Week 5 Renovation

Down to the wire. We were aiming for December 6th and it would be close — finishing the project before I left or leaving some stuff hanging over. And how much?

Basically, it was a couple coats of paint. When I decided to refinish the kitchen and half-bath floors, that more or less needed to happen while we were traveling. So then we pushed back completion of the half-bath in order to do as complete a job as possible (getting under the sink and stool). That was already planned to be incomplete. What we mostly didn’t get done was the large amount of painting.

I was a bit worried earlier in the week. I had invited some friends over for dinner Saturday and expected to be able to do a nice job of hosting. But the plumbers had a problem with my old sink and all the workers were stepping over one another and I didn’t see how it would get done.
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Week 4 Renovation

Thanksgiving Week. A few short days then one full week to get it all done. But we’re putting things back together now, rather than pulling them apart. At the end of last week the plaster was finished and we were ready for cabinets in the kitchen and resurfacing everywhere else, then fixtures.

The shelving and cabinets are custom built. The shelving arrived last week and started to go up Monday and Tuesday. The whole kitchen project is idiosyncratic, so the cabinet design is equally idiosyncratic to suit our situation.

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Week 3 Renovation

Week 1 got us off to a good start. Week 2 was delays, catchup, and seemed overall to show a lack of progress. I was eager for things to get moving this week if we are to have any hope of meeting our project deadline. But these things don’t always go how you want, so Monday was not very active — just some preparation for the spray-in insulation on Tuesday, including laying the bathroom subfloor. When I first contacted the contractor, Shelter Alternatives, they also suggested I get an energy audit with their partner business, Energy Check. One of the upshots was that the basement was leaking heat, as was the pantry/half-bath. Spray-in foam insulation was recommended for the bathroom all around.

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Week 2 Renovation

The story of Week 2 was…not much happened. The discoveries of the end of week 1 (asbestos-y tile and an old plumbing/carpentry cockup) put the brakes on much of the work from this week and led to a series of rolling delays.

Monday was carpentry. The solution to the cut joist and overly aggressively notched joists in the bathroom was cross bracing, rather than sistering.

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Week 1, Reno/Rehab

The work: there are three things I’m having done on my new/old house. The first is re-converting the “pantry” off the kitchen back into a half bathroom. This is a little room, about 5′ x 7′, taking up part of the back porch space, that became a bathroom to serve the first owner, Henry Whitlock. Once he grew advanced in years he wanted a bathroom on the main floor so he didn’t have to use the stairs so much. The plumbing is “still there” but the codes have changed and the work may not have been the best quality in the first place, so it’s not an easy change. In addition, there was very little insulation to this room, so the energy audit showed it was really leaking heat.


The second thing is related to the first; since I’m moving the fridge out of the pantry, I’ve got to have a place for it. Thus, I’m moving a doorway a bit and putting the fridge in a new corner, along with some cabinets and shelving. Then I’m putting in new butcher block countertops to replace the older tile countertops that are there.

The third thing is updating the upstairs bathroom. This is mostly resurfacing (paint and flooring), shifting a bit of plumbing, and putting in a new tub/shower. This is the only photo I have of the bathroom pre-reno because no one ever wants to record its image for posterity.
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Blacksburg Roots

One of the general reasons I have been slow to return to scholarly productivity is the reordering of my and my son’s lives. Among the most prominent features of this reordering is our moving to Blacksburg permanently, solidified by buying a house.

It’s a great house in a great location, it came up for sale at the right time, and I had the good sense and the means to act. I am considering adding a separate section on the site for house activities, which will be numerous.

Since we moved from Ann Arbor, unfortunately I haven’t really felt rooted in a community. Kate and I were both introverted and hard at work on our research, along with interruptions for travel, so we did not build a network of community friends, and didn’t get involved in community activities. One of my efforts to do so, with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, was rebuffed because we didn’t own a car.

I’d like to remedy that in Blacksburg. I’ve long envied Mark Maynard in both his blogging and his community spirit. The seed bombing of Water Street is just a great idea and I’d love to see what they look like now. (One of the impulses I regret not acting on was the turning of the vacant corner lot in Evanston into a park with the nighttime planting of a couple trees and placement of a bench.) From my current position (traveling, again), participating in a community blogosphere seems like a good start.

Except…there doesn’t seem to be one in Blacksburg. Technorati gives me pretty much nothing. Google searches give me the Roanoke Times The Burgs, the Blacksburg mayor’s moribund blog, but there does seem to be a bit of activity in downtown Blacksburg. Hmmm.

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]).

FHA Underwriting Manual

This summer I was reading Louis Hyman’s Debtor Nation when I came across a surprising reference to the FHA Underwriting Manual developed in the 1930s advising mortgage lenders that college campuses were an excellent buffer for good neighborhoods against infiltration by lower class and racially diverse residents, so the presence nearby was a good factor in the security rating system (the “redlining” maps). I had never thought to look at the Underwriting Manual and so immediately tried to find one on the web. Being that it was a government-produced document I was also surprised to find that it was difficult to find one on the web. Google Books has only digitized a 1958 version of the manual and will only make it available in their Snippet View. This was aggravating. I went to HathiTrust and found a scanned document there I could look at, but it was in terrible shape.

This spurred me to action. I have always been very happy to find an easily accessible text/HTML version of the Port Huron Statement right here for the last 10 years or so, and I figured the historians of the world could use the same for the underwriting manual. As an assignment in my undergrad Digital History course I had students clean up the OCR’ed pdfs of the manual, then use an HTML editor to make the Web version look more or less like the book, but without the artifacts of the printed book, like page headers or forced text wrap.

Feel free to read or link or download the April 1936 version of the underwriting manual here.

An increasing number of historians are creating or accumulating digital archives and sources as part of their research. I think it’s incumbent on us to put all the stuff we can out on the web — the public domain stuff is a no-brainer and I think a good bit can be shared under fair use (e.g. with some interpretation). You don’t have to make a wiz-bang site to make materials available (though I recommend just about everyone develop their own professional/personal site). Maybe just a simple Omeka installation can do the trick.


At least since Ken Jackson’s 1980 article in the Journal of Urban History, historians have been fascinated by the security maps created by the security maps created by the Home Ownership Loan Corporation and the process of state-sponsored segregation in finance, better known as redlining.

It has always surprised me that these maps, which are so plentiful in the National Archives, and so important in the analysis of urban historians, are not more widely available and have been digitized only on a very limited basis. I recently went to NARA II and RG 195 was chockablock with HOLC maps. I have digitized a handful that are of interest to me, and so I might as well make these available to the public at large, as they are in the public domain.

Click here for digital (HOLC MAPS). Generally high resolution.

HOLC map of Chicago's north side.

HOLC security map for south side of Chicago, 1939.

Not only do the HOLC files have a lot of maps, but the files for each city have real estate professionals’ analyses of each neighborhood in the city, regarding demographics such as race, ethnicity, work type, and income level, as well as housing information such as quality of construction and building types. Finally, for many cities HOLC had information on the home lending landscape, including the financial condition of major lenders and their lending profile. It is clear that this HOLC information was put to problematic purposes, but this is a very rich and robust set of information that historians should draw upon more frequently.

See also Robert Nelson’s page on Redlining Richmond at URichmond and the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC.