August 05, 2007

When the mansions come, there goes the neighborhood.

I took a drive the other day through the suburb where I grew up and found myself, disoriented, on Teardown Avenue. Shrek-size edifices had replaced the modest homes of my youth. Venti-size movie sets — you couldn’t really call them “houses” — had changed the landscape not just of the town but of my memory as well.

A leafy lane of well-tended but unpretentious homes that had once seemed a comforting replica of a New England village was now a wild clash of fantasies.

One house was oversize Prairie School. Another was oversize Tudor. The next, a full-size British country house. No longer a residential street, the lane was now Disneyland: Adventureland here, Frontierland there, and the World of Tomorrow next door. Imagine the real estate version of a multiplex showing wildly different movies — a western, a vampire flick, a costume drama, a medieval epic.

Homes whose style suggested gentry or aristocracy and demanded to be set amid acres of grounds and gardens instead sat nearly atop one another. Their styles and sizes suggested closed-off worlds of suburban country squires intent on ignoring their neighbors.

In fact, it was hard to imagine the people living in these places as “neighbors” at all. Does a countess dash next door to borrow a cup of sugar? And if she did, how would the duchess, who happens to live in a replica of the Library of Congress, respond?

Just what are people doing in those big houses? Middle-class families are smaller than they were in the 1960s, but these houses imply families of 10 or 12 people.

When I lived in this town in the 1960s, there were six children in our family. We had two bathrooms and four bedrooms. But all of us, seemingly all the time, gathered in the basement in front of the TV.

Like a lot of 1960s homes, ours had an unused “living room,” a small anthropological exhibit of how families think they should live but don’t. There might as well have been a docent giving a running commentary: “Look at that big chair over there. That’s where father would be reading if father read. See that piano? That’s where the family would gather to sing along to mother’s playing, if mother played and the family sang.”

So how many unused rooms must there be in these new, grandiose productions?

As I drove home, I tried to calm down. After all, how dreadful would this mushrooming ostentation seem if my city college teacher’s salary were suddenly multiplied by 10?

To tell the truth, I’ve got a fantasy house or two in my own head. And am I not, like the counts and dukes of the suburbs, always trying to be mentally elsewhere? They have their manses. We have the Internet, our audiobooks, even TV, to take us Anywhere But Here.

So I resolved to see it all with some perspective — and fantasize about the teardowns coming in the 22nd Century.

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