by Sherry Gros
Freelance Writer for Highland Park Subdivision Mobile Alabama
Lakes were an imporant feature of a neighborhood during the early 1900s subdivision development in the South. There were no climate controlled environments before WWII aside from an open window with a fan or a shade tree and a glass of lemonade to take the sweltering body temperature down. It would be another three decades into the 1970s before people of moderate means could afford such luxury. A dip in the lake was one quick, convenient way to cool off in the hot, stickey Alabama weather.
The ruins of the Optimist Lake Dam (1936-2021) is the testament of a neighborhood feature of days gone by. There have been many dams allowed to fall in the past 50 years in Alabama resulting in the restoration of the natural hydrology of their respective areas. The cost benefit analysis of rebuilding the dam to form a lake at Milkhouse Creek f/k/a Optimist tells us the benefits would be few and does not outweigh the cost to the majority of the residents who do not live on the margins of the former lake. Why is that? Because, less than a dozen shoreline residents benefit directly from having a lake in their own backyard so their property values increase whereas the rest of the 150 or more non-shoreline residents do not benefit in the same way and in fact incur liability instead of increased property values. The increased property values to surrounding lot owners is miniscule if any compared to what the shoreline residents can annure unto themselves by impounding the waters. However, over the years the inland lot owners have been bearing the costs of maintenance and personal sacrifice of time and cash for very little return in exchange for a lot of aggravation. Which is what Optimist has become to many HP residents past and present… “a lot of aggravation” Here’s hoping going forward with the natural water flow of the Milkhouse Creek model can calm social upheavals that Optimist Lake has created over its 85 year history. In addition, recent climate change studies project our properties here in the Sheldon area of Mobile are more at risk for becoming a flood zone in the coming years.
The purpose of the lake was to cool off in warm weather or recreate, maybe to mitigate soil erosion but has changed for most people with the advent of new technology. For example: affordable air conditioning for climate controlled homes, installation of fire hydrants, and smart phones with virtual fishing in apps, etc.
“In the 1950s, thanks to increased American prosperity after World War II, air conditioning units first became widely affordable. Everyday Americans were able to buy room units and enjoy cool comfort year round. In 1953 alone, 1 million air conditioners were sold.Things changed again in the 1970s, when central air was invented. The early central air functioned much as it does today: Using a condenser, a fan, and coils, air makes its way through the unit, gets chilled, and gets dispersed throughout the house. These early central air conditioners used Freon as a refrigerant, a substance later revealed to be an environmental hazard.” (https://www.kycomfort.com/history-of-residential-air-conditioning/)
Lake Optimist has served its purpose. It costs too much to rebuild for too little benefit to the people overall. We can be mindful of the proper care of watershed and wetlands as we transition from a lakeside community to a Highland Park Wetlands and Watershed of Mobile County community. In my opinion, the shoreline residents have the most to lose and the most to gain by managing or mismanaging the lakebed themselves but to expect surrounding neighbors to foot the bill for mismanagement is sorry. The Milkhouse Creek wetland/watershed model is the most affordable and the most ecologically sound infrastructure for the times we live in today. The reservoir area is reserved for heavy rain events so as not to flood area residents and wildlife lovers can be thrilled by the visitors we will receive throughout the years that will reside in our marshes, creeks, and wetlands. We’ll see how it goes.