My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
June 23, 2004


Safe as houses
History, leave me alone.

Kate Jacobs

If you walk up the hill from the Mississippi River in my town, and keep going for about 3 miles, you will walk forward in time past 150 years of houses. What you are seeing is not just how our architecture has changed in those years, but how our ideas of the good life have altered.

The first thing you notice is the way the old houses at the bottom of the hill cluster together. People believed in building right to the property line in the old days -- an 18-foot-wide house on a 20-foot-wide lot. Owners could literally lean out their windows and shake hands with a net-door neighbor leaning out his window. As you move up the hill, the houses gradually get farther apart until eventually they become small islands in a sea of grass.

And you can't help noticing their front porches. All the old houses have them, big, roomy porches that wrap around the house. They're comfortable places, with swings, rocking chairs, and planters. Not to mention mounds of toys and tricycles and games and catchers' mitts, all the signs of life interrupted by bedtime.

That's the kind of house I grew up in. The porches were where the grownups would sit and keep a watchful eye on us kids while we played in the street out front. When my folks saw the neighbors out walking, they'd invite them to come join them on the porch for a chat. When the hot summer sun was beating down on us, the porch was where we could sit in the shade and catch whatever breezes happened along; when the humidity sucked all the energy out of us, we'd sit there and swing and drink lemonade.

Porches and squashed-together houses seemed right and natural for people who were intimately bound into their neighborhood. It was a time when people spent their entire lives in those houses. The people who lived beside them were their friends, and the kids who lived next door were their children's lifelong friends. When their kids grew up and got married, they'd buy a house nearby to raise their own kids in.

As you keep walking up the hill, you start seeing fewer porches and more garages. The old houses had them, but they were separate buildings out in back, former carriage houses. Over time, though, you see the garages moving to the front, becoming part of the house, sometimes even bigger than the house.

That's because over time cars, which didn;t exist when the houses at the bottom of the hill were built, moved from novelties to necessities. As they became intrinsic to our lives, we cherished them and wanted to protect them from the elements. Indeed, with the invention of the automatic garage door opener, we didn't even have to expose ourselves to the elements as we went about our business.

Having a car also meant that we could make friends by affinity, not geography. We could meet them at work or church or softball practice, and could visit them no matter where they lived. In the newer neighborhoods, homeowners might not even know the names of the people across the street and down two houses. Their kids might never play out in front with the neighbor kids at all, because their friends and their playing fields are scattered around town, and moms and dads chauffer them to birthday parties and dance lessons and soccer practice.

So as you keep on going past the crest of the hill into the newer areas of town, you see houses that have turned inwards. In these homes, when friends come to visit, the owners let them inside and shut the door, shut the neighborhood out. Which is OK, because the neighbors are doing the same. Life doesn't take place on the street in front of these houses anymore. In fact it couldn't, because the streets here are wider, the traffic dangerously fast and careless.

After all, in these houses, people don't need porches for comfort anymore -- with air conditioning, breezes aren't a necessity of life. But if they do want to enjoy the outdoors, or bask in the sun, they can move to the privacy of the back yard deck or patio.

The farther you walk, the bigger the houses get, and the yards as well. I guess the idea of living cheek by jowl with neighbors we don't know, and might not even want to know, doesn't much appeal to us now. Or maybe we just crave whatever scraps of personal space we can get. Maybe that wide green expanse of lawn is a decompression zone, like Mr. Wemmick's moat in Great Expectations, the same kind of clear line drawn between the frenzied worklife and commute, and the comfort of home. Perhaps it gives us the comforting illusion that in this one space, if no place else, we control our lives.

It would be easy for me to lapse into nostalgia as I walk up the hill, easy to lament how neighborhood gradually disappears the farther up I walk, but it wouldn't make sense. Did the changes in architecture change us, or did our evolving desires change the architecture? Maybe both. Different eras produce their own unique stresses, needs, and previously unconsidered possibilities. Our homes are simply where we create whatever kind of comfort we need, whatever way we can.

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