Settling Down

In July of 2010 my wife, I, and our cat, along with our soon-to-be born baby boy, pulled our U-Haul truck out of the alley next to our apartment building in Evanston and onto Main Street. We headed to Philadelphia for my first job, my wife’s maternity leave, and the start of her year-long sabbatical. We lived in a nice little apartment in the Rittenhouse Square area. Particularly attractive about the apartment — in a red brick building among brownstones — was the tall front windows and the very high (~14′) ceilings.

At the end of that May we packed everything up into storage and travelled to Europe for six months, spending most of our time in a small apartment in the area [in Rome] between Monteverde and Trastevere. In January 2012 we arrived in Blacksburg, subletting a student-oriented sprawl apartment only a mile-and-a-half from campus. That was troubling — that an apartment so close to campus was already in the sprawl belt. In March we moved back to a wonderful, sunny, vintage apartment in Evanston so Kate could resume teaching at Northwestern. In January of 2013 we moved back to an apartment right in downtown Blacksburg so I could teach. In March of 2013 my son and I moved back to Chicago temporarily to deal with Kate’s death. Our apartment has many windows, is high up with great views, and is very light.

I am ready to stop moving and settle down for a few years, something Kate and I wanted for a while. I’m now having difficulty finding the kind of apartment I want in Blacksburg for the fall, and this has reinforced for me the value of home ownership. Ronald Ellers, in Uneven Ground, argued that the Appalachian region refused to adopt the urban and metropolitan values of much of the rest of the country. It may be more accurate in Blacksburg’s case to say that the late date of development (post WWII) reflected the sprawling, auto dependent nature of the rest of the country in that period. (I use the heuristic of a city’s population in 1940 to quickly evaluate how much of an urban core there is. Blacksburg: 2100). I see this in microcosm in Blacksburg, where urban residential opportunities are vanishingly small. Ironically, they are in high demand from a robust, urbane segment of the population — university and faculty administrators. Students seem to be very satisfied with the sprawling pattern of development, in contrast to the situation in Ann Arbor Hal Varian described in his macroeconomics textbook. Faculty have bid up the price of centrally-located housing, and for some reason capitalism has not responded by creating more. The alternative seems to be semi-urban housing in subdivisions at the periphery. I don’t entertain these as a serious option.

Location is not negotiable, but a building can be changed. Thus, I’m strongly considering the purchase of what was once small, working class housing, in a central area and altering it to suit. This gives rise to the question, what would I really like to see in a house altered to suit me? Having studied urban systems, housing, planning and architecture historically, I now have to be active rather than reactive; be creative instead of critical. And that will take some time.

A starting list to get me thinking:

1. Walkable and bikeable location to the center of town — not just possible, but relatively enjoyable. This means both location and a relatively dense neighborhood with sidewalks and surrounding buildings with short setbacks. Urban history research has illustrated the problems with segregating at the periphery; my own experience has shown I just don’t want to live that kind of life. I want to be in a city or town and to have it feel like I’m in it — accessible urban amenities increase the use value of the residence and of quality of life.

2. A front porch or some kind of balcony providing a view and a place to lounge and congregate. There’s no point in my mind to a house that is too inward looking — one could just as easily get an apartment if you didn’t want to engage with the world outside.

3. High ceilings to give a lighter, airy feeling, and to make any interior square footage feel larger. Particularly in a smaller, denser area, it’s costly and wasteful to spread out. Having less square footage, you can make that floor area feel larger and rooms feel more spacious with a higher ceiling. With a higher ceiling you can have larger windows, allowing more interior light.

To be continued…

4. Large windows (enabled by higher ceilings) will let in more light to create a brighter, more pleasant interior environment. In addition, taller windows will let light farther into interior space (because it light comes from an upper source and travels downwards [this is why it’s kind of idiotic to use roll shades]).