from a Curmudgeon*
Hello. Let me introduce myself. My name is Herbert P. Basher. I’ve probably been around longer than most of you so I’ve learned a thing or two. I’ve enjoyed sharing my knowledge of many subjects with others and will now attempt to do so with you. I’ve been told, quite often, that I’m just an angry opinionated old fart and boring as hell. Well, I’m proud to accept the first compliment but I firmly believe I am anything but boring. The following transcriptions of my notes will prove it. So enjoy, you might even learn something.
When I was a boy, growing up in California, there was no such thing as a suburb. There was the country, then a town and then a city. There were homes dotted here and there between these three entities but no clusters of housing developments, like today, clinging to the fields and hillsides like pimples on a teenager’s face.
In the 19thcentury there were worker’s houses set up around mills and factories but suburbs, like we are familiar with, didn’t really exist until after World War Two, when housing was needed for all the GIs coming back from overseas. Savvy builders and real estate developers began buying up farmland close to the towns and cities and turning the orchards, corn fields and truck farms into cul-de-sacs, streets and avenues. Eventually they lined these boulevards with thousands of cookie-cutter houses. You would find this happening all across the nation. Some of these new housing developments had names like Levittown or New Westchester and consisted mostly of row upon row of ranch-style two-bedroom homes. They all looked exactly alike and the running joke back then was that coming home late at night, after a few beers, you might park in the wrong driveway and get in bed with the wrong wife.
Now, I understand everybody needs and wants a home and these huge developments served and still serve a purpose. Not everyone can afford a place in the country and, lord knows, the cost of an apartment in New York City or San Francisco borders on obscenity. The suburbs had to happen and they aren’t going away anytime soon just because I find them upsetting.
My beef is not with suburbs
per say. My
concern is actually very superficial. I hate the way
most of them look.
Why do so many of them
remind me of Dick and Jane and Spot? This harks back to the 1950’s
when the perfect nuclear family was a husband, a
wife, two and a half children and a dog. Their
perfect little house had a front yard, a back
yard, a paved driveway, on which stood a Chevy
Sedan or a Ford Station Wagon, and a white picket
fence on each side of the property to define the
boundaries between the neighboring little houses.
Things have changed, of
course, and now there are many varieties of housing
GATED COMMUNITIES: These are groups of houses enclosed by a wall and a gate for protection from the scary outside world. Some of the more affluent establishments have a real live guard manning the gate but most just have a box in which you have to punch a code to gain access. And many of these so-called “Gated” developments don’t even have a gate, just waist-high walls.
Come on folks, who are you fooling? You think all of this is going to keep you safe? Anyone can climb a wall. Even I have. If someone wants what you have they’ll get inside and get it no matter what. Fact of life.
TOWNHOUSES: Once upon a time, a really swift realtor looked at the blocks of two-story apartment buildings that he was finding hard to rent, and came up with a brilliant idea. “We’ll call them Townhouses. People want to buy a ‘house’ not an apartment, right?” And soon the landscape was dotted with clumps of two to three-story “Townhouses” which are no more than apartments attached to each other’s side like tics to a deer.
RETIREMENT COMMUNITIES: In the years before the end of the Second World War there was no such thing as retirement. You worked until you couldn’t work any more or until you dropped dead. Yeah, a few businesses gave an oldster a gold watch when his usefulness was over but, for the most part, you were a part of the work force and then you were not. There were no retirement plans, no Social Security, until 1935, and nothing to fall back on except for what you owned or had in your saving account.
Now we plan for retirement before we even get our first job.
Once again, the contractor and the developer saw an opportunity for making a killing and began to build homes and buildings tailored for the over 65 set. Today it’s for the 55 and over set due to people retiring at a younger age.
The standard retirement village can be made up of individual domiciles or of apartment (“Townhouse”) buildings and can be “Gated” or not. However, what makes it different is it not allowing anyone to rent or buy under the age of 55.
Now, I don’t know about you, but having young people around me, as I stumble through life, seems to help keep me young. Living in a village of only old farts, like me, sounds like a very bad horror movie, “The Village of The Ancients.”
ASSISTED LIVING: This is simply a Retirement Community with perks like meals, medical services and social activities. It’s a step forward toward the next destination, the nursing home. Oh, God help us All!
What I’ve written so far is a preamble to what I want to lay out for you about my problem with suburbs. It starts with the architecture. The following are my beliefs about what works and what doesn’t.
One: Just as adobe haciendas with tile roofs don’t look at home in Vermont, so half-timbered cottages with thatched roofs are out of place in New Mexico. Homes should fit comfortably within the landscape that surrounds them.
Two: Shutters should be practical. The plastic replicas permanently screwed to the siding of the house next to the windows are useless. Yes, they finish off the façade, but, even if they were the real deal, they are not wide enough to cover the glass of the window, which, by the way, is what they are supposed to do. My neighbor next door has old workable shutters that he can close to reduce summer heat or to prevent damage to the windows from a bad storm. For all those home owners nailing up plywood every time there’s a tropical storm warning---take note.
Three: What’s with all those rocking chairs on those tiny front porches? Yes, I know, back in the day, folks used to sit on the veranda and watch the horse and buggies trot by, but let me ask you a question. When was the last time you sat on the porch in that rustic rocker you bought at Cracker Barrel? Nothing like rocking away and breathing in the sweet exhaust from those trucks on I 80, right? In my town, the mosquitoes are so bad, no one sits on a porch, unless it’s screened in. And yet, every other unscreened stoop, has one or more rockers. On one porch I actually counted six slat-back rockers. However, in all my years of tootling around the area, I have never seen one human-being having a good old-fashioned sit-down. A dog or two and a cat sunning themselves, maybe, but no homo sapiens.
Four: I believe in color. Everyone needs as much color in their lives as they can get. So why are most houses beige, gray or brown? Why are some of them a faded blue or the palest green or a nondescript washed-out yellow? The reason? Any realtor will tell you that a brightly colored home turns buyers away.
My theory is that most of us are frightened by color---terrified. The colors we choose say so much about who we are, so we are very cautious about our choices. If you are secretly a very passionate person and love red you might not want the world to know your secret so you choose off-white for your bedroom walls and tan for the exterior of your house. But underneath the gray comforter on your bed may be a set of red sheets.
Yes, some colors are hard to live with but don’t censor yourself if you find yourself drawn to a color that rings your bell. Just because your mother-in-law doesn’t like puce is no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of your choice. That’s the problem with most of us---we worry too much about what others may think. Fuck ‘em! (And you can always paint over a color that YOU feel didn’t work out.)
I’m not about to advocate painting your house
in rainbow colors (although now that I think about it
it might be quite beautiful) but there is no reason
you can’t opt for a brighter blue or a richer green on
the surface of your home-sweet-home. However, if
you are situated in a gorgeous scenic environment,
full of breathtaking beauty you don’t want to upstage
Mother Nature with a neon pink log cabin. But, That
being said, if you live in a crowded neighborhood with
not much vegetation, and no scenic wonders to behold,
why not go for it.
A canary yellow bungalow may brighten
everybody’s day, which brings me to:
Five: HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION. This is a private organization made up of the owners of the homes in a development. It has elected officers who enforce the rules and regulations agreed upon by the residents of the community. These rules can be as simple as “No subletting of domicile” to as demanding as “No venetian blinds on any windows” and “Exterior paint color must be Pavilion Beige SW 7512 with trim in Dark Clove SW 9183.” No pink flamingos in the yard for this crowd.
Several years ago my aunt, who lived in an ordinary neighborhood, not a development, felt the need to change the color of her four-shades-of-gray home. That was the original color scheme when she purchased the place. She opted for a soft shade of lilac. Boom! You would have thought she had painted her house in blood red enamel with a border of black swastikas. The neighbors were up in arms, petitions were circulated, the mayor was contacted but there was no regulation on the books that said you couldn’t paint your house any color you wanted. So, tucked among the beige and gray residences, that line both sides of Maple Avenue, is a sweet little lilac bungalow that’s like a blossom in a wheat field.
Now I understand the need for esthetic unity but there is something rather Orwellian about a collective conscious that decides the kind of drapes one can hang in one’s front window, the foliage one can plant and the height one must keep of one’s grass. And speaking of grass---
Six: When I refer to grass I’m not harking back to my Hippie Days and a bong filled with Wacky Weed. I’m talking about lawns, the green carpets across America that are a symbol of status and success for millions of home owners. You want to talk about an environmental disaster! Let’s look at what it takes to create a perfect lawn.
A. You start with rolls of sod that have been grown in huge fields, fed with tons of fertilizer, irrigated with millions of gallons of water, cut and harvested by gasoline-fueled machines and delivered to home centers by gas-fueled trucks.
B. You excavate and prepare your yard with a gas-driven tiller.
C. You fertilize your soil, ($80.00 a bag) and roll it flat with a water-filled roller (think ‘miniature steam roller.’)
D. A gas-driven truck delivers your sod.
E. You roll out the sod, press it into the soil with the roller.
F. You water.
G. Then you water.
M. You spray with weed killer which, joining the chemicals from the fertilizer, seeps down into the aquifer.
N. You mow your lawn with a gas-fueled lawn mower.
P. You place a sign “Keep Off The Grass.”
I’m sure you see a pattern here. In a time of national drought a beautiful lawn is a greedy drinker of one of our most valuable and necessary resources. Yeah, that thick rug of bright green is very tempting but not as tempting as a glass of clear chemical-free water when you are literally dying of thirst. You know, you can only go about three days without water and then that’s it, off to that heavenly lawn in the sky.
At the time of this writing the city of Las Vegas is digging up all their public grass and replacing it with desert-loving plants. Take note.
So what do I imagine the perfect suburban residence should look like? Well, first of all let’s get rid of the word “perfect.” Imperfection is part of my goal. I am not comfortable in the presence of a house so groomed and manicured that it looks like it’s auditioning for Architectural Digest. One should be able to learn something about the occupants by just looking at the yard and the entrance, the façade and the trim. That can’t happen if every house looks like every other house. For example, one of my neighbors has roses in his front yard, instead of grass, and nestled among the bushes are swans, not live ones but plaster ones, carved wooden ones, plastic resin ones and even some made of metal. The color of his house is a bright silky white with trim as black as a swan’s beak.
Down the street is a lady who bakes some of the best treats ever and shares them with all of us. Her little house is biscuit colored with chocolate-colored trim and her front yard contains a herb garden with sage, mint, lavender, thyme and many other herbs with names I don’t know.
My house? It’s dark gray with forest-green trim and I filled in the front yard with concrete---no grass or plants to water. When I moved in there was a set of wind chimes hanging on the porch near the front door, which I replaced with a
BEWARE OF ATTACK DOG! (I don’t have a dog.)
Well, what did you expect? I have a reputation to uphold. After all I’m the neighborhood curmudgeon.
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