Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#37,May 26, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Safe as houses
History, leave me alone

"Safe as Houses," by Kate Jacobs.

The oldest houses in my town are in the lowlying area by the Mississippi River. The further up hill you go, the newer the houses get, so you are walking forward in time 150 years. What you are seeing is not just houses, but our changing ideas about how we want to live.

The first thing you notice about the older houses is how they cluster together. People believed in building right to the property line back then -- a 20 foot wide lot held an 18 foot wide house. You could literally lean out your window and shake hands with your neighbor leaning out his window. As you move up the hill, the houses gradually get farther apart.

And then you notice the front porches. All the old houses had them, and none of the new ones do; they have decks and patios in their back yard.

The old porches are big and roomy, some of them even wrapping all around the house. Some of them seem bigger than the houses they're attached to. Many of them have swings and comfortable chairs.

The porches, you see, were where you'd sit out on and keep a watchful eye on the kids while they played in the street out front. When you saw your neighbors out walking, you'd invite them to sit down and chat. With the hot Iowa summer sun beating down on you, porches were where you'd catch vagrant breezes; while the humidity sucked all the energy out of you, you'd sit there and swing and drink iced tea or lemonade or a cold beer.

The porches and the squashed together houses seemed right and natural for people who were intimately bound into their neighborhood. This was where they lived, and the people who lived beside them were their friends, and the kids who lived next door would be their children's lifelong friends. When the kids grew up and got married, they'd buy a house nearby to raise their own kids in.

Another of the changes you notice as you walk up the hill is the garages. If the old houses had them, they were separate buildings out in back, many of them old carriage houses. Over time, though, the garages moved right to the front, became part of the house, sometimes even bigger than the house.

That's because over the years, cars became intrinsic to our lives. We cherished them, wanted to protect them from the elements. We wanted to protect US from the elements on our way out the door every morning.

But the car meant that we didn't need to depend on our neighborhoods for friends. We could form friendships at work or church or softball practice, and could visit our friends no matter where they lived.

As we made our friends by affinity rather than geography, it became less important who the people in our neighborhoods were. Many of us now don't even know the names of the people across the street and down two houses. Our kids get chauffered to their friends' houses or to the little league field, and may never play out in front with the neighbor kids.

So the houses turned inwards. Our friends come to visit, and we let them in and shut the door, shut the neighborhood out. Which is OK, because our neighbors are doing the same. Life doesn't take place on the street in front of our houses anymore.

And we no longer need the porch for comfort -- with air conditioning, breezes are no longer a necessity of life. But if we do want to enjoy the outdoors, or bask in the sun, we move to the privacy of the back yard deck or patio.

Our yards got bigger, too. The idea of living cheek by jowl with somebody we might not even know or want to know repels us now. We crave our personal space. That wide green expanse of lawn is kind of like a moat, a place for separation, for decompression. Perhaps it gives us the comforting illusion that we control our lives.

It would be easy to talk about gains and losses in these changes, but it wouldn't make sense. Different times produce different stresses, different needs, different strategies and designs for dealing with them. In any era, our homes have simply been the places where we've created the kind of comfort we need, in any way we can.

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