Magazine March 23, 2009, Issue

Land Sakes!

It’s true what they say about ill winds blowing somebody some good. The mortgage meltdown has ripped the halo from homeowners and lifted the crown of thorns that has long pierced the brows of us renters, allowing us to breathe the fresh air of full citizenship.

I am a pariah from way back, a veteran of forms and applications with checkboxes labeled [ ] OWN or [ ] RENT, as well as [ ] CREDIT or [ ] CASH, and [ ] MARRIED or [ ] SINGLE. Checking the second box in each set marked me as Unsettled, Irresponsible, and Immature. Approved for nothing, turned down for everything — in short, a loser. 

Now, in less than a year, the situation has been reversed and it’s homeowners who are drawing the askance looks. Apartment living is due for a comeback, which holds out the hope of a renaissance of common sense.

I remember the golden age of apartment living before WWII. You could walk down a Washington street and pass one apartment building after another, something for every taste and pocketbook. Even those in modest neighborhoods had elegant names like “The Strathmore,” marblesque lobbies with stone benches, and brass mailboxes gleaming from regular polishing by live-in janitors, who got a free apartment on top of their salaries. They also got Christmas bonuses from the tenants ($10 was considered about right), plus income from the arrangements their wives made with us. Janitors had to be married men (one of those unwritten, unfair laws that enable societies to function smoothly and safely), so we had on-site hiring for everything from standard services like laundry and cleaning all the way up to special diets and personal care — i.e., assisted living without having to make a $100,000 nonrefundable deposit.

Hearing about people “flipping” houses makes me remember the permanence of the pre-war rental market. Living in the same apartment for 20 years was not unusual, and I remember several tenants of even longer duration who left feet-first. Many renters were widows and retirees, but the average building was hardly a golden-age complex. There was always a bevy of “government girls” right out of a Ginger Rogers–Kate Hepburn movie; older career women who might have been their supervisors; teachers, librarians, employees of small neighborhood shops who walked to work; and streetcar motormen. In short, we had (bow your heads) Diversity! such as you only hear about in Diversity! conferences on C-SPAN. Yes, we were racially segregated but it’s a dead cert that the bohemians with the Picasso posters in #11 and the Confederate Daughter with the bust of Robert E. Lee in #12 never would have met in any other housing arrangement, much less lived next door to each other. 

Apartments had generally positive associations thanks to the movies. The characters the audience liked tended to live in them. Nick and Nora Charles might have had a co-op instead of a rental but in any case it was an apartment, and a chic one. They were also the places where a lot of fun was had and a lot of funny things happened. My Sister Eileen was set in a ratty New York basement apartment, but the bars on the windows, instead of keeping out murderers, provided the running joke: The cop walking his beat could not resist swiping his billy club over them, a compulsion that soon overcame every passing pedestrian with a walking stick, an umbrella, or a cane. 

Everything changed after WWII when the G.I. Bill nationalized the American Dream and “Own your own home” (people stopped saying “house”) became the Eleventh Commandment. The dizzying speed of suburban sprawl with its characterless, prefabricated boxes started a culture war. The opening salvo was fired by an American journalist inaptly named John Keats, who wrote a satire called The Crack in the Picture Window. This was followed by similar screeds, No Down Payment, and The Split-Level Trap. The suburbanite, said these authors, dwelt in a purgatory with no streets, just highways; no sidewalks, just shoulders: He had mortgaged his soul and become an unpaved person.

It did no good. Homeownership was in, apartments were out, and subliminal messages were everywhere. In post-war movies the bad guys lived in apartments; the only good guys so situated were “waiting for a house,” and bad things happened to them while they waited. The post-war movie apartment was where suburban midwesterners had bittersweet affairs with ethnic girls. In Two for the Seesaw, the earnest WASP lug had never even been in an apartment before, which just goes to show you how unwholesome they are. In the end, he goes back to his wife: You can’t beat the house odds. And, of course, there was The Apartment, a kind of title character in a morality play, an inanimate cause-of-it-all, a boys’ treehouse that welcomes girls and brings out the worst in everybody.

Frankly, I am sick of the American Dream and I blame it and the politicians who trumpet it for the dire situation we are in. If the economy collapses it will be because we have tried to shove everybody into the middle class by making sure they have something to lose, but now that they are losing it, the civil unrest we sought to quell looms larger than ever.

Herewith a parable: In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Nolans’ immigrant grandmother tells them that to be “real” Americans they must own land. To this end she makes them a bank out of a tin can and nails it in the darkest corner of the closet, but before they can save nearly enough, the father dies and they have to pry up the bank to pay the undertaker for the cemetery plot. Afterwards, Francie asks her mother if she should nail the bank back, but Katie shakes her head. Placing the deed to the grave on top of the twisted can, she says, “No. We own land now.”

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

In This Issue

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Sections

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Happy Warrior

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The Bent Pin

Land Sakes!

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The Long View

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