Not too long ago, I finished Thomas Frank’s The Wreaking Crew. (It’s excellent. Read it. Seriously) There’s one passage, barely a footnote, that’s gotten stuck between my teeth, so to speak.
Frank spends most of the book weaving together the history of 20th century conservatism in the US (especially from Reagan on) and the concurrent history of DC as a city–from the boom years of the New Deal to the current creeping mansionization of the suburbs. At one point, he describes his first reaction to the boxy, cookie-cutter houses that popped up by the blockfull in the 30′s and 40′s. As a college student/punk in the 80′s, his first glimpse of all that uniformity could basically be summed up with ‘Fuck this, get me out of here.’
But now, as a middle aged adult living in a much more stratified, quantitatively shittier America, he says he sees things quite differently. Those neighborhoods were full of affordable housing, just big enough for a family to have a little yard, some on-street parking and two stories to themselves. They were built on grids, within walking distance of Metro lines, schools and grocery stores. They were priced so that a family could afford them on a single modest bureaucrat’s income, and 50, 70 years later they’re still standing.
Sure, the houses are architecturally uninspired. But the barely-middle-class American dream they were meant to fulfill isn’t even an option anymore. Real wages are falling. Housing prices are going up. Job security is vanishing at an uncomfortable pace.And slowly, those neighborhoods full of ticky-tacky faux-federalist houses are disappearing, as developers buy up the lots to know them down by the fistful, putting one huge, spit-and-drywall ‘luxury home’ where two or three brick cubes had been.
As an adult, Franks basically says he finds boring-but-comfortable an acceptable dilemma. Given at least the option of a decent-paying, limited hours day job, people can find their own meaning in life. They can have friends, family, hobbies. They can paint their ugly little houses bright colors, throw up a front porch, and plant gardens where the postage stamp lawn used to be.
I just graduated with what the Department of Labor assures me is a useful degree in a field I love. But looking at the options I have, it’s been hell explaining to my Baby Boomer parents that I just don’t have the same choices they did. There’s no guarantee I’ll be ok so long as I don’t fuck things up royally (which they both did, one by being an alcoholic douchebag, and the other by going into an industry that’s been slowly dying since the Reagan administration). I may not make more money, or be more happy than my parents were.I will almost definitely be less secure than my grandparents were. And we didn’t even get better looking houses out of the bargain.