Bugged by the 'Burbs 

Older houses aren't necessarily better, but older neighborhoods are

Older houses aren't necessarily better, but older neighborhoods are

I live in a 90-year-old house. Before I lived here, I lived in a 100-year-old Brooklyn brownstone. I was in an 80-year-old bungalow before that, and the 50-year-old Jowers house down in South Carolina before that. I'm an old-house kind of guy. Given the choice between a drafty old house and a brand-spanking-new McMansion, I'll take the old house every time.

That said, you can believe me when I tell you: despite what a lot of folks think, there's nothing extra-special about the way old houses are built. There is precious little old-world craftsmanship in your average old house. Truth is, old houses are a whole lot of trouble.

For instance, most of the old houses in our part of the world have sorry-ass foundations. With few exceptions, our limestone foundation walls don't have footings, so the foundation slips and slides around, leans and bows, and slowly changes the shape of the house. Windows stick, doors open and close all by themselves, walls and ceilings crack. And those old stone walls aren't waterproof. My foundation walls leak like a Yugo.

Add to that the drafty windows, the sagging floors and rafters, the walls full of termites and brown recluse spiders, the old cast iron sewers that blow out and can't be fixed for less than the cost of a minivan, and you've got a house that's hard to love.

I know some of you are thinking: if old houses are so much trouble, why are you living in one? Well, it's not the house, it's the neighborhood. I like a settled kind of place, where the trees are taller than the houses. I like a place where the porches are bigger than the garages. I like a place with sidewalks, and people on the sidewalks. I like to smell the neighbors' dinner cooking at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The only place I can get all this is in an old neighborhood, full of old houses.

I'd just as soon live under a bridge as live in a place where the houses are taller than the trees and all have two- or three-car garages, but no front porches. Call me crazy, but I think the garage-to-porch ratio is a strong indicator of the health of society in general. In a neighborhood with big porches, there will always be some folks sitting outside, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbors and generally keeping an eye on things. That's good. Regular human contact keeps things civilized.

In a neighborhood with big garages, cars are the predominant life form, and the people are strangers. In a big-garage subdivision, if you stood outside all day and watched what happens on your street, you'd know that there's a Volvo at the end of the cul-de-sac and a Hummer down the block, but you wouldn't have any contact with the people in the cars. They just disappear into the garages and come hurrying out later, enclosed in the cars again. On a good Saturday, you might see a neighbor pop out of his garage astride his double-bagger riding mower, then slip back into the garage a while later.

That's life in the 'burbs: you will know your neighbors by the sound of their exhaust pipes.

Truth be told, the houses in the new 'burbs aren't too swell, either. Best I can tell, these big, showy houses that are springing up like fairy rings aren't at all solid. The foyers are tall, the chandeliers are huge, the crown molding is supersized and the trayed ceilings are just plain peculiar. I can't figure out why people want things that look like inverted kiddie pools in their ceilings.

This brings me to the gewgaw-to-workmanship ratio. Understand, I'm talking about developer-built spec houses, not custom houses. When it comes to the average McMansion, the more gewgaws there are in the house (trayed ceilings, bubble tubs, rock countertops), the greater the chance that every hidden board, wire and pipe is a cheap, short-lived material. Worse yet, it's a safe bet that the people who installed the stuff are undertrained, undersupervised and unlikely to be around when you need them to come back and fix their sorry work.

I predict that 50 years from now, my 90-year-old house and the houses around it will still be standing, looking and working pretty much like they do today. I think the houses that are being built today will have been bulldozed and replaced with something else.

In 2055, I predict that the best houses will be about 100 years old—the houses that were built in the 1950s and '60s. I've checked out hundreds of them, and it's hard to find anything wrong. They're fine houses, not too big and not too small, with everything a family needs and nothing vain or superfluous.

And, don't you know, by 2055, those '50s and '60s neighborhoods will be settled places, with 100-year-old trees and even a few porches. If those 2005 neighborhoods can just get some sidewalks, they'll be perfect.


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