The American wakeup call

My cousin is a talented lawyer in the ATL. He came to visit this weekend with his wife and two small children. One of the many things we talked about was housing. My cousin and his wife are renters.

This is almost something that an American feels obliged to apologize for. Home ownership is a rite of passage, a sign of having arrived in the great middle class. A home is an investment, a piece of the pie, a necessary condition of living the American Dream.1

It almost seems disloyal to the nation to disdain home ownership. So what is wrong with my prosperous, Republican-leaning cousins?

Well, nothing at all, in my view. But until this weekend I had imagined my view was way out on the margin of the ineffectual Green-tinted left. My idea of the good life was too infected with European claptrap to appreciate red-blooded American love of the grassy homestead.

Of course, said homestead now stands in the suburbs, linked to the wider world by live wires, pipes, cables, and paved surfaces. Bills and junk paper accumulates in the mailbox, and a mortgage or two looms like the shadow of death.

But the Dream persists. Beats paying rent, man! You’re building equity! (Repeat as needed.)

I’ve gained some extra historical perspective on this business, courtesy of the BackStory radio podcast.2 The program for May 18, Home Bittersweet Home, delves into the history of home ownership in America, from homesteading on the prairie to widespread belief, in the late 20th century, that a certain house at Amityville, New Jersey, could not be owned because it was haunted by demons.

One of the trends discussed in the show is the cresting of the wave of McMansion building in American suburbs. The bloating of American homes is a historical phenomenon. Therefore it is subject to change. One aspect of the trend seems likely to continue: As space for receiving guests and displaying social status has shrunk, private space, for such things as bedrooms, bathrooms, and the newly minted “man cave,” has grown in relative size.

1 “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” — George Carlin (1937-2008)

2 Its full name: BackStory with the American History Guys, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The titular “history guys” are Peter Onuf (18th century), Ed Ayers (19th century), and Brian Balogh (20th century). There’s a new program each week, and the website encourages listener comments, questions, and ideas for future shows.

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