wasn’t doing very well. She had just deliv­ered some Tortelli­ni Soup for him made by her hus­band, Craig. She and anoth­er cou­ple, Gary and Mary, who live near­by, had been tak­ing turns fix­ing meals for our neigh­bor, Noel.

Noel who had become ill, was an inter­est­ing char­ac­ter and had lived in our neigh­bor­hood for decades. A bit crusty on the out­side, but he was actu­al­ly very sweet to my sons and to me. He always knew what was going on in the neigh­bor­hood and he shared his thoughts and con­cerns with any­one who would lis­ten. I liked him being our neigh­bor because I knew he didn’t miss any­thing. His house is in a deep cor­ner of an oth­er­wise open lot. Most peo­ple think it is a vacant lot because it is clear­ly not main­tained in any way. The area between the side­walk and the street (tree lawn, park­way, road verge depend­ing on where you are from) is pub­lic prop­er­ty but is sup­posed to be main­tained by the home­own­er. His was often over­grown with fen­nel and oth­er wild­flow­ers which some­times obscured the fire hydrant which I peri­od­i­cal­ly trimmed. Many years ago, Noel brought in dirt to make a small road course for the neigh­bor kids to use their remote-con­trolled dune bug­gies but when neigh­bors com­plained, the idea was aban­doned. Thus, the cor­ner of Avenue C and Juani­ta was left for plants to grow wild, as they did in the time when the area was called Clifton.

Corner Lot

The lot in Clifton in one of its many over­grown states.

Ear­ly in the Pan­dem­ic, some­one, per­haps seek­ing some out­side relief, trimmed much of the over­grown 5 foot tall fen­nel on the tree lawn and threw it into the lot. There were huge piles of it. Hav­ing no rain for months, it became dry and prick­ly, smoth­er­ing any­thing that may have tried to grow beneath. Trash was caught in the tan­gle and the over­grown lot became even less appeal­ing. Most neigh­bors just became used to walk­ing by and ignor­ing it. I did not, as I live diag­o­nal­ly across the street from the wild lot and can see it from my front porch.

Tree Lawn Fennel

Over­grown tree lawn with fennel.

Noel and I had many chats over the years and he always told me to feel free to pick what I want for my flo­ral design busi­ness and I did. He once gave me very unusu­al Nas­tur­tium seeds and offered me a Loquat tree from his mother’s gar­den. After years of this neigh­bor being very self-suf­fi­cient and very much walk­ing to the beat of his own drum, Noel expe­ri­enced health issues. Neigh­bors began look­ing in on him and bring­ing him hot meals.

I real­ized this was the oppor­tu­ni­ty to start clear­ing the debris that was so thought­less­ly thrown on the lot. He told me I could pick what­ev­er I wanted…so I thought I could start at dusk in a lit­tle cor­ner and maybe he wouldn’t see me fill my bin with com­post mate­r­i­al. I brought my bin over and I start­ed pick­ing up the piles of dry sticks. It did not take long to fill up one green bin, so I rolled the com­post bin back across the street and parked it in front of my house and grabbed my oth­er one. For what­ev­er rea­son the city thinks I need two com­post bins, I am grate­ful. I con­tin­ued to rake. I filled anoth­er bin qui­et­ly as the dark­ness start­ed to fall. There were no inquiries from the House of Noel and no neigh­bors walked by. This was fun. I grabbed my rake and rolled my full bin across the street parked it in front of my house and went in while dark­ness fell and the street­lights came on.

Corner Overgrown

Here is anoth­er pho­to from way before any­thing was cut down and cleared out

A week went by and I repeat­ed my Sun­day plan at 4pm with my com­post bin, rake and gloves and I con­tin­ued to work in the north­west cor­ner. I filled anoth­er bin then I returned with my sec­ond bin. Again, fin­ish­ing much more like the week before, no one said any­thing no one yelled out the win­dow. It was dark so I rolled every­thing back across the street and went into my house. All of this was repeat­ed on the third Sun­day, but this time a neigh­bor who lived on the oth­er cor­ner of Avenue C gave me a wave and a nod. I knew that he and his wife (Gary and Mary) had also been sup­ply­ing Noel with meals. The fol­low­ing Sun­day (Week 4) I felt a lit­tle bold­er as I worked fur­ther into the yard and I asked a few of my neigh­bors if their green bins were emp­ty. They had all seen me work­ing and they quick­ly offered up all of their green bins. I filled my two bins, 1 from Kim, 2 from Craig and 1 from Audrey.

After some cut down the Fennel

Here is the lot in Decem­ber after an unknown per­son cut down the fen­nel and just left it on the lot in piles. I start­ed to fill up our Green Waste trash bins and our neigh­bors start­ed to take notice.

On my 5th Sun­day, I was able to col­lect the six green bins from my neigh­bors and went to work fill­ing them. A neigh­bor, whom I had met ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic, when he and his wife had walked by stopped to talk. My fam­i­ly had been sit­ting on the front porch and we had a very pleas­ant chat. How­ev­er, this is the first time I had seen him since that meet­ing and sad­ly he told us that his wife had passed away from can­cer a few months after that and he had heart surgery just two months ear­li­er. This was sad news to learn and clear­ly not a pleas­ant time for this gen­tle­man but, unselfish­ly, he was curi­ous to what I was up to. He had not seen Noel in a while and had not known he was not well. He had lived around the cor­ner for 40 years and known Noel all that time. His name was John. He want­ed to help and he gave me his phone num­ber. That same week, on Wednes­day, John was out for a walk and stopped to say that he thought it would be bet­ter to fill bags instead of wait­ing to fill green bins once a week. We met on the next night and as we got start­ed anoth­er neigh­bor was walk­ing by who knew John, he went home and came back with a rake and his gloves. His names was Mar­vin. I told him what we were doing and with no ques­tions asked, he joined in the task of fill­ing bags. He too had known Noel for decades. This was the sec­ond phase of the Neigh­bors for Noel effort. It was going to rain over the week­end so Mar­vin, John and I worked swift­ly and filled 20 bags.

The fol­low­ing week­end Mar­vin and John and I start­ed as usu­al when anoth­er neigh­bor, Chad, gave us his green bin then Wilma nextdoor to him came over with her green bin. Gary came over from across the street to check on Noel, he had been bring­ing him food, and since all of us were work­ing in the yard, more neigh­bors were find­ing out that Noel was not well. We had been work­ing over a month at this point and had not seen or heard any­thing from the house of Noel. Gary had gone up to tell Noel that oth­ers want­ed to help with his meals, upon his return to the yard he shared with us that Noel was so grate­ful and thank­ful for what we were doing. This was the first time we had heard that he was aware and hap­py. It was very good news. This was week 6.

The next night Eric, who lived up the street, rode by on his bike and asked if he could help. He returned with a shov­el and start­ing mov­ing dirt. Hon­est­ly, I felt like a kid play­ing in the dirt with my friends until dark. I had a lawn ser­vice when I was 13 and this felt like that. We would bring all our own toys (tools), wear our masks and work until dark and then we have to go home for din­ner. My Mom is not call­ing me to come home, I am the Mom. Our core trio is John-Para­medic, Mar­vin- Welder and me — a flo­ral design­er. Both of these fel­lows are retired now and old­er than I am but the three of us worked in har­mo­ny on this plot of land cut­ting back thorny plumosa, sav­ing baby Nas­tur­tiums, and Sta­t­ice and new­ly plant­ed Milk­weed. We laughed, told sto­ries, joked a bit and talked to any­one who walked by who cared enough to say some­thing. Just about every­body who walked by knew John or Mar­vin or me. Our stan­dard reply was that we’re sim­ply help­ing a neigh­bor who isn’t well and that it is his property.

The com­ments from the neigh­bors walk­ing by were var­ied and vast and too many to recall. “Oh my gosh, that is such hard work!” “Are you plant­i­ng a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den?” “FINALLYSOME ONE IS FIXING THIS.” “I liked it before, it looked like Nev­er­land. “ “ Is there going to be a giant tram­po­line” “You guys are neigh­bor­hood heroes, thank you for doing this” “Bless your Heart” “Gosh it looks bet­ter every time I walk by” “A great place for a Boun­cy House.”

The week after Valentine’s Day we three, who have shared this com­mon ground, start­ed on that Wednes­day on a 5 day roll. Rain was com­ing and we want­ed to clean every­thing up. Start­ing dai­ly at 3:30 until dark, we cleared most of the prop­er­ty and shaped the rest of the for­mer dune bug­gy mound in the mid­dle of the yard. I had named it Noel’s Knoll and had called our com­ing togeth­er a “grass roots effort.”


Casey is sur­round­ed by new friends who hap­pened to also be old neigh­bors. These are the two men who helped “gar­den” Noel’s Knoll with her.

The Figs walked by with their dog Lemon, Mr. and Mrs. Sul­li­van, at the same time every night, always shar­ing a wave, a thank you and appre­ci­a­tion, Eileen and her pan­dem­ic res­cue dog, Fau­ci, vis­it­ed as usu­al, Chad, Kyle, Don, and Gary brought meals up to Noel. Jen, a local teacher, waved and thanked us. The imme­di­ate neigh­bors rolled over their green bins when we start­ed working.

It had been two months since I start­ed alone on the NW cor­ner patch with my rake and 2 bins at dusk. We had grown to almost 15 bins week­ly and 3 of us steady work­ers. On the 6th day of this roll. I went over ear­li­er and alone and start­ed throw­ing seeds for a poten­tial­ly fab­u­lous Spring Super Bloom of Cal­i­for­nia Pop­pies. The yard was a blank can­vas and the dirt ready for the rain that was com­ing. I had to get those seeds in. Sud­den­ly there was a famil­iar, albeit sur­pris­ing boom­ing voice from the upstairs window.


I had not seen or heard Noel in months, but at this moment I knew he had been watch­ing and lis­ten­ing. If I just threw seeds in and it rained, then we would be fin­ished with this under­tak­ing. There would be no more social­iz­ing in his yard with­in his earshot. No more peo­ple ask­ing how Noel was feel­ing. No more laugh­ing and sto­ry-telling. I climbed up and pushed the door open. He was sit­ting with a hat on and a jack­et. He could not stay warm, his face was unfa­mil­iar­ly thin, but his voice was the one I have known for a decade. I stayed in the door­way and we chat­ted. I told him that we had thought we would just build on some of the great wild­flow­ers he already had and so he could look out and see col­or and flow­ers. He terse­ly replied, “I DO NOT WANT THAT” I told him that we want­ed to make him hap­py so what would he like. He put his head down and he soft­ly said, “I want a veg­etable gar­den with fruit trees for the neigh­bors who have helped me these past few months. I don’t know what it will take to do that, but can you help me with that?” I said of course we can, I will talk to Mar­vin and John and see what we can do.

A week lat­er Noel was tak­en to the hospital.

This tru­ly was a very tight group who became involved to help. They only knew about it if they walked by or looked out their win­dow. Not one text or tweet, or post on FB, IG or Nextdoor ever occurred. We would just make a plan at dusk for the next gath­er­ing. If any­one saw some­one work­ing there, they could just join in. I now have the most won­der­ful rela­tion­ship with my neigh­bors because of this experience.

The neighbors toasting

Here are are in the yard sur­round­ed by new growth toast­ing to the mem­o­ry of Noel.

Noel’s last words to me were to have the peo­ple whom he had learned cared about him to have the use of his yard. He want­ed a veg­etable gar­den with fruit trees for the neigh­bors who had helped him. He passed away soon after our con­ver­sa­tion. Our neigh­bors bloomed and made his yard col­or­ful for his last few months on this earth.


Casey har­vests seeds from her Cal­i­for­nia native pop­pies in her yard each year and this year, tossed a bunch into Noel’s Knoll.