McMansions on a hill (continued)

McMansion2GetReligion has front-page readers and then it has comments readers. Thus, I wanted to pull a comment or two out front from the McMansions ghost post, so that more people can see them.

Oh, I also need to add my confession about housing. Yes, I now live in a 1930s Craftsman-era bungalow in an older neighborhood — only one that is currently not hot enough to attract McMansions. Yet. (Click here to see what this whole trend actually looks like on the ground.)

In terms of the ghost that was haunting me, Dan Berger nails it:

Here’s a ghost: when was the last time you saw something both serious and profound written about the Seven Deadly Sins? Like Greed? … I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a clergy conference in which one of the speakers asks, “Is it possible to own a house that is sinfully large? And how large would it have to be?” From the back, someone piped up, “Bigger than mine!”

Posted by Dan Berger at 9:01 am on October 11, 2005

Also, I invited Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News to write in about this topic, since he has dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons.

Dreher’s main point echoes that of Berger and can be stated in a question: Would newspapers dare to write about strongly spiritual subjects that are not obvious, on their face, in a news trend? Is it possible to write about greed, other than in the context of Enron? Lust, other than in the context of, oh, the Bill Clinton era?

In this case, the ghost is there and its name is “consumerism,” a sin that is very easy for me to spot in the mirror (I don’t know about you). Here is the body of Dreher’s letter:

1. As David Brooks has observed, many modern people make up for the spiritual emptiness in their lives by fetishizing material objects. I don’t suppose that’s really a modern thing; after all, the Israelites fetishized the Golden Calf. Its modern version, though, comes with the kind of lifestyle you see celebrated in the upscale shelter magazines. It’s easy for me to see that secular lefties fetishize the old historic houses as embodiments of a certain spiritual purity they see threatened by McMansionization, and what it represents (the “More, Faster” society of rampant consumerism).

2. On the other hand, a religious conservative like me arrives at much the same place, for different reasons. I don’t think I’m a better person for having chosen this old house of ours, but I do think, in a sacramental sense, it mediates a spiritual ideal of modesty and simple beauty, which I find much preferable to the McMansion ethos. And it’s important, I think, to conserve old places, because of the links they provide with our past.

Our neighborhood in Dallas doesn’t look like all the other neighborhoods, and the people who moved in long before us, when it was a dismal, drug-infested slum, worked real hard to reclaim the original beauty and integrity of these old houses, and restore the neighborhood to its original charm. All the things they fought for are now being challenged by Republican developers, and Texans who believe in the sacredness of Private Propitty. You can drive around my neighborhood and see obnoxious McMansions that dwarf the other older, more modest houses. What this says to me is that the person who builds and owns the McMansion says to his putative neighbors: Screw you people, I’m going to do what I want to do, and you’ve just got to live with it.

3. In this sense, perhaps, what secular lefties in that Maryland neighborhood are fighting is an individualistic ethic that asserts the right to disregard tradition and the sensibility of the community for the sake of exercising the sovereignty of the individual. As I believe a lot of what’s wrong with this country is out-of-control individualism (on the left, resulting in the extolling of sexual libertinism, and on the right resulting in the extolling of shopping), I would come together with the left-liberals in this neighborhood as a matter of principle. How we arrived at the idea that the old neighborhood ought to be defended is, to the outsider, a distinction without a difference. What matters is that we stand by tradition and community.

Posted by Rod Dreher at 2:40 pm on October 11, 2005

As you can see, there is more to this specific issue than left-right politics or even theology.

“Tradition and community”? Sounds rather religious to these Eastern Orthodox ears.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    Hmm … this is one of those themes that has the potential to get out of control (like the anti-SUV fervor).

    Does it ever occur to these critics that some people *need* a large house? If I could tear down my “charming” 2.5 bedroom and replace it with a large, five or six bedroom house, I’d do it in a heartbeat. My kids have to sleep somewhere.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    There’s a family in Arkansas who just had their sixteenth child. They are finishing an addition on their house that brings it up to 7000 square feet. They need the space.

    There’s a family in my hometown who should have their (build-it-yourself) addition finished by spring. It doubles the size of their house, to something around 3000 square feet. They have six children.

    The woman who considered her 5000-square-foot house “adequate” and a badge of her middle-class status had two children. She and her husband and children do not share their house with any other family members.

    Does she need such a large house? That’s what I was talking about. For that matter, my in-laws successfully raised three daughters in a house that’s probably smaller than this woman’s living room.

  • David

    Yes, but most of the people I know who build those McMansions here in San Diego either don’t have ANY children or they only have a couple.

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com rob moll

    and how does this trend fit in? Interior decorators meld faith and modern home design Could it be an easing of the McMansion conscience by spiritualizing the interior. I mean prayer closets in your home? Something, I’m not sure what, is amiss.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >I mean prayer closets in your home?

    Spurgeon would approve, surely? :)

  • http://terrenceberres.com Terrence Berres

    But is it still consumerism if someone listens to NPR on the drive to the stores?

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK
  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    Then there’s this–authentic conservative thought on community, localism, anarchism, agrarianism:
    http://www.newpantagruel.com/issues/2.3/alternatives.php

  • steve

    This is really petty. I don’t like BMWs, but I don’t have any reason to stop another person from driving one.
    I say there is more envy on the part of the critics in this story than greed on the part buyers of large houses.
    Get a grip. It’s just a house.

  • Jonathan S

    steve,
    I think it’s deeper than envy. After all, the other people living in those neighborhoods could perhaps build McMansions of their own. I think greed does play a role. I recall Someone said that where your treasure is, there your heart is. (I’m sure people accused Him of being petty at times.)

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I remember reading about some guy who said his dad’s house could hold many McMansions.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >There’s a family in Arkansas who just had their
    >sixteenth child. They are finishing an addition
    >on their house that brings it up to 7000 square
    >feet. *They* need the space.

    Yep. Exactly.

    >There’s a family in my hometown who should have
    >their (build-it-yourself) addition finished by
    >spring. It doubles the size of their house, to
    >something around 3000 square feet. They have six
    >children.

    That’s (going to be) us … we have three now. Hoping to adopt three teenagers soon, if the adoption agency will approve the home study to do so.

    >The woman who considered her 5000-square-foot
    >house “adequate” and a badge of her middle-class
    >status had two children. She and her husband and
    >children do not share their house with any other
    >family members.

    >Does she need such a large house?

    Not by my standards. But then, I’m not king. I was just saying that this kind of thing, like people deciding how much of a vehicle you need, can easily get out of control. The anti-SUV hysteria was pretty disgusting.

    There’s one family (that I know of, but I’m pretty sure they’re the only ones) in our church that has something like one of these “McMansions”. At first I was a bit taken aback by what I heard about it, and what I saw driving by. But now that I know them a bit better, I realize that they too are planning a very large family, and that they use the house for many church functions (kind of a “large upper room”, you might say). I’m glad that they can afford a house large enough that will be in good shape for a long time, and am a bit ashamed at my initial judgmental reaction.

  • Erik Nelson

    I’m not sure there is really much room to criticize here. Compared to what most people in the world are faced with in terms of living space (and I’m not just talking about the poor, but the middle class in Europe for instance), even modest sized US homes are decadently large. Who gets to decide what the parameters are for such a moral judgment, since Scripture doesn’t exactly point out what these might be when it comes to our homes? Does this apply to square footage alone, or does it also apply to lot size? Is it more sinful to own 10 acres than it is to own just one? Or less? Are large homes really a measure of consumerism? I’m not sure this is self-evidently true (although I’d like to hear more of an argument).

    These arguments often seem petty to me, I will admit. Too many people use them as a means of feeling holier-than-thou (an unfortunate side-effect of most arguments against consumerism and materialism).

  • Rod Dreher

    But it’s not “just a house.” Compare the Chartres Cathedral to the newest exurban megachurch in your city. Both are “just big churches,” but is there one that more accurately expresses the Christian faith? Why or why not? And what is the difference between a sweatsuit and a tuxedo? They’re both “just suits of clothes.” Would you be offended if your brother showed up to your wedding wearing a sweatsuit and flip-flops? What would his choosing to do so say about his respect for you, the community and the occasion? That kind of thing is what we’re getting at here.

    Couple other things. In my forthcoming book “Crunchy Cons,” I interview a man living in Michigan. He says he and his wife live with their child in a relatively modest cottage close to his work. His brother and his family live in an exurban McMansion of 4,000 square feet or more. The man says that his brother and sister-in-law both have to work long hours to pay for this McMansion, and spend a lot of time on the road commuting — time they don’t have to give to build up their family life. And when they are home, they hardly see their kids, because the kids are lost somewhere in the vastness of the mansion, playing videogames or whatever. That has a moral and spiritual effect on the family. It’s one reason my wife and I, on a limited budget, chose to stay closer to my work and live in a smaller place, versus going out to a far exurb to “buy as much house as you can buy,” as the local saying goes. We bought as much house as we needed, according to what we value. I wish our house were bigger, but given my hours, I’m not willing to spend a single second longer on the road to get it.

    Besides, most Americans have lunatic ideas about how much space they “need.”

    My newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, ran a series earlier this year about how the prosperous northern suburban counties, which are among the most conservative and overtly religious in the nation, are also booming with bankruptcies (and, as a divorce lawyer up there told me, broken marriages coming out of financial problems). The stories, which included interviews with pastors, made clear that those people are living in a culture of out-of-control materialism, where folks meet at church, find out what their neighbors have bought this week, and seek to get the same or better. And it is destroying the moral and spiritual fabric of the community.

  • steve

    Johnathan:

    I’m no great expert on the bible, but I seem to remember:

    Matthew 7:3 – And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

  • Rod Dreher

    Oh, come on, Steve, that’s a cheaply pious way of short-circuiting any critical discussion. Judging by the way you deploy that Scripture, no Christian has the right to say anything critical about anybody’s choice, ever.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/essays Dan Berger

    Rod Dreher said it well.

    Erik, you have a point. But your point amounts to this: because I have unjustly screamed at my children, who am I to judge someone who beats them?

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/essays Dan Berger

    (Or someone who beats his own children, which is what I meant to say.)

    Maybe the Powers could include a feature that allows you to edit your submissions for a time… 8P

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    I can see the need for someone with three kids to live in a “McMansion” or some such thing. But the underlying problem is the desire to live far above ones means, in mansions rather than homes, and going far into debt in the process.

    There is some envy there – envy of wealthier people – but also some greed.

    That’s a moral and religious angle that’s worth exploring in news stories, like the DMN apparently has done.

    While we’re at it, let’s look at churches who go far into debt creating “McChurches” far grander than necessary in order to impress… who, exactly?

  • Rod Dreher

    Maybe the Bible was really saying “considerest not the Beamer in thy neighbors eye.” Happily, I drive an old secondhand Mercedes, har har.

  • Chip

    The consensus of the majority of the posters here seems to be that if you have a concern from a Christian ethical POV with McMansions, then you are either envious, greedy, or “holier than thou.” Of course, a person could be any one of those, but why the broad generalizations?

    Sure there are people with large families who need bigger houses. Even so, I’ve seen people with small families in McMansions. Needs are one thing; wants and desires are another.

    The real question for those of us who are Christians, however, is how do our lifestyles reflect the gospel? If a large house is not a need, should we live more sacrificially in order to redistribute our income more to those who are more in want? If so, what constitutes a simple or modest lifestyle? These are not easy questions to answer, and they may well involve costly discipleship. Still, we must wrestle with them.

  • Scipio Africanus

    The McMansion construction industry provides a lot of jobs for people who don’t have knack for writing newspaper columns. The desire for “more and bigger” is the ingition key in the engine of opportunity for people who want to earn a nice living framing, flooring, wiring and so on. If Americans start wanting less new stuff, the world economy would slow down noticably, and those who’ll feel the slowdown first and be hurt the most would be those on the margins. Vulnerable people might pay a price if “small is beautiful” attitudes gain too much sway.

    Besides, I like it when rich folks move into my neighborhood. For the most part, they have pretty good taste and they seem to improve the overall atmosphere.

  • Mark

    Holmegm said:
    …they use the house for many church functions (kind of a “large upper room”, you might say).

    I think Holmegm touched on an interesting issue. What about the people with McMansions who use them to help serve the church’s ministries? I know I’ve often felt guilty of my duplicity when I decry the materialism that would cause a family to buy such a house in one breath and thanked God for the ability to use such a space for a church ministry in the next. I know many churches that are dependent on the generous donation of that kind of space. But is such use a legitimate justification for buying a McMansion? Or is it just a weak effort to excuse rampant materialism? I don’t know–probably a bit of both.

  • Rod Dreher

    The weapons industry provides a lot of jobs for people who don’t have a knack for writing newspaper columns. If people stop wanting to go to war, the economy will slow down.

    The television industry provides a lot of jobs for people who don’t have a knack for writing newspaper columns. If people stop watching so much TV, the economy will slow down.

    The pharmaceutical industry provides a lot of jobs for people who don’t have a knack for writing newspaper columns. If people quit taking so many prescription drugs, the economy will slow down.

    The gaming industry provides a lot of jobs for people who don’t have a knack for writing newspaper columns. If people quit gambling, the economy will slow down.

    The corrections industry provides a lot of jobs for people who don’t have a knack for writing newspaper columns. If people quit committing crimes, the economy will slow down.

    I think you see where I’m going with this. The imperative to economic growth is not an answer to the moral and spiritual questions raised by American consumerism.

    Do you know what, according to the most recent government statistics, the savings rate of American consumers is? Zero. Literally, zero. We are not saving anything, which is one reason our economy keeps growing. Is it morally wise and responsible to spend money like this instead of making provision for ourselves and our families against tough times? Anyway, the claim that one is doing one’s moral duty toward the unemployed with indiscriminate consumer spending sounds like a flimsy rationalization, like spreading harmful gossip but saying you’re just doing it so people will know to pray for that person.

    The Christian economist E.F. Schumacher observed the tragic flaw in our economic model: that it’s built on exploiting greed and envy, which “are not accidental features, but the very cause of its expansionist success.” Schumacher was no socialist, but in “Small Is Beautiful,” he did warn that no society can long endure an economics that guaranteed material plenty at the expense of spiritual ruin. He called for a more balanced approach based on the principle that “the essence of civilization is not the multiplication of wants, but in the purification of human character.”

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    So many questions … do these neo-traditionalists and eco-friendly sorts eschew central air (for example) in their houses, or is their outrage selective? Are just plain mansions without the “mc” OK (I wonder if the Ted Kennedy’s of the world read the papers and cluck their tongues at “McMansions”)?

    Were stately old charming homes the McMansions of their day? Will large families who need the rooms buy these McMansions in 30-60 years when they aren’t so new and the neighborhoods are no longer so tony?

  • Rod Dreher

    What does eschewing central air conditioning have to do with the points we’re talking about re: building houses much bigger than one could possibly need, and which at times offend against community sensibilities? You’re bringing up a red herring.

    (Anyway, here in scorching Texas, a/c is a necessity if you don’t want to die of heat stroke. Seriously.)

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >(Anyway, here in scorching Texas, a/c is a
    >necessity if you don’t want to die of heat stroke.
    >Seriously.)

    So nobody lived in Texas before AC? ;)

    I’m just saying, you can draw the line of judgment anywhere here. Is there a line? Probably, but it’s somewhat subjective.

  • cmd

    One thing that seems to be lost is how we live collectively. In Orange County (or, um, the OC), where I live, the size of the home–and the preference for “single-family” homes (both by buyers and developers), and the dominance of the automobile–has tangible effects: commutes are extended, more natural resources are used (land, fossil fuels), pollution is increased (smog, yes, but also runoff), people are isolated from their neighbors, time with family and friends is reduced, and the poor struggle more. These are facts.

    The whole “anti-SUV” hysteria that people are lamenting as, among other things, “disgusting,” often is an expression of stridency. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. We like to say that people should be allowed to make whatever choices they like. Fair enough. But we err if we think our choices are completely our own. The car companies, in this case, are complicit in the kinds of choices we have. They make the offerings. We choose one of what they offer. I seem to recall that in the OT, God judges both the Israelites for straying AND those who tempt them to stray. This may not be a the same kind of issue, but if the way we use our money, and creation, and our time carries consequences beyond ourselves–and it always does–we should at least think about this regardless of our own political commitments.

  • cmd

    And regarding holmegn’s comment about where to draw the line: I don’t think we should dismiss the conversation b/c there’s not a clear-cut answer for everyone. I drive a hybrid vehicle. Do I think everyone should drive a hybrid vehicle? If possible, yes. Do I think our leaders should pass legislation requiring it? No.

    For me, driving such a vehicle is a small way of trying–for myself, working out my faith in fear and trembling–of better using the resources that have been given to me, just like my using a re-usable coffee cup and recycling cans and newspapers. Small gestures, sure, but it’s a place for me to begin. Must you do the same? I wouldn’t say that.

    Using AC in a small house, though, requires a lot less energy than using AC in a large house. And perhaps that’s reason enough–in terms of stewardship–to keep houses in Texas small, when possible.

  • Scipio Africanus

    I had heard the phrase “small is beautiful” used by other smart alecks like myself to snidely put down no growthers and over the top environmentalists, but I ought to actually read Schumacher’s book and perhaps get a little balance.

    I do think we should more aware of the ruin caused by ambitious people letting their animals spirits out for a long unsupervised romp, and also aware of the uplifting opportunities in the form of jobs that are created by letting them out for a brief romp.

  • http://n/a ah

    My own taste is for the New Urbanism and high-ticket traditional meticulous historic neighborhoods (no McMansions). However, I suspect it is driven by aesthetics, cultural background, and quite possibly temperament. Once I deplore The Lesser Breeds building big ugly houses I wish they couldn’t finance, and highways, my explanations of how taste is correlated with goodness become suspect, and taste resembles an idol.

    So the humane question is, how to maintain compassion and charity for the over-extended overstressed non-art-history-grad McMansion resident next door? — whilst I’m listing my house for quick sale and looking for a more stable hermitage elsewhere.

    Things change. Edmund Spenser, Mutabilitie, and all that.

    It’s not going to be heaven here (Catechism, 676).

    The remedy of regulation and uber-control is worse than the disease.

    Where are the more-than-racially segregated uniform neighborhoods of Yesteryear? Gone. Gone like January snow in Texas.

  • cmd

    Scipio writes, “[I'm] also aware of the uplifting opportunities in the form of jobs that are created by letting them out for a brief romp.” Yes. But some things are worth making more than others. Read Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Why work?” in her book _Creed or Chaos_.

    AH writes, “It’s not going to be heaven here (Catechism, 676).” True. But does that mean we shouldn’t act when the opportunity arises? Christ tells us the poor will always be with us, but he also commands us to serve them. Well, if we serve them (in order to lift them out of poverty) are we undermining the first proposition?

    Later, AH writes, “The remedy of regulation and uber-control is worse than the disease.” This I’m not so sure. Are “regulation” and “uber-control” the same thing? Air quality in L.A. is the worst in the country, but it’s still better now than it was in the 70s (despite the exploding population). Why is it better? Regulation.

    But I do agree with AH’s implied point that there isn’t a “good old days” to return to. We delude ourselves if we think that re-thinking housing will redeem us. But that doesn’t undermine the importance of the discussion.

  • Steve

    This blog was better without Rod. Maybe getrodsreligion.org.

  • http://ABLE Rod Dreher

    Well, I was invited to come here, but there’s no point in hanging around if unwanted. I’m checking out, but I do wonder what is so intolerable about having this discussion among religious people?

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    This is a profoundly religious topic. For one thing, a Jewish rabbi in the first century was known to teach about fools whose prosperity led them to build bigger and bigger barns to house their possessions.

    This US News story does a great, and balanced, job of exploring the current 0% net savings rate. But what really fascinates me is the McMansion-buying opening anecdote. Note that, “The truth is, nobody wants to sacrifice their lifestyle” (truer words were never spoken!) — but for this couple, their “lifestyle” is not static, it requires a bigger house, bigger car, bigger everything. Anyone who thinks there aren’t profound spiritual dimensions to this is deluded — or, in the words of that Jewish rabbi, a fool.

    http://www.usnews.com/usnews/biztech/articles/050808/8debt.htm

    # # #

    Like millions of Americans, Cathy and Scott Gabrielsen got used to a certain standard of living in the late 1990s, when times were flush and their Internet stocks were going gangbusters.

    So when times toughened as the stock market bubble burst at the start of this decade, the couple took a risk: They chose not to cut back. “The truth is, nobody wants to sacrifice their lifestyle,” says Cathy, 34.

    Despite steep losses in their portfolio, the Gabrielsens continued to upsize during the bear market. The couple–parents of two boys, now ages 5 and 3–bought a 4,000-square-foot house in West Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia. That’s double the size of their previous home. Then they had to furnish all that empty space.

    They also upgraded their cars–Cathy, who works part time in sales, went from a Ford Bronco to a Volvo station wagon, while Scott, 40, a commercial real-estate broker, moved from a 5 Series BMW to a pricier 7 Series.

    Eventually, the expenses led to something else that was new: debt, including credit card balances. “It wasn’t like hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Cathy. “But when it gets to be $10,000 or $15,000, you start to get concerned.”

    # # #

  • ceemac

    Don’t forget it’s not just about the size of the house it is also about the folks who move into the McMansions and how they change the neighborhood.

    As tmatt noted it is about tradition and community

    I live in a neighborhood that is beginning to McMansion. It’s a few miles from Rod’s.

    Our houses tend to be small on fairly large lots. 1k-1.5k sq foot houses on 8k sq foot lots. Modest houses with big yards. Most of us work in our yards a lot. We are not wealthy so we don’t hire landscapers.

    For the most part we park on the street or in driveways not in garages. Very few attached garages with auto door openers.

    Lots of dogs which we walk.

    What this means is that most of us are out and about in the yard or neighborhood a lot. We interact with each other. We have a wacky amateur 4th of July parade. We have a little park that we are workingon improving after years of neglect.

    We moved here becuase we loved the neighborhood. And so does our collection of pink flamingoes in the yard. Lord willin and the creek don’t rise we will be here until we die or head to the nursing home. And hopefully that is at least 30 years away.

    Now here is the fear. The neighbor down the street dies. Her modest but solid and well kept 1946 bunglaow is sold and torn down. A McMansion with almost no front yard and automatic garage doors is built. There is a big privacy fence around the back yard. Mr and Ms. McMansion move in.
    They moved here becuase they got a big house that is only 15 minutes from downtown. The reside in the neighborhood but they are not a part of it. You never see them. The garage door comes up and they leave….they come home and the door goes up and they go in. They don’t sit on their porch or their yard. They don’t work in their front yard. They may even hire someone to mow and landscape it for them. They don’t come to the parade. They don’t work in the park. They only plan on being here for about 5 years until they retire and head to the lake.

  • Michael

    To tie this even more into faith–and to support Rod’s position–there has long been criticism of evangleicals (as well as mainline churches) hat there is little focus on povery and wealth. In a time when it’s abortion and gays all the time, when are there discussions of poverty and consumerism and wealth.

    The conversation about McMansions is often an ironic one since those who are often complaining are viewed as affluent by most of society. In the WP case, Chevy Chase is a wealthy community. Those people in their Craftsman homes are living in $1 million real estate. They ARE ALREADY the elite, as I imagine are those living in Ceemac and Rod’s neighborhoods. The problem is they are THE WRONG KIND of elites.

  • http://POLE Rod Dreher

    Michael wrote: “They ARE ALREADY the elite, as I imagine are those living in Ceemac and Rod’s neighborhoods.”

    I couldn’t resist this. I don’t know where Ceemac’s neighborhood is, but in mine, Junius Heights, we aren’t elite. We paid $165,000 for our little house. Most people on our block paid even less, because they moved in when the neighborhood was dicier. Our neighbors are working-class Hispanics who have been there for 35 years.

    An interesting twist: our neighborhood is suddenly getting discovered as a good place to live if you work downtown, and don’t use the public schools (we don’t; we do a combination of homeschooling and parochial schooling). In the year we’ve been there, we’ve seen a change. The working-class Hispanic neighbors have just put their house up for sale, because they hate the gentrification. Specifically, when we get historical neighborhood status from the city (which we need to keep developers from tearing down these architecturally significant 100-year-old bungalows and putting up McMansions), these neighbors will have to maintain their house in a way to which they are not accustomed. They told us they don’t want the city telling them what they can and can’t do with their house. So they’re moving. I’m sorry to see them go, but if not for the sort of thing that’s making them leave, one of Dallas’s most historically significant neighborhoods would have been destroyed.

    Even though we’ve been in the neighborhood for all of 19 months, we probably couldn’t afford to buy our own house now, given the real estate market here. Still, given the actual architecture of these houses, it’s impossible to have the kind of walled-off life from the street and the neighbors that Ceemac sees developing in his neighborhood. In other words, the form dictates the function. And like it or not, that has moral and spiritual consequences.

  • Michael

    So, Rod, you are about to become the elite. Your Hispanic neighbors will be moved out becaue of the bullying of gentrifiers, to be replaced by gays (who are always at the front of urban gentrification, even likely in Dallas) and well-educated whites. A Starbucks will move in, a Whole Foods will move in, and suddenly you will be the elites. That’s the reality of gentrification, which is the evil-step sister of McMansions.

    As full disclosure, I am in a similar boat. My mostly Hispanic neighborhood is the focus of a wealthy community’s redevelopment efforts. In five years, my property value has increased almost 200%. While we are from becoming a gentrified neighborhood, the reality is that as an “elite” I can afford my rising property taxes, but my working-class neighbors can’t.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    “The whole “anti-SUV” hysteria that people are lamenting as, among other things, “disgusting,” often is an expression of stridency.”

    Maybe it is, and maybe it’s an expression of the perceived sissiness of minivans.

    McMansions are just the tip of a very much larger iceberg: a systemic societal change for which American religion, it appears, has but three equally inadequate answers:

    (1) Personal piety and let the rest of the world go to hell
    (2) Prosperity gospel
    (3) Used socialist sniping at (other) wealthy people

    I suspect that the dynamics of the McMansion market are a lot more complex than the Keynesian need to make employment or mere delusions of grandeur. But it also seems to me that the religious means we have of approaching the issue are dated.

  • ceemac

    Michael,

    This neighborhood isn’t elite especially by Dallas standards. Our house was 75k 5 years ago. Appraised at 100k now. We have done some remodeling of 1948 Jack and Jill style cottage. Many folks moved in when they were almost givng the houses away 10 or 15 yrs ago. Others have lived here for decades.

    As I said we do our own yardwork etc.

    Up until a year or so ago most buyers were remodeling. In the last year we are seeing more teardowns than remodels.

    (Rod the neighborhood is Little Forest Hills).

    And maybe Mr and Ms McMansion will turn out to be great neighbors. I hope so. But it is my fear that they won’t be.

  • keypusher

    “This blog was better without Rod. Maybe getrodsreligion.org. ”

    Posted by Steve at 12:36 pm on October 14, 2005

    – Grow up, Steve.

    “Well, I was invited to come here, but there’s no point in hanging around if unwanted. I’m checking out, but I do wonder what is so intolerable about having this discussion among religious people?”

    – Forty-one comments on this post so far, many of them insightful, some childish and snide like Steve’s. Seems to strike a nerve. I hope you stay.

  • http://POLE Rod Dreher

    Oh, look, I couldn’t plausibly claim not to be in the cultural elite, in the sense that I am educated and work in an elite cultural milieu (I’m an editor at the Dallas Morning News), though my family’s income puts us in the middle class. Still, I would say that the gentrification of our neighborhood is, on balance, a good thing. The lady who lives across the street, an elementary school librarian, told us that before the guy we bought the house from lived in it and remodeled it, it was a run-down rent house with a literal junkie living in it. It was so beat up inside that the junkie slept on the front porch. The librarian said they used to see his needles in the front yard. The guy who bought it before us brought this great little 1914 bungalow back to life. That’s been happening all over our neighborhood. I don’t see that as something to apologize for, given how architecturally significant these houses are. I don’t see the moral virtue in allowing these historic old houses to get so run down that they are eventually torn down and become the site for McMansions.

    The thing is, we might ultimately be priced out of our own neighborhood, if we can’t afford the property taxes. I’d sure hate that, but if the alternative is to let a neighborhood of beautiful old houses exist as slums, then I accept. When we lived in Brooklyn, the folks at our church said during the 1970s, our neighborhood of graceful old brownstones was a drug-ridden slum — until the gentrifiers came in. These church people had lived through it all, and they were happy to see the yuppies move in from Manhattan and clean up the neighborhood. What would have been the ultimate moral value in allowing these historically and aesthetically important row houses to decay and collapse?

    I guess it comes down to: is there any moral worth in historical and aesthetic value?

  • Scipio Africanus

    I believe there is moral worth in preserving historic architecture and old neighborhoods. I believe it’s good for the souls of children and young persons to live in the midst of tangible reminders of our ancestors. Majestic old public buildings can help remind them that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Old neighborhoods, especially those with cemeteries nearby, can help remind them that they’re part of a community that also includes the dead and the unborn, and not just those of us who happen to be up and at it and walking around here in October 2005.

  • ceemac

    Rod,

    One differnce between our Dallas neigborhoods is that yours is older has historic significance. Mine doesn’t. There’s not much of historical or architectural significance here. My street doesn’t even have curbs or sidewalks. Just 5 or 6 hundred solid little houses built in the 30′s and 40′s for a bunch of blue collar folk. What many of us want to preserve is the nature of the community. It’s a neat place to live. There are some great people here.

    When someone tears down a house and builds a McMansion in our neighborhood it seems to say that those folks aren’t really interested in the neighborhood. I hope I’m wrong.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/essays Dan Berger

    McMansions are just the tip of a very much larger iceberg: a systemic societal change for which American religion, it appears, has but three equally inadequate answers:

    (1) Personal piety and let the rest of the world go to hell
    (2) Prosperity gospel
    (3) Used socialist sniping at (other) wealthy people

    Mr. Wingate, you intrigue me. Any suggestions about what can replace these three “inadequate” answers?

    It seems to me that “socialist sniping” was used by our boss. You know, that Jewish carpenter. As was pointed out earlier. Characterizing it the way you do seems to me a capitulation to the libertarian/libertine spirit of the age.

    The other thing to remember is that, even though we are sinners, we have a duty to point out the sin of others–as gently as possible, and as far as possible by offering a way out of the difficulties caused by sin. But we have a duty to point it out.

    The fact that it is sin, and sin is as usual dragging people down with it, is shown by the US News article Andy Crouch cited.

    And the reason we have to point it out is that, as Mark Shea likes to put it, sin makes you stupid. Stupid enough to put yourself in hock over your head just to maintain “upward mobility.”

  • Michael

    What you forget, Rod, is those slums are someone’s home. The poor people who have lived there may have no other places to live. While making it more liveable and preserving the historical significance–which is noble–the cost is you are forcing poor people out of their neighborhoods.

    For every crack house is a home of someone on a fixed income who can no longer be live there since gentrification will regulate or price them out of their homes. Are you prepared to help those poor people bring their homes up to your architectural codes?

    Gentrification can be a noble, important thing, but it comes with consequnces. It makes affordable housing even more scarce, whitens minority neighborhoods, and often forces mnority churches to move out since their core community will have been forced out. It starts with architectural codes, and soon the middle-class neighbors will complan about the package liquor store on the corner, force out the check cashing shops, and suddenly what was once a struggling mutliethnic neighborhood will be a lovely, middle-class white neighborhood.

  • Rod Dreher

    I don’t “forget” that, Michael, but I’m not sure what your point is. Neighborhoods ebb and flow. When mine was built in the early part of the 1920s, the houses in this immediate neighborhood were built for the clerks who worked for the managers who lived in the bigger houses on the other side of Munger Avenue, who in turn worked for the industrialists who lived in the mansions on Swiss. In other words, these little bungalows were lower middle class housing in the first suburb of Dallas.

    This neighborhood never really recovered from the Depression, and got on the long, slow glide path to dereliction. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, all these houses were crime ridden and drug infested. The city came thisclose to condemning them all and letting developers bulldoze them and build apartment houses. Only the stouthearted work of preservationists bought a new lease on life for them. The big houses where the managers used to live were the first to fully come back. In the last 10 or 15 years, it seems, these more humble houses have started to come back. The Hispanic neighbors of ours who are moving out are headed to a suburb that is becoming more multiethnic — which is really interesting, because 30 years ago, it had the reputation for being militantly whites-only.

    Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. I don’t think it’s a crime to be a working-class and Hispanic living in this neighborhood. Nor do I think it’s a crime to be white and middle-class living in this neighborhood. Do you? Is there something wicked about “whitening” (your verb) minority neighborhoods? If yes, then the corollary must be true, and there is something wicked about “browning” or “blackening” white neighborhoods. Do you believe that is true? If not, why the racist double standard?

  • Rod Dreher

    Michael: “…and often forces minority churches to move out since their core community will have been forced out.”

    The more I think about this sentiment, the more it bothers me. I live in an older part of Dallas, where the “white” churches long ago moved out or “flipped” to become minority congregations because their core community either chose to leave or felt forced out by crime. Did anyone wail and gnash their teeth over this? Wouldn’t having done so been seen, quite properly, as racist? Again, Michael, why the racist double standard? Are white people less entitled to consideration than non-whites?

  • Michael

    The threat of “whitening” previously minority neighborhoods is that it comes with privilege. I’m not going to do some guilt-trip encounter group on white privilege, but the fact that an urban neighborhood becomes “white” means poor and working-class people will be forced out, into far-flung suburbs that may be less accessible to public transportation and work.

    White in our soceity equals access, wealth, and privilege. Your local school will impprove because of more white people, your complaints about safety will be heard, your complaints about zoning problems and regulations will be heard. That’s the reality of being white in an urban community, especially in Texas.

    Yes, it’s an ebb and flow. The difference is as an educated, white “elite” you will likely always end up on the upside of that ebb and flow and the poor, minority people forced out through gentificiation will inevitably be on the downside of that ebb and flow.

    The church thing is an interesting question. When the local Catholic church stops offering Spanish masses and starts Mommy-and-me ministries and contemporary services with praise music, your religious community will be transformed and–again–the most segregated day of the week will be segregated again. Gone will be the food pantry and job search program for immigrants and immigration services, all replaced for the newly, white community.

    I guess my biggest point is when you describe the McMansion-types as the “them” while you consider youself the “us” who are “saving” the community, to a lot of people in that neighborhood, you are probably the “them.”

  • tmatt

    Wow. I am glad that I put the sequel up on this thread. All of this shows that this is a vital topic — spinning out into others — that is worthy of coverage.

    It is also nice to see Rod attacked from the left and the right, sort of. Just shows you how meaningless those terms are on this kind of issue.

    My hunch is that Rod’s new book (I have read it already at the galleys stage) is going to make lots of people in the country-club GOP set most ticked off.

    All together now: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot…. Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”

  • Rod Dreher

    I doubt that anybody is reading this thread anymore, but if so, I want to put up something I learned today from H., the Latina neighbor who is moving. She told me that the neighbors on her other side, also Hispanic longtime residents, are moving too. I have wondered since we live here why those folks refuse to talk to us, and turn their backs (literally) on us when we say hello. I guess now I know. Here come the Anglo yuppies, there goes the neighborhood. It’s not cool when Anglos do it to minorities, and it’s not cool to be on the receiving end of it from Latinos either.

    Anyway, H., who has always been very friendly, told me today that they’ve seen this neighborhood through some rough times. She said that back in the early 1970s, this whole neighborhood was horribly infested by drugs and gun violence. She said it was so bad you couldn’t even sit on the porch. When her husband went to check on an elderly neighbor they hadn’t seen in three days, he found the old man’s body. She said it took them a long time to get the cops to come out to take care of the situation. “In those days, the police were scared to come down here after dark,” she said.

    And now it’s getting a lot better. The cops busted a drug house a few blocks down our street earlier this year, and every so often we’ll hear a gunshot a few blocks away, but this neighborhood is getting better, and these old houses are coming back to life. I’m sorry to be losing our neighbors, but I fail to see why what’s happened to this neighborhood is a bad thing.

  • Michael

    I’m sorry to be losing our neighbors, but I fail to see why what’s happened to this neighborhood is a bad thing.

    It’s not a bad thing because you are the one who is benefitting. OTOH, your neighbors are being forced to leave because they realize they can’t afford to live there anymore and they realize their neighborhood could become just another Anglo yuppie neighborhood with Starbucks and Whole Foods.

    When you criticize those country-club conservatives and McMansion types driving their SUVs and Volvos, realize that your neighbors think the same way about you.

  • ceemac

    This neighborhood thing gets complicated doesn’t it. It’s hard living in community with other people.

    Crunchy Rod wants to live in an urban neighborhood with a mix of folks who will fix up their funky old houses. He doesn’t want to live next door to a McMansion. He doesn’t want Starbucks but does want the things like the tamale store.

    But the long time Hispanic neighbors don’t want to live next door to Rod.

    So they sell their house to an anglo who is either going to be
    a. crunchy like Rod and fix up the house
    b. tear it down and put up a McMansion

    And those Hispanic neighbors who sell the house they have lived in for decades are going to make a bundle. Will they use that money and move to another urban Hispanic neighborhhod? Or will they move out to one of the suburbs where land and houses are cheaper and buy a McMansion?

    It occurs to me that it is not unlike the worship wars some congregations fight. Which I think must be a reason that tmatt is intersted in this.

  • Rod Dreher

    Michael: “It’s not a bad thing because you are the one who is benefitting. OTOH, your neighbors are being forced to leave because they realize they can’t afford to live there anymore and they realize their neighborhood could become just another Anglo yuppie neighborhood with Starbucks and Whole Foods.”

    Now wait, you don’t know why the neighbors are leaving. The only things my wife and I have been told are a) that they don’t want to have to get permission from the landmarks commission to change their house, and b) they want to move out to the country to have more room for the grandkids to play (they have a tiny yard in the back). My sense is also that the neighborhood is becoming more welcoming to people who are different from them, and that makes them uncomfortable (at least this seems to be true with the Hispanic neighbors two doors down, who have spurned our efforts to be neighborly).

    But yes, I’ll stipulate for the sake of argument that they don’t like people like me moving into their neighborhood. The reason why is important. In what ways do we hurt this neighborhood? Me, I don’t care what race my neighbors are, as long as they show respect to the neighborhood by caring for their property. Again, what on earth is so immoral about people moving into a neighborhood and cleaning up dilapidated houses? I object to the McMansion people not because they’re bad people (I’m sure they’re no better or no worse than anybody else) but because many of them have no desire to have a relationship with the communities in which they choose to move. That is, they would sooner tear down an old house and build a huge new house that towers over everybody else’s, and shows disregard for the sensibilities of their neighbors. That is a substantive matter that has nothing to do with the race or personal character of the homeowners.

    Michael, I don’t know you, but I must object to the rather unpleasant racism in your comments. What if an Anglo yuppie like me wrote that I wanted to move out of my neighborhood because working-class Latinos were moving in, and next thing you know we’re going to have tamale stands on every corner. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you wish to privilege nonwhites for no reason other than that they are nonwhite.

    When you say that “white in our society equals access, wealth and privilege,” I have to laugh when I think about the people who live in our neighborhood. The white lady who lives next door is a social worker. The white couple across the street, the husband runs a small working-class bar. Their neighbor is a single woman, an accountant who drives a compact car. Her next door neighbor is an elementary school librarian. Those people all moved in at least 10 years ago, when you could get those houses for virtually nothing because the neighborhood was still a high-crime area (the librarian got her house for $60,000, and spent at least that much fixing it up). These people may be white, but as far as I can tell they are not remotely “yuppies.” They like how the neighborhood has changed, because now they can walk around and enjoy it without fear of being attacked. Even H., our Latina neighbor, told me yesterday that back before gentrification began, you couldn’t even sit on your front porch for fear of violent crime.

    Anyway, one reason we bought this house in this neighborhood is it was one of the few neighborhoods in Dallas that we could afford. I didn’t want to have the long commute from a far-flung suburb, so we chose to live in this neighborhood, because these houses aren’t so desirable to most people in the market for houses. We apparently bought at just the right time, because now the neighborhood is taking off. If you want me to feel guilty for being a white person exercising his right to buy a house anywhere he so chooses, sorry, find someone else.

    Anyway, they already have a Starbucks at the far end of the neighborhood. I’d be grateful for any neighborhood cafe moving closer, whether it’s a chain restaurant or not. I am not aware that only white people are allowed to go to Starbucks.

  • Michael

    Rod, the fact that you feel so uncomfortable about race really underscores the problem. That a well educated, white guy with a good job and book contracts thinks he is the victim of racism because his working-class Latino neighhor resents him says much about your conception of race and racism. (BTW, I am also white and well-educated and live in a predominately Latino neighborhood.)

    You obviously don’t see yourself as a member of the elite and having privilege, which is my biggest beef. You criticize McMansion dwellers for having no connection with the community, yet you want your OWN neighborhood to comply with your conception of community. And how is that accomplished . . . forcing people out of the community by regulating how they live in their homes. What a bizarre idea of community to live there for less than two years, and be at the forefront of regulating neighbors out of their homes so more people who share your idea of “community” will move in. You might as well live in Plano.

    A couple of points

    don’t care what race my neighbors are, as long as they show respect to the neighborhood by caring for their property.

    did it occur to you that maybe your neighhors can’t afford to care for their property at the level necessary to comply with your new regulations? What are you doing to help your poor neighbors, besides regulating them?

    Even H., our Latina neighbor, told me yesterday that back before gentrification began, you couldn’t even sit on your front porch for fear of violent crime.

    Gentrification does reduce crime because it brings white people into the neighborhood. Did it occur to you that the police ignored the neighborhood because it was mostly non-white people? That crime goes hand in hand with poverty? That race and poverty and crime are interconnected?

    On a deeper, religious level, one wonders whether the spiritual sense of community should include forcing people to move out when they won’t comply with the expectations. That’s my problem with gentrification in general. It may improve communities in the ways you have described, but it descimates communities at the same time. Nice houses are great, but if no one has lived there for more than five years because the long-time neighbors have been forced out, what kind of community is that.

    In a true community, wouldn’t we try to make it easier for people of different races and economic backgrounds to coexist. Wouldn’t community involve helping neighbors instead of zoning them out?

  • Rod Dreher

    Michael: “Rod, the fact that you feel so uncomfortable about race really underscores the problem. That a well educated, white guy with a good job and book contracts thinks he is the victim of racism because his working-class Latino neighhor resents him says much about your conception of race and racism.”

    Michael, I don’t claim to be a “victim” of anything, but I do know that the Latino family that lives two doors down has refused to talk to us at all since we moved into the neighborhood. I find it hard to believe that if white people treated a new Latino family on the block with such discourtesy, you would excuse it. Anyway, I don’t care if that family can’t be bothered to talk to me, but they have done nothing to make common cause with any of the neighbors on the block. And somehow I’m supposed to feel guilty because they’ve chosen to act like jerks? Sorry, not me.

    Michael again: “You obviously don’t see yourself as a member of the elite and having privilege, which is my biggest beef. You criticize McMansion dwellers for having no connection with the community, yet you want your OWN neighborhood to comply with your conception of community. And how is that accomplished … forcing people out of the community by regulating how they live in their homes. What a bizarre idea of community to live there for less than two years, and be at the forefront of regulating neighbors out of their homes so more people who share your idea of “community” will move in. You might as well live in Plano.”

    Well, look, in some way I am part of an elite, simply by the fact that I have a college degree. The regulations that have been proposed for the neighborhood, though, would not require the people who live there to change their houses. It would only require them to meet certain guidelines if they wanted to change their houses henceforth. This is being done to prevent what’s already happening in the neighborhood — outside developers coming in, buying up old houses that aren’t even in bad shape, taking them down and putting up giant modern houses. Without this protection, the only neighborhood of its kind architecturally in the entire city would be gone in a matter of years. And these families would still be forced out, either by having offers made that the couldn’t refuse, or by not being able to afford the property taxes (which might yet be a problem for them under the current preservation situation, but one way or another, this neighborhood is changing rapidly, because moneyed people want to buy these houses and this land).

    I agree with you that gentrification does pose challenges to community integrity and the meaning of community. But let’s try to move this discussion forward: is there any way to maintain the total stasis of a neighborhood in a free-market society, if such a thing were desirable? When we lived in Brooklyn, the Carroll Gardens neighborhood just south of our own was an island of Italians that resisted gentrification for a long time, in part because Italians would only sell to other Italians (some of the older ones would talk about how they kept out blacks and Puerto Ricans using the same strategy with which they were then trying to keep out yuppies). But they’re losing to the yuppies, because their kids are all living in the suburbs, and are happy to sell mom and dad’s old place to moneyed Manhattanites. Is this bad? I don’t think so. In some ways it’s sad — the “local color” that makes the neighborhood so lively and desirable stands to be gentrified out — but what’s the alternative, aside from telling people, “You can’t live here because you are the wrong class and/or color”?

  • tmatt

    ceemac:

    What you said!

    Michael:

    Have you noticed that Rod is addressing your basic points and you are ignoring his? Also, are you basically anti-communitarian (is that the hot word on the left?)….

  • Michael

    I haven’t the slightest idea what an anti-communitarian is. Given you ascribe the phrase to the left, I’m assuming it’s something you don’t give much credence to.

    And truthfully, I’m not sure what Rod’s basic points are. I thought they were McMansion-types are self-involved and lack a commitment to the community and tradition. I would agree with that.

    He then implied there was something noble in maintaining a community and that there was something almost spiritual in preserving traditional architecture. I would agree with that.

  • Rod Dreher

    To go back to the beginning of this thread…

    I generally support those forces who wish to maintain the architectural integrity of neighborhoods, over and against what I consider a predatory McMansion ethic, such as is rampant in Dallas. If you drive through the M Streets neighborhood not far from me, you’ll see massive new houses that look like Hulk Hogan trying to squeeze into the middle seat in coach. The mentality represented by people who build such houses strikes me as: screw you people who live here in these modest houses, I’m going to build the biggest thing I can. Ceemac, through whose neighborhood I happened to drive yesterday, talks about how the thing he likes about his neighborhood is how middle-class families who like street life and to work in their yard live there — but the McMansion scrape-and-build people are moving in and altering the neighborhood in what he considers to be negative ways. As a matter of principle, I don’t see what’s wrong with Ceemac and his neighbors binding together to use the laws to regulate that.

    In the case of my own neighborhood, the rampant crime and decay that existed there prior to gentrification was resulting in the permanent loss of a unique and irreplaceable architectural treasure for Dallas. Gentrification is saving it — though at the expense, arguably, of the poor and working-class people who moved there when it was a slum. These neighbors of ours are good family people, and H. told me yesterday how much nicer it is to be able to sit on your porch and use the sidewalks again. My best guess is that they no longer feel like they belong in this neighborhood. That is unfortunate, because this is a mixed-race neighborhood (trending white) where everyone seems to get along fine. The move to get “conservation district” status actually promotes community cohesion, because it mandates certain standards agreed upon by a majority of the community for the construction of new housing there.

    Now, it is probably the case that if this neighborhood were still predominantly working-class Hispanic, this wouldn’t be an issue. For whatever reason, that these are historically significant houses does not seem to be important to those folks. As far as I can tell, Michael, you find it an act of racist, classist hostility that middle class white people are moving in, buying these houses, and restoring them. I think you’re wrong, and wonder what you would say to the middle-class black family who moved in four doors down from us a couple of summers ago. Are they incorrect in terms of race and class too?

    (Oh, and on another point of yours — the Catholic parish for this neighborhood, St. Thomas Aquinas, is in the fancier part of the area, and they have always had an active St. Vincent de Paul ministry for the poor. Until we left the parish, we would always direct our tithe to the St. Vincent de Paul. So I’m afraid your stereotype of what white middle-class churches will do and won’t do doesn’t hold.)

  • Michael

    We are agreed on McMansions.

    Our dispute is over gentrification. While I believe that neighborhoods improve and become more liveable and are an important economic (and social and architectural and spiritual) engines, all of that comes at a significant cost. The cost is to the fabric of the existing neighborhood.

    You say that and your neighbors get along, but you don’t. You have neighbors not speaking to you and neighbors moving out. That’s not “getting along,” that’s hostility. Unquestionably, you and your fellow gentifiers get along and maybe things will end up being fine, but right now your neighborhood is in transition and, arguably, in crisis.

    You have a middle-class value on having a neat home and living in an aesthetically interesting community. By your tone, you appear dismissive of those poorer neighbors who don’t walk their dogs and mow their lawn and paint their shutters. I guess what I don’t hear–and what I find the most frustrating–is much understanding and empathy for the lives of your neighbors. You want them to be like you, and seem unwilling to view things from their perspective. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things neat and tidy, but have you considered there maybe reasons why they don’t mow their lawn or walk their dog. Maybe they work three jobs (likely cleaning your office and parking your car) and don’t have the time. Maybe they don’t have the money to fill the lawnmower with gasoline.

    I wish more people cared as much about urban neighborhoods as you do and I admire your concern about the way you live your life and the values you espouse. The fact that you don’t want to live in a McMansion in Plano or near the Freeway is really commendable.

    But just as I tell my liberal do-gooder friends who move into gentrified neighborhoods, they have a responsibility to try to maintain the reason they sought out those urban neighborhoods to begin with. My liberal friends say they like the “diversity,” but then complain about the Fried Chicken store on the corner where kids hang out or try to stop the local Bodega from selling beers by the single bottle. They want diverstiy, but they want it on their terms.

    Being an urban pioneer is noble and good, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have responsibilties.

    As I said in an earlier post, you are absolutely correct that neighborhoods ebb and flow. The difference, of course, is that as someone with privilege, you are always going to ride those ebbs and flows to your advantage. Poor people, however, get swept under by ebbs and flows and rarely gain from them.

    Ironically, you want to make this into more of a race issue than I do. I view these conflicts from the lens of privilege (a very Christian perspective, actually). A Black middle-class family gentrifying the neighborhood and forcing poor people of another race out would be just as guilty of ignoring their privilege.

  • Rod Dreher

    Michael: “You say that and your neighbors get along, but you don’t. You have neighbors not speaking to you and neighbors moving out. That’s not ‘getting along,’ that’s hostility.”

    Understand we are talking about two households on the block: the Perezes and the Lopezes (not their real names). The Perezes are the folks who live right next to us, and we’ve always gotten along with them. We’ve exchanged food at the holidays, let the Perez grandkids use our computers, and so forth. That’s why we were surprised to hear that they were moving. We had no idea they were unhappy, and frankly, I think that the Perezes have mixed motives for leaving (that is, Mrs. Perez’s telling me yesterday that they wanted a place where they had room for their grandkids to play outside; but she told my wife earlier that she resented the possibility that imposing a conservation district on the neighborhood will limit their ability to do what they want with their house).

    The Lopezes, whose house is well-kept (as, for that matter, is the Perezes), are a different matter. I don’t know what motivates them. They are the ones who have been openly hostile. I find it interesting that you assume that the mysterious hostility from the Lopez family is somehow justified. Do you not allow for the possibility that they might be in the wrong here, and that at least their rudeness and unwillingness to be the least bit neighborly is discreditable?

    Anyway, this is way more detail than I’m sure anybody wants or needs. I only bring it up to show the hazards of generalizing.

    Michael: “You have a middle-class value on having a neat home and living in an aesthetically interesting community. By your tone, you appear dismissive of those poorer neighbors who don’t walk their dogs and mow their lawn and paint their shutters. I guess what I don’t hear—and what I find the most frustrating—is much understanding and empathy for the lives of your neighbors. You want them to be like you, and seem unwilling to view things from their perspective. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things neat and tidy, but have you considered there maybe reasons why they don’t mow their lawn or walk their dog. Maybe they work three jobs (likely cleaning your office and parking your car) and don’t have the time. Maybe they don’t have the money to fill the lawnmower with gasoline.”

    That was actually the case with the Anglo neighbors on our other side, and my wife and I saw to it that they got what they needed (we gave them a lawnmower, and they take good care of their yard). Both the Latino families take care of their yards, and their houses aren’t junky. There’s not a big difference between their houses and others on the block. Honestly. The only time you can discern a noticeable cultural difference is during holiday times, when Mrs. Perez decorates her lawn a lot more colorfully than others. But again, who cares? Nobody complains.

    So I’m left to wonder what exactly you’re expecting me to empathize with. That these folks perhaps despise the fact that white middle-class people are moving into the neighborhood and stinking up the place with their neat lawns and well-kept houses? That more middle class families of whatever ethnicity are not doing the usual thing and lighting out for the suburbs, but are instead choosing to make a go of it in the inner city? This is bad?

    In the end, I can’t escape the conclusion that you want me to hate myself for having the unmitigated gall to be a white middle-class person. If I’d chosen to move my family to the suburbs, you might well have condemned us for “escaping” the city and its diversity.

  • Michael

    In the end, I can’t escape the conclusion that you want me to hate myself for having the unmitigated gall to be a white middle-class person.

    And in the end, I can’t escape the conclusion you feel comfortable criticizing conservatives who don’t share your “crunchy” values–which you consider more enlightened and spiritual–but aren’t willing to consider your values may be potentially suspect when viewed through a different lens.

    Race and class and privilege are complicated things. In the end, I’m sure you think I am operating out of white, liberal guilt. If you asked me, I would say I was operating out of being a good Christian. Just as you question that McMansion ethos and what it means to be conservative and a Christian, I question the gentrification ethos and what it means to being a good citizen and a Christian. That doesn’t mean that I won’t someday be a gentrifier. I just hope it means that when I gentrify, I will help maintain the character of the community beyond the buildings and consider the implications of my decisions on my new neighhors.

  • Christopher

    I realize that it is a bit late to be getting into this discussion, but I have what may be a more practical question: is there an acceptable way to ensure that poorer and/or minority families will not be financially forced out by the increase in property values (and the corresponding increase in property taxes) which accompanies gentrification? Would it be feasible to grandfather them in at what the level of property taxes was when they purchased their homes? I realize that this might be viewed as a problematic suggestion (facing many of the same problems as rent control, and affecting the funding of local civil services), and am only tossing it out as a hypothetical suggestion. Just trying to advance the discussion in what I hope is a more productive direction.

    Gentrification has its benefits, as well as its disadvantages (the latter suffered principally by the previous residents of a neighborhood, who are most often poor and/or minority). Rather than casting accusations about racism, privilege, narrow-mindedness, etc., perhaps we might rather start thinking about minimally-restrictive and minimally-problematic ways to alleviate these disadvantages. The tax (and insurance?) issue should be a major one for both people concerned with the downside of gentrification and those who are concerned about sub/exurban sprawl, which I presume has a similar effect on neighboring farmers.

  • Rod Dreher

    Well, I’m sure nobody is reading this anymore, but this is the first time I’ve been able to look at this thread in days. I only want to add that the day might well come when the property values in my neighborhood become so great, or the character of the neighborhood changes so dramatically, that my family and I no longer want to stick it out there. Would the government be justified in stacking the deck to keep middle-income white yuppies in the neighborhood? I don’t think so. The only thing being “preserved” in that case would be our presence in the neighborhood, and I sure don’t want the government to be in the business of deciding which ethnic groups it wishes to subsidize. Our neighbors are moving in part because they don’t want to submit to the restrictions designed to limit the way they can alter their historic house. The intention of this restriction is to preserve the unique and historically important architecture of the neighborhood. If a bunch of black and Hispanic folks who accept that this is an important value wish to move in, great!


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