Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Same Boat

At some point in the past year, I decided that it was time for me to put apartment living behind me, and try to start owning a house. I don’t know why it came over me. It had something to do with approaching my most recent birthday, and realizing that I was now indisputably in my “late twenties.” Not only, to my horror, was I not nineteen any more, I wasn’t twenty-five any more either, or even twenty-seven. Then there was the fact that such a good percentage of my close friends seemed to be getting married or finding long-term partners this year. I felt the need for some equally indisputable outward signifier that I, too, was able to transition into the world of adulthood and responsibility.

Plus, it felt time to make good on my lifelong standing threat to my family to buy a giant breed Newfoundland dog, whom I plan to name Yofi. My parents gave me a lot of compelling advice about why this would not be a good idea while I was still living in an apartment, so there was only one logical solution – find a bigger container. One that could fit a Yofi.

The analogy to marriage ended up being more apt than I had imagined. At one point in the months-long process of finding, financing, and closing on a place, I was overcome with physical exhaustion and laid down – as I always do when I need to sleep during the day – full-length and clothed on the carpet of my floor. I don’t know why, but the moment I woke up, I was overcome with the worst case I have ever experienced of cold feet.

“Help! I’m freaking out,” I told my sister, who was the first person I could get on the phone. “I don’t think I can go through with this!”

“Yes you can,” she said. “You still love it. It still loves you. And it will give you space to get a Yofi.”

Yes, yes, and it would give me stability, and shorten the commute, and all these other reasons why this had seemed like a good idea in the first place. The underlying emotional impetus behind this plan started to come back to me.

By the time the paperwork had all been signed and the day had actually come to move in, I knew I was through the worst of it. I had finally closed. It was sunny. It was bright. The clouds from the previous New England week of blizzard and rain had all cleared. It also happened to be the weekend of my birthday, and Martin Luther King Day, so I invited my sister and her husband up for the Saturday to help me move in and enjoy the new place. We were all on track for a perfect day.

The only thing, I thought, as I pulled into the street – the one memory dampening my mood, as it were – was something my next door neighbor had said to me a couple nights before, when we had first met. “Just so you know,” she said, with the anxious look of the bearer of bad but necessary tidings. “We’re at the bottom of a hill here. We just had a big snow dump, then a big melt and a rain storm.” I wasn’t following. “So I’d be careful about that lower level of yours.”

Oh, I saw, she was referring to the possibility of flooding. But that would never happen, surely. Because it would be too horrible. It would be too utterly awful and ruinous a thing to find on one’s first day moving into a new home – the first significant purchasing decision you’d ever made in your entire life.

As much as I tried to push the thought away, however, it did come back as I was pulling into that new street. I did see in my mind’s eye a vision of that immaculate lower level, buried now beneath a pool of water. But I shook my head – no, not possible.

I opened the front door, ran some water, went to the bathroom, just generally went over the place reassuring myself that everything was in working order. Then I opened the door to the basement and headed down the stairwell.

When I reached the bottom and turned on the lights, there, staring back at me, was my reflection. I looked. It gazed back at me. There was ever so slight a ripple. It had actually happened. There were about two inches of pure, clear standing melt water, covering the entire length of the floor.

You know how when you drop and break something infinitely precious and irreplaceable, like an heirloom or a Thai food delivery, you always stand there for a moment afterward just staring at it, not really believing that it happened, and that’s it’s irreversible? You think -- it must be possible to just rewind the relentless march of time by a mere thirty seconds, so you can have a do-over -- is that too much to ask?

It felt like that. I looked at my face in the pool of water and thought – there’s no way this is real. It’s too much exactly like what I was just been picturing to myself nightmarishly in the car.

If ever there was a time when I’ve been persuaded to accept the New Age axiom that strong mental visualizations have the power to make themselves true, this was it.

I called my sister and her husband, who were just pulling in the side street. I offered what seemed a rational assessment of the situation. “One of the ten worst things that has ever happened to me just happened,” I said.

“Oh my God!” said my sister.

My brother-in-law leapt out of the car as soon as it was parked and charged through the front door and down the stairs. “This is a joke!” he said, his pants legs rolled up in seconds, his bare feet wading into the human aquarium that my basement had become. “This is a sick joke!”

My brother-in-law, fortunately, is the person you want to already be on his way over in the event of finding two unexpected inches of standing water on your new floor. He is the handy one. I have overheard and failed to comprehend many a conversation between him and my dad about subjects ranging from grout to shellacking, and while I don’t know what either of those is, I understand they have something to do with houses. As I saw him tearing open the compartment that contained the sump pump, his sleeves and pant legs rolled up, I had the comforting image in my head of Han Solo racing through the Millennium Falcon, shouting to Chewbacca, “Bring me my hydro-spanner!”

My sister and I cleared out to get the wet/dry vac from Home Depot. We then spent the next several hours trying to suck up all the water in the basement, only to see it continually seeping back in again, up through the floor itself. We were, in effect, fighting a losing battle against the rise of the city’s water table.

When we had finally got it to a point where it was better than it was – though still soaking wet – we went upstairs to eat the pizza we had ordered about an hour before -- in better and more hopeful times. It was an uninspiring meal, without much conversation.

After a great deal of silent chewing, I expressed the inevitable thought. “What on earth have I done?” I said. “What was I thinking? As of yesterday I was living a perfectly decent life in an apartment. I was happy there. Why did I think anything needed to change? I have introduced a new, enormous, utterly unnecessary complication into my life. And now there’s no way out.”

“Yes, all of this is true,” said my sister. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Her and my brother-in-law's way of ultimately reassuring me was counterintuitive, but it worked. They told me about all of the suffering they had gone through with their house in Providence. They reminded me about the pet hedgehog, the mouse infestation, the flies in the kitchen, the enormous hole in their upstairs shower that had led them to drape a plastic tarp across the whole length of their living room that would channel all the leaking water down, in a vast funnel, to a slop bucket beneath. All of these things, while chilling indicators of what might be to come, nevertheless helped to normalize my disaster. I wasn’t the first to have water in his basement, and I wouldn’t be the last.

Seeking more of this helpful commiseration over the following days and weeks, I turned to literature. My soul drew me toward the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, whose work has had something of a revival in the last couple years, thanks to a recent-ish Hermione Lee biography of the author.

The reason Fitzgerald appealed to me especially at this junction were the circumstances of her life, which somehow seemed suddenly -- if indirectly -- resonant with mine. For decades, her every waking hour had been taken up with providing for her children, living on a houseboat on the Thames and public council flats, and dealing with a rather unreliable, occasionally check-forging husband who had lost his law license. It was only after her kids were grown and her domestic responsibilities abated somewhat that she was able to start publishing, around the age of sixty. A vast and sudden flowering of literary effervescence was the result.

None of these are things that I have done, so I should probably explain the feeling of connection. You see, my deepest fear – indeed, my first thought – upon glimpsing the water in the basement in those ghastly first moments had been: Well, now I’ll obviously never write anything ever again. Not a word. Not a syllable. From this moment forward, I will only ever be a person who works on fixing his house. Nothing more. At least for the next several decades. 

Penelope Fitzgerald’s life story -- in which a throbbing literary talent was for so long stymied by the necessities of sheer survival and parenthood -- didn’t reassure me that this was not in fact going to be my fate. But she did represent the hope that one’s ideas, even if pent-up and unexpressed for a while, will not ultimately be lost. They can be saved up inwardly for years, before erupting from one’s pen later in life. In short, Fitzgerald’s example suggests that it is not too late.

In particular, I was drawn to Fitzgerald’s early novel, Offshore (1979) which she wrote about the years she spent living with her children on a boat on the Thames (which eventually sank). In this novel, we find ourselves among a variety of semi-bohemian drifters, living at the margins of society. There is Nenna, mother of two. There is Maurice, a good-natured if ineffectual gigolo on the boat next door.

As boat people, none of them are ever wholly their own, any more. They are, as it were, anchored. They are attached to a large object that owns them as much as they own it. As Fitzgerald describes the feelings of the boat owners upon realizing that the tide is about to come in, "[A]n uneasy shudder passed through all those sitting round the table. For the next six hours [...] they would be living not on land, but on water. And each one of them felt the patches, strains and gaps in their craft as if they were weak places in their own bodies. They dreaded, and were yet painfully anxious, to get back and see whether the last caulking had given way." (p. 6) This seemed, in a strange way, to be what my own life -- overnight -- had become.

One of the other characters in the novel is Willis, the owner of a boat called Dreadnought, who is busy trying to sell his current vessel so as to put aside a modest sum for retirement. The trouble is that the boat has an enormous leak in the floor and ceiling which fills daily either with the incoming tide water or from the precipitation above. So Willis resorts to various measures to sell this craft, including showing it only at low tide, meekly suggesting to his friends that they at least not go out of their way to mention the leak to prospective buyers, and standing under the ceiling hole with a large hat on whenever it rains.

Willis is frequently chided and advised by the more upstanding Richard Blake, an ex-navy man, for his deviations from the norms of perfect honesty. He can't understand why Willis doesn’t simply fix up the boat, install pumps to remove the water, patch up the leak, and otherwise make it presentable.

Although in real life I was perhaps rather more in the position of Willis’ prospective buyers than of Willis himself -- having just bought a water-logged Dreadnought of my own -- in my imagination and sympathies, I identified with Willis. I was suddenly living with a vast encumbrance of which I could not honorably dispose. And the periodic rising water in the basement was not the only thing. There was also the water heater. There was the cable wiring. For everything that worked in the new place, there was something else that didn’t.

My Dad, in this scenario, was Richard Blake. The news of the flooding in my basement unleashed from him a deluge of sound advice. “My only advice to you," he would say -- though it was never in fact the only advice -- "would be to get these things taken care of sooner rather than later." And, "Have you called the contractor yet?”

You see, my Dad is aware of – and trying to preempt – a certain tendency in me to just let things be. Like my new water heater, for one, which stops functioning and must be reset every time one takes a shower. Every morning, it has simply become part of my routine to start the water running and, toothbrush still hanging from my mouth, in various states of semi-dress, to descend the stairs into the cold and at times soggy basement to reset the water heater, then run back while the heat is on to take my turn through the shower.

This is, in the ordinary sense of the word, an inconvenience. But it is not quite inconvenient enough to rise to the level where I might actually do something about it. The cost of bothering to do something still seems higher than not.

As a kid, I think I spent probably the majority of the years of my childhood wearing shoes that were either awkwardly too big or painfully too small for my feet, because this seemed a fine price to pay, to my mind, for getting the hideous chore of shoe shopping over with more quickly. Driving in my car on summer break from college, one time, my dad noticed that my clock was off. “Oh, that’s nothing,” I said, “You just deduct 17 minutes from whatever it says on the dash.” It hadn’t occurred to me that this would sound funny. It made perfect sense to my mind, and was obviously far preferable to having to figure out or remember how to reset the thing.

In this tendency as well, I find a kindred soul in the fictional Willis. With my Dad again being rather a Richard. Writes Fitzgerald:
“Richard suggested that the intervening time [before Willis concludes the sale] could well be spent in replacing pumps and pump-wells, and certain sections of the hull. It was difficult for him to realise that [in Willis] he was dealing with a man who had never either physically or emotionally felt the need to replace anything. […] He had come to doubt the value of all new beginnings and to put his trust in not much more than the art of hanging together. […] Tinkering about with the old boat would almost certainly be the end of her. He remembered the last time he had been to see the dentist. [...] But when the dentist announced that it was urgently necessary to extract two teeth Willis had got up and walked away, glad that he hadn’t taken off his coat and so would not have to enter into any further discussion while he recovered it from the waiting-room. If one goes, he thought, still worse two, they all go.” (69-70)
Now, don't get me wrong. This aversion on my and Willis' part to fixing things is more than mere laziness, though it may appear that way to the fathers and the Richards of the world. No, the horror of repairing things is not based in a fear of work.

The writer in me has actually always rather enjoyed chores, so long as they are mindless and routine. This allows one to be productive without having to think, which operates as a kind of publicly-sanctioned license to daydream. One can have a podcast going, or simply be alone with one’s thoughts, when one is folding laundry or washing dishes (well, who am I kidding – I don’t fold my laundry – but stuffing it in the drawer, at any rate), in a way that would feel self-indulgent and corrupt in the absence of these occupations. Recent hours spent putting together IKEA bookcases while listening to audiobooks have been among the happiest of my life.

As a kind of legitimized mental procrastination, then, housework is priceless. When one is desperately in need of giving up on an intellectual task, it offers a self-exonerating way out. As Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière memorably describes this under-appreciated cure for writer’s block: “Three hours later, the page as white as ever, I decide to clean house (sweeping, cleaning, the dishes) as proof that genius can express itself in a variety of ways.” (Homel trans.)

No, it’s not the sudden influx of housework that I dread. If the place belonged to someone else, I’d happily put some headphones in and wet/dry vacuum the floor all evening. The fear is rather for the responsibility of it. It’s the fact that it is up to me, and me alone.

I suddenly felt lonely. I had been left alone with a problem, and I was the only one there to fix it. (I quickly made up my mind to extend the timeline I had given myself for purchasing the giant breed Newfoundland dog. One problem at a time.)

This is what makes me want to pull a Willis. This is what makes me want to proceed each day on the hope and the assumption that somehow things will see to themselves, and the water heater will be okay so long as I do nothing.

It’s funny, since the whole point of this home purchase, of course, had been to take on new responsibilities. To behave more like a grown-up. At the outset, I had been dizzy with the freedom of this resolution – the fact that I was able, for the first time in my life, to decide things. Did I want to start owning the place I live? I could. I was an adult. I had a job in a particular place. I had a daily routine that looked like it was set to last for some time. Why not settle on a permanent place of residence?

Now that I had gotten here, however, I wanted out. Being more responsible had revealed the enormous hidden cost that it required responsibilities. Abort! Abort! Let’s go back to the way things were – back to being the youngest child, please, and more or less having things decided for me. As Nenna daydreams of such a solution, from her perch on the houseboat, "Nenna, giving way a little, let herself imagine what it would be like to be on Richard's staff, and to be directed in everything else by [her older sister] Louise, and to ebb and flow without volition[.]"

I remembered what my sister had said, the day when I had called her in my panic of cold feet about closing on the house. “You still want the place,” she had said.

“But,” I protested, “I’ll be locked in! I’ll be so much less mobile! I can’t go live in Chicago next year. Or Charlottesville!” I didn’t have plans, exactly, to live in either of those places. But I wanted to have the possibility of making such plans.

“This is just the downside of every decision,” said my sister. “When you decide one thing, you are deciding against the other alternatives. At least for now. It's not like you can't ever get out of it. But it becomes harder.”

This hadn’t really occurred to me.

I recalled a conversation I once had with a professor in college about my next steps in my career. I said that I was thinking about a PhD, but maybe also about law school or divinity school. (There were five other things after that, but I forget what they were.) “The thing is, I’d prefer to not just commit myself to one thing,” I explained to her.

“Well,” she replied, “that's just called adult life.” Her answer astonished me. I really hadn’t expected this. I thought it was self-evident that you didn’t have to commit, that it was in fact far and away the wisest choice – the mature choice – not to do so.

This was perhaps the subtler reason why I was drawn to Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel. Not just the fact that I suddenly felt myself to be living on a sort of houseboat of my own, with the waves lapping beneath the floorboards. But the fact that her characters are, as one of them remarks to the other, essentially finding themselves with commitments and yet still trying to flee from them. As the aforementioned gigolo Maurice says to Nenna in one scene, who struggles throughout the novel with the decision as to whether or not to try to track down her estranged husband and patch things up in their relationship:
“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination. When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can. If there’s even one person who might be hurt by a decision, you should never make it. They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.” (53-54)
So long as we haven’t actually done anything yet, the whole universe of conceivable action lies open before us. We can inhabit in our mind any number of possible futures, and they can be as lovely as we desire.

As Nenna says later in the novel, reflecting on her strange and persistent refusal to actual go see her husband in his rooms, despite her strong desire to reconcile with him: “[I]t was not for the expected reasons -- not pride, not resentment [.... I]t’s because it’s my last chance. While I’ve still got it I can take it out and look at it and know I still have it. If that goes, I’ve nothing left to try.” (104).

I recall the first summer I spent in my apartment after divinity school, back when I was still waiting for an answer from the internship I’d applied for, at the place I now work full-time. I would lie on my floor and stare at the ceiling in those three months, letting myself run away with the fantasy of working as a professional human rights advocate – a long-standing dream. It was also in that blissful summer of anticipation – perched on the morning of adulthood, the long night of theological education behind me – that I read George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical, and found there a particularly stirring and memorable passage. Even then, in the moments of splendor in the grass and glory in the flower, I felt it as a kind of premonition of my future:
Quick souls have their intensest life in the first anticipatory sketch of what may or will be, and the pursuit of their wish is the pursuit of that paradisiacal vision which only impelled them, and is left farther and farther behind, vanishing forever even out of hope in the moment which is called success.

Coupled with the deprivation of potential alternative futures, there was also a gnawing moral discomfort. I felt a loss of innocence.

I had been aware in a vague way before I bought the new place that the community I was moving into -- Somerville -- was in the process of being gentrified. I knew too that I fit the socio-cultural profile of the chief culprits -- Anglo-American "yuppies" who work in Cambridge. I don't think I'd realized until I moved in, however, just how directly and visibly I was part of the problem.

Of course, in the unique and highly quixotic class mythology of New England, my status is still relatively modest. In a recent history of civic participation in Somerville by a professor at Tufts, Susan A. Ostrander, Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City (2013), several of her Somervillean interview subjects insist that the city has preserved its "working class" identity, and that they themselves are "working class," even though it often turns out they are in fact lawyers, administrators, office workers and commuters. I was similarly told, when I first started a job in the leafy-green, lily-white suburb of Bedford, that it was a "working class community."

This statement relies on a series of definitions that were at first inaccessible to me, as an outsider, as they would be to most of us who grew up in other parts of the country. One discovers, however, that these places are "working class" in the Edith Wharton/House of Mirth sense that people there are actually working for a living. The implied contrast is with -- as one of Ostrander's subjects puts it -- "Newton, Wellesley, places like that, where there's [...] people who are independently wealthy and do not have to work[.]" So by New England standards, as a schlub who takes the train in each day, I too am "working class."

At the level of the brute economics of residence and displacement in the pan-U.S. urban housing crisis, however -- as opposed to East Coast fantasy -- I am contributing to the forces that are driving working class communities from their homes. I am a buyer for a unit on a former family residence that has been bought, gut-renovated, and resold as condos. If I am "working class," it is in the same sense as all those "good proletarian" party members who owned dachas in the midst of the 1930s Moscow housing shortage.

I went to the Somerville public library to check out Ostrander's book in hopes of educating myself about the community I had just joined. It quickly revealed to me that I was a justly suspect outsider -- that not only did I fit the precise profile of the people driving displacement, but that these forces were working much more quickly to fundamentally remake the city than I had realized before.

When I was starting Div school in 2013, Somerville was still known locally as the place to find relatively affordable student housing, once you could no longer pay the rent in Cambridge. That was also the year in which Ostrander's book was published, and while she devotes much space to the problem of displacement and rapidly mounting housing costs, the prices she gives for the most high-end units on the market are already dwarfed by the current figures.

I also learned that parts of the community I had regarded as long-standing faits accompli, such as the Assembly Square development -- home of the usual big box stores -- were actually relatively new additions. They were part of the city's decades-long drive to bring new jobs and commercial tax revenue to the area -- without which the city government could only cover its expenses by raising property taxes on residents with declining incomes. The ugly side of every new tax-generating development that Ostrander recounts in recent years, however -- Assembly Square, the planned new Green Line stop, various residential buildings in Davis and Union Squares -- is the skyrocketing property values and rent payments that follow.

There is a Hamlin Garland story from his Populist-era classic, Main-Travelled Roads (1891), that vividly portrays the predatory lending practices of the time to new homeowners in the rural Midwest. In these schemes, the total principal of a mortgage could apparently be adjusted upward after the original financing contract was signed, based on the increased value of the property. Thus, Garland's protagonist discovers -- at the very moment he thinks he is about to finally buy his way out of his mortgage -- that he must pay his creditor extra money for improvements that he has himself made -- and paid for -- on the property.

While this practice is no longer allowed -- to the best of my knowledge -- even in the at times morally dubious world of contemporary home financing, it occurs to me that it describes by analogy the perverse plight of the modern-day renter, in our economy. Every "improvement" in their surrounding community -- which they help to build, whether by working in the new big box store, by voting, by canvassing, by volunteering, etc. -- brings with it the enormous cost of higher rents and potentially at last of being pushed out of their homes. Like Garland's protagonist, they have to "pay twice-over" for every improvement in the value of the space they inhabit -- first by time and labor, secondly by money.  This makes every new and seemingly positive development for the city (a new public transit stop, a new corporate headquarters, etc.) into an impossible dilemma. As someone says at some point in Ostrander's book, speaking of the planned Green Line extension: "I'm excited by the idea that I could hop on the T every morning and go to work; but where am I going to live?"

The yuppie gentrifiers, meanwhile, contribute to the displacement simply by being willing and able to pay the higher rents or home prices, and thereby keeping them inflated. It would seem that I fit the profile perfectly of who these invaders might be, although I thought I was so distinctive: young, WASP, politically progressive, vaguely flattered with themselves for their decision to live someplace "funky" and "diverse" rather than stale and suburban.

Ostrander describes these yuppies/hipsters/etc. as one of the three main ethnic/political factions of contemporary Somerville, the other two being older white ethnic working class residents (Irish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Azorean), who still make up most of the political power structure in the city, and more recent working-class immigrant communities (Brazilian, Central American, Cape Verdean, Haitian) -- and I mean here actually working class.

There are occasional hints in Ostrander's book of a sort of vague alliance between the newer immigrant groups and the new Anglo middle class arrivals. Both are boxed out of the Irish/Italian governing class, both favor relatively progressive political candidates (though virtually everyone in this equation is a Democrat, of one stripe or another) as well as welcoming/sanctuary and other pro-immigrant policies, both are viewed as new-comers and outsiders. She quotes one Central American resident of Somerville who reflects, "it's a new wave of middle-class people moving into Somerville. A lot of them, not all of them, but a lot of them, are more open minded and receptive to who's here because they are being attacked too [for being] yuppies." (p. 78).

Many newer immigrant communities to Somerville, especially Black and Latino immigrants, we learn, faced in recent memory (the 1980s and even more recently) incidents of racially-motivated stalking, violence, and terrorism -- such as slashed tires, threatening phone calls, and physical attacks -- carried out with the intent of forcing them to leave town. This kind of outright displacement through violence has -- like the city's reputation for being a hotbed of organized crime (most famously being home to Whitey Bulger's "Winter Hill Gang" in the late twentieth century) -- abated in recent years, with the arrival of gentrification and the yuppie middle class. In this sense, the two groups have good reason to look upon one another as friends.

However, there is a kind of violence behind the economic displacement that the yuppies are driving too -- though subtler than the earlier cruelty and intimidation. Even if we are not likely to instigate racist assaults on our neighbors, and we vote for progressive candidates, we also do not baulk at paying the higher rents that may eventually force our neighbors to leave. As one of Ostrander's interviewees notes: "[A]s it gentrifies more and more... people think you have less chance of racism, but I think in time, you have a greater chance of it. Because what you do is begin to stratify economically, and when you stratify economically, you only have to look around to see who's got most of the money, and they continue to be white... Unless the city develops a plan [to] keep diversity in the city, economics eventually are just gonna win -- and [then] where do the immigrants go?" (p. 79)

As Claude McKay once wrote -- himself a Black Caribbean immigrant to a Northeastern megalopolis, speaking of these two types of racism, the overt/physical and the subtle/financial: "In Southern states distinctions that they draw/ Are clear like star shine in the firmament,/ But in the North we're equal under the law/ Which white men make their plans and circumvent./ What law can hold whites in a Northern street,/ When blacks move in? They flee as from the devil/As if God quickly energized their feet[.]'" (from "The Cycle," 1943).

We might amend and update McKay for the modern urban dilemma to say: what law can keep that street affordable, when whites move in? But the subtle violence of economics and law continues to operate on the same principles.


I knew all of this before, of course. I knew I had inherited various unearned privileges in a caste society. But these had always been due to things that had happened in the past, sometimes distantly so (slavery, redlining, the exclusion of black communities from most New Deal programs that thus represented a public investment in the long-term advantage of the white middle class, and on and on). I had not chosen those things. I grew up as a product of them, I couldn't change them now if I liked. I could thus still, as in Nenna's daydream, "ebb and flow without volition" -- the will-less state of blissful childhood -- without having to feel like I could make a difference to any of these deeper social forces.

To realize that I now could, and in fact actually had made a decision that was -- in admittedly a small way -- directly contributing to a contemporary and ongoing social injustice affecting my neighbors was a very different kettle of fish.

My first response to it was, once again, to want to pull a Willis. I thought perhaps I could flee from this ugly fact and it would go away.

The problem, however, is that one really cannot "ebb and flow without volition" when one is in a position of responsibility, at least not without hurting anyone. The reason one is able to do it in good conscience as a child is that one doesn't really have much of a choice in the matter. For an adult, however, there is no real option of living without volition. Because even if one were to try to do so, one has still made the choice of trying to do so. One has exercised one's volition in the attempt to get rid of it. One has used one's freedom to try to divest oneself of that freedom. Thus, in the moral sense of the word at least, one is still responsible. One is still to blame.

But as soon as one realizes this, one realizes over again why one actually wanted to be an adult in the first place -- why one strained, so long as one was still in it, against the reality of life as a will-less sponge, floating in the drift water: because now -- for the first time in your life -- you are actually in a position to do something about it! One is responsible for one's problems and one's sins. There is no one else to manage them for you. But, for this very reason, they do not hang over you as inevitable and tragic facts of life. You can actually wake up the next morning and work to alter them.

"Your decisions also allow you to do things you couldn't before," my sister had told me, on the night of cold feet. "And there are costs to not making them." Maturity may be “shades of the prison-house upon the growing boy," but, pace Wordsworth, it is not all that -- or if it is, it is not all a bad thing.


With the gradual return of energy and life-force, I found myself doing things I didn't realize I could do. I called the contractor. I got a dehumidifier for the basement that I empty daily. I charged down there with a wet/dry vac every time it rained and fought my lonely struggle with the elements.

And I looked up the schedule for city council hearings, and the local Affordable Housing Organizing Committee (AHOC) -- a Somerville community organizing powerhouse, according to Ostrander's telling.

I started asking colleagues who live in Somerville what initiatives they know of in the city that are working to beat back the tide of gentrification and displacement. If I was going to be cursed with adulthood and the capacity for making choices, I told myself, then damn it, I was really going to make them! I was not going to be the prisoner of sociology. I would not be condemned to vote for policies that lowered property taxes and raised home values, just because these benefitted me while harming my neighbors. I would vote for what I thought was just.

Somerville in this moment of its history has the terrifying responsibility and dizzying excitement of the fact that its destiny is not a fait accompli. It is not, as of now, as of 2018, a wholly gentrified city. It is still a working class community on the verge of change. What that change is and how it happens are still up for grabs.

And there are efforts underway to ensure that those changes, when they come, do not harm outcomes for lower-income residents. The city, I learned from asking around, actually has a fairly progressive "inclusionary zoning" ordinance on the books. Around 20% of new residential developments have to be affordable. This is more even than the exemplary housing ordinance of Montgomery County, MD, which Nikole Hannah-Jones cites in Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law as a model for how a formerly segregated community can manage to become racially integrated in a relatively short space of time (in keeping with the spirit and letter of the 1968 Fair Housing Act -- passed in the wake of Dr. King's assassination and inner city riots that erupted across the country). The Montgomery County ordinance designates that 15% of developments of more than 50 units (since lowered to 20) must be affordable. Writes Hannah-Jones: "From the standpoint of desegregation, Montgomery County has become a model of what could have been. Over three decades, its black population more than tripled to 18 percent. It remains one of the nation’s richest counties, yet segregation has fallen well below the national average."

If McKay asked rhetorically above, What law can hold whites in a Northern street,/ When blacks move in? and I followed it by asking: "what law can keep that street affordable, when whites move in?" we have here a law that can do perhaps both -- namely, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and various local ordinances that receive federal grants through it for creating more affordable housing.

The problem is that it needs to be enforced. HUD needs to actually condition federal grants on  whether or not local housing initiatives are "affirmatively furthering" racial integration (generally accomplished through access to affordable housing), as it is mandated to do under the Fair Housing Act. Hannah-Jones relates the manifold ways in which HUD has failed to do so, throughout its history, and there is of course little hope at present that the current federal administration means to improve on this record. Our current HUD secretary famously penned an editorial in 2015 denouncing the Fair Housing Act, which he is now in theory tasked with enforcing, as "social engineering." And our current President made his bones in the real estate world by operating --alongside his father -- a series of property developments so notoriously segregated that they were taken to court for it, and Woody Guthrie even felt compelled -- when he briefly lived at a Fred Trump property -- to pen a song denouncing the racism of "Old Man Trump."

Likewise, local governments with inclusionary zoning on the books, like Somerville, need to ensure that these laws actually have force. One of the hottest controversies in the city currently, I learned from a friend, is the fact that one of the new developments in Union Square is applying for a special permit to waive the city's affordable housing requirement.

It's hard to see the point of having an inclusive housing ordinance, if one can simply waive the requirement for the most significant new developments.


Making good on all of these laws requires that we actually do something. It forbids us the pleasure of fleeing from or ignoring the social iniquities in which we participate, or of fatalistically accepting them. They require us to act like responsible adults, that is, in our role as citizens.

Once we have got done bemoaning this fact, however, we can start to appreciate again its intoxicating freedom. We remember the positive side of why we wanted to solve problems to begin with -- the promise that, on the other side of the effort, those problems might actually be solved. We might actually have fewer of them. When the long struggle has come to an end, the leak might actually be patched. The basement might actually be dry. And our cities might actually be places where all classes and races and ethnicities of people can live and work, at prices they can afford.

No comments:

Post a Comment