Life on 200 Words a Day
Real Estate Gestations
March 3, 2006
They’ve been building a house on the lot around the corner. It’s not unusual in this town. They build at the speed of weed. But my neighborhood is older, its empty lots fewer, so a new house, especially so near one’s own, is an event. It redraws the landscape. The vista at the end of the road, formerly a thicket of greens and fugitive browns, is now a slab of house, cookie-cut out of an architect’s Levittown catalogue. The corner will soon be a minor hazard of oversize cars pulling out, tricycles left along the curb, garbage cans trundling in the wind, vague shouts escaping the cracked window on quiet autumn nights. That’s what’s meant by community in the suburban no-soul’s-land: we don’t know each other’s names, but we know each other’s plights, in some places more intimately than others. Here at least we still have lawns and copses as demarcation lines between our lives’ innermost secrets and infamies, so it’s only by deduction that we figure out each other’s plots, if we hang by the window indiscreetly enough. A driveway full of wedding revelers one day, a moving truck the next, a prodigal son the day after that, the furtive sedan visiting at midday, straight out of Couples. Gossip is the suburbs’ principal architecture, and from all appearances sometimes the richest product of these soulless houses.
“The Dutch affection for their homes,” Witold Rybczynski wrote in Home, “was expressed in a singular practice: they had elaborate scale models built of their houses. These replicas are sometimes—inaccurately—referred to as dollhouses. Their function was more like that of ship models, not playthings but miniature memorials, records of dearly beloved objects. They were built like cupboards which did not represent the exterior appearance of the house. But when the doors were opened the entire interior was magically revealed, not only the rooms—complete with wall coverings and furnishings—but even paintings, utensils, and china figurines.”
No such affections in the suburban steppe. These aren’t homes. They’re barely houses. They’re primarily investments, stop-gaps between pre-nups, divorce settlements and retirement. That’s probably why I like a new house best just before the windows and doors are put up and the roof nailed down, before the skeleton is suited up for life, before the organic moves in, cucarachas in tow. Virgin rooms, still untouched by the synthetic embellishments of paint or carpets or impressive art and, more rarely, shelving: Every new house at that stage is like the day before creation, or at least before the dawn of Man, who’ll either muck up the place or make of it a small Versailles of intrigues and resplendence. Vacated houses, ruined houses, houses about to be demolished have more of the funereal about them, a melancholy rivaled only by neglected cemeteries and dusk on Sundays. A new house is the certainty of life is around the corner, of perfect possibilities. It’s neighborly genesis. No wonder it takes these houses about nine months to build.
—L.D. Amabed Jr