House bloat

Jun 29, 2005 at 12:00 am

Maybe it's true, maybe not — the story about the 19th century rich man who built his mansion in Brush Park, now a tumble-down wreck between Comerica Park and Harper Hospital, but 120 years ago, the millionaires-row of pre-auto Detroit. The rich man thought he'd exhausted every possible means of showing off his wealth. Then somebody had a brainstorm. Why not wallpaper the drawing rooms in elephant hide, and get an artist to hand-paint patterns? Pure genius. The man had found a perfect expression of his ideal, a way of spending money so ostentatious in its superfluity as to take the breath away.

Most people who lived in Detroit back then would never get to see inside the rich man's house. Maybe a few of his carriage-trade friends would, and maybe there would have been an article in the society pages — back when there were society pages —offering sneak peeks into the Ali Baba's cave the man built for himself. That's the kind of sequestered wealth F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind a generation later when he explained to his pal Ernest Hemingway that the very rich "are different from you and me." "Yes," Hemingway supposedly quipped, "they have more money."

Having more money was just the problem. What to do with it, so that the people you were trying to impress wouldn't mistake you for a vulgar upstart, but instead hail you as one of them? Secrecy was part of it — knowing how to spend lots of cash on things that the common run wouldn't notice or understand. You had to keep current — about precious woods, and wines, and which places in Europe nice people went to, and how to dress and talk and act, and above all how to waste money and time in ever more esoteric ways, which is where the elephant hide came in. All that secret knowing awed Fitzgerald; Hemingway felt only disdain.

A century ago, there was a lot less wealth to go around, so that the secret of being very rich was just that — a secret, as far as most people were concerned, which is where its mystery and power came from. We may not all be rich, but more of us want to act that way than ever before. And what we've discovered is just what Hemingway guessed: We're not really different, we just have more money — or at least a fatter line of credit. The question is how to spend it, now that we've seen through the phony gentility that made the Brush Park millionaire so pleased with himself.

We're no different from him in one way, though. Most of what we have we'll spend on the house we live in. So, what kind of house will it be, and what will it say about the people whose dreams are fulfilled therein? That's the point of this illustration, which originally appeared in Mother Jones. America's dream house is big, which shouldn't surprise anybody who's looked at one recently. What is surprising is just how big the American average has become — 1,247 square feet larger since 1950. That increase alone is almost twice the size of the GI Bill bungalow my dad bought right after World War II, with its one bathroom, and (on average) its family of 3.37 people living inside — a family dwindled to 2.58 today.

Our typical new house is farther from the neighbors than ever before, not in the city any longer, but sprawled across some vast ex-urban green-lawn, which has meant that since 1982, we've had to develop an area equal in square miles to the size of New York state. The National Association of Home Builders' "showcase home" for 2005, for example, tops out at 5,950 square feet (15 percent larger than last year and almost twice the 3,000-square-foot limit beyond which hired help becomes necessary to maintain usual cleaning).

Isn't this the very fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson's dream — a populace living up to the Declaration, arrayed across the good green vastness of America? Mother Jones notes that "more than 50 percent of exurban lots are 10 acres or larger. Exurban homes account for 80 percent of residential development since 1994."

The Brush Park millionaire's secrets have given way to democratic transparency. Want to know where the world's richest man lives? Go to the Web, and there's Bill Gates' house, ready for a see-through tour. What you discover is that it's not really different from the average dream home — only larger (1.5 acres of internal space to be exact). Size supplants the older signs of privilege; more and bigger are values that even the simplest mind can grasp.

Gates has gadgets, and so do we. Some 14 million of us have four TVs or more. In a populist revision of the rich man with his elephant hide, we cultivate costly superfluity too; our electronics that are "off" consume more electricity than the ones switched on. One thing that separates us from the Brush Park millionaire is the isolation the Mother Jones house stands for. Not just the size and emptiness of the rooms, and the shrinking number of people inhabiting them, but the emptiness the house imposes on the people who live there, and who mostly (88 percent) drive to work, with the majority (76 percent) commuting alone, with the trip getting ever longer as we move farther away from each other, and from the city, and all the kinds of difference the city stands for. (Commutes of more than 90 minutes each way have increased 95 percent since 1990.) As Mother Jones notes, 87 percent of homeowners are white. The not-yet-rich are little likely to show up next door; since 1976, federal housing assistance has decreased by 48 percent.

Living larger and lonelier has its costs. City dwellers use half the energy of suburbanites. Suburban white men weigh 10 pounds more, on average, than their urban counterparts. As for the kids, when it comes to drugs, sex and illicit behavior, these occur as often in one place as the other, except suburban kids are more likely to drink and smoke.

We drive ourselves alone to paradise, dreaming of a new high-tech refrigerator, or a luxury kitchen remodel (average cost: $57,000 — $10,000 more than a typical Habitat for Humanity house). Never mind the growing gap between rich and poor. Never mind the increasing number of missing rungs on the economic ladder we're supposed to be able to climb. Never mind the shameful poverty rate or gaping fissures in the social safety net. We commune with like-minded souls on the 30 hours of home-improvement programming available each day on cable. We consume ourselves with the pursuit of happiness, we devour the world's resources as if it's nobody's business but ours. And who's to stop us?

This New House
Illustrated diagram in .pdf format. Jerry Herron is a professor of English and American studies at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]