Monday, June 7, 2010

Why are suburban houses so huge?

If our homes were smaller, we could do one of two things: we could build them for far less money, or we could build them for the same money and far more elegantly and substantially. The first would allow millions of lower-income Americans to own homes that are truly within their reach (the old rule of thumb used to be that your house should cost 2.5 times your annual salary -- but a young working couple making $80K between them would be limited to a $200,000 home, and that just ain't happening in or near Boston). The second would increase our emotional delight and also put less crap into the waste stream when the suburban slums start to come apart in thirty years and shed their vinyl and fiberglass and aluminum all across the landscape.

But then I think about what I'm looking for in a house, and one of the criteria is that it has to be big enough to hold a full sized Brunswick Gold Crown tournament pool table. That means a room that's at minimum 20'x15', and there's a tenth of my McMansion right there. So I'm also guilty, guilty, guilty.

So why do I need a pool table? Because if I live in a suburb or a rural edge, there's no community anywhere around me to go play pool. I played for three years at Sacco's Bowl Haven in Somerville, which was as close to a second family as I've had in years. It was in the midst of Davis Square, easy to get to and easy to walk out for half an hour and get Chinese food between matches. But they closed (that's how I bought my Gold Crown, lying in pieces in my basement), and now I have to drive 45 minutes out to Peabody and past eight car dealerships and two strip clubs and the twin Dunkin Donuts exactly across from one another on opposite sides of the 50 mph divided highway, and go down the driveway behind the car wash and the porn store and under the Japanese restaurant, and park next to the dumpster. So I play once every couple of weeks instead of three times a week, and I suck again.

The suburb, with its physical distances and its single-use zoning, has kept us from having a lot of public social amenities that we could share -- taverns, cafes, pool rooms, bookstores, music venues, little theaters, on and on. The kinds of things we take for granted in good cities. Instead, I need my own movie screen, and my own pool table, and my own wet bar, and it doesn't take long to get up to just plain huge. And if I'm going to build a 3,000 square-foot house and not have it cost millions, I have to build it about as well as the WalMart junk I'm going to put into it. (Because of course the argument also applies for furniture, clothing, fast food, and all other consumer goods; if I want a lot of it, and I want to be able to afford a lot of it, then it's mostly going to be made really, really badly.)

It's not about wanting less. I know that's unAmerican. But it's about wanting something better -- better for us socially, better for us economically, better for us environmentally.

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