Monday, January 29, 2007

Big house a symbol of an American tragedy

I often wonder just as the author of this article has, why is that there are more $million dollar condo being built in Buckhead and Midtown, but no mixed or affordable income units. Why do we have to have so many extrodanary place but the average joe is forced out. I have never been a fan of the Mc Mansion and have never been able to understand why a couple or even a famliy of 4 needs a 5 bedroom, 3 bath, 9800 square foot home on a postage stamp lot. It just goes to show you how out of whack American's values are today compare to thier parents or grand parents for that matter.


Big house a symbol of an American tragedy

It sits on top of a hill, overlooking a busy road -- a big, pink stucco house that dwarfs all the houses around it. It is conspicuous consumption at its worst, or at its best, depending on your point of view.

It's not the biggest house around. There are many bigger -- one just a few miles from where I live, not on top of a hill but practically on the offramp of a highway.

So many smaller houses have been knocked down to make room for these Goliaths. This is called progress.

I don't understand who lives in these massive homes or who can afford them. And generally I don't care. But the other day I did. I was driving to Boston and saw this house set above the others, all pomp and puffery, just a blink away from a city where the working poor live in flats, and it struck me -- as it hasn't in a long, long time, because I am inured, because I see what I want to see -- that we are going in the wrong direction in this country; that the gap between the rich and the poor is a great divide and it is not pretty, no matter what your political beliefs.

My parents grew up poor in Cambridge during the Great Depression. Most of Cambridge was poor then, Harvard and Harvard Square just down the road but a galaxy away.

My father fought a war instead of finishing high school. My mother quit school to support her family. When she married my father, she borrowed her wedding dress. To save money, they lived first with his mother, then with hers. After I was born, they moved to the projects, and then to a three-decker in Somerville.

My mother never read me fairy tales, but she told me stories. My favorite was about her "house in the country," where we would live someday, where there would be trees and a big back yard and every room would have a window where you could look out at the sky.

The summer I was 6, she bought ceramic ducks at Woolworth's for her "house in the country," that she said were for her front lawn.

"But we don't have a front lawn," I reminded her. "Oh, but we will," she promised.

And we did. With a GI loan and a $500 down payment, she got her lawn and her house and her dream.

It was small, an unfinished Cape, and there was no grass at first, not until my father planted it. But the grass grew fast and soon those ducks were strutting across that new lawn as if they had always belonged.

My parents paid $10,000 for that house. It was 1954. The average cost of a home then was $10,250.

It wasn't grand. It sat on a dirt road. It had a dirt driveway, one bathroom, no breeze way, no garage, no fireplace, no family room, and none of the high-end things that people expect today. But we could sing at the top of our lungs and tap dance at midnight if we wanted to because there was no one living downstairs or upstairs, and there was no landlord anymore.

That house was a castle.

It would be a castle to millions of people, still. But there aren't any humble houses like this anymore, at least not at a price that people without money can afford in neighborhoods where they would be happy to raise their kids.

My parents wouldn't make it today -- not without an education, not without family to help them. And that's the big difference between then and now. Then you could work hard and work your way up. Now, you can work hard your whole life and never get ahead.

This is an American tragedy.

I live in a town that has million-dollar houses. And yet our schoolchildren have to pay to ride the school bus, to play school sports, to participate in school plays, to play in the school band, to take part in any extracurricular activities. Our library might be forced to cut back its hours. This isn't unique to my town. It's happening across the state.

The United States has more billionaires than anywhere in the world, and yet children have to pay to get to school. And millions live on the street. And millions more live in slums.

"It's remarkable how little growth has trickled down to ordinary families," economist Paul Krugman wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine.

A stucco house high on a hill. I wonder: Does it represent hope or despair?

Beverly Beckham can be reached at She reads and talks about her columns in her weekly podcast at

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