American Dreaming

I have always imagined us living in our own house. Not necessarily with a white picket fence, but a yard of some sort, a basement, maybe a porch.

Buying real estate is out of the question for now, for a bunch of reasons. We don’t know how long we are going to be living in this town, we don’t know the area well enough to choose somewhere that we want to live ForEver, and oh yeah, money. Since we are far less rich than we are poor, we have crammed ourselves into a one-bedroom with a big closet (hellllo, baby’s room!). And the dreaming has begun.

There are so many beautiful homes around here. Lots of really cute brick houses, or those old romantic castles with princess towers (which make me roll my eyes, but there is a 2-year-old currently living in a closet who would give up a kidney for a princess tower). Everywhere I go, I end up drooling over houses along the way.

Brick house
Cute brick houses like this one. Which is going for $120K or so.

And the prices! There are huge, beautiful houses here for under $200,000. Our dog would have a yard. We could barbecue. And have guests over. And keep our clothes in closets. And be able to unload the dishwasher without blocking access to the cabinets (hey, architects: that is a design flaw). We could probably pay on a mortgage not that much more than we would pay if we moved into a bigger apartment.

Owning a house is overrated, say the experts. Property values are going up, but gone are the days when you could consider real estate a sure-fire investment. It’s been years since I saw one of those “Flip This House” shows, and owning is no longer the default middle-class experience. Here’s a fun calculator by the New York Times that can tell you how long you have to stay in your house for it to be economically worth it.

But honestly, even though I think about money 23 hours a day (the other 1 hour is when I am at the gym watching trashy reality TV), it’s not about money. It’s about being able to paint the walls whatever color I want. It’s about not having to worry about the landlord deciding to sell, or finding out that your sister-in-law was staying for longer than the lease allowed, and kicking you out. And even though this is kind of weird, I really hate it when things break in my apartment and the landlord has to come and fix it. I’m constantly worried that they’ll tell me that I’m to blame for the dish disposal breaking, or give me grief about how stained the carpets have become, or they’ll go back into the office and talk about how my sink was full of dirty dishes. This is stupid. But what isn’t stupid is that renting an apartment means that there is always the possibility of somebody looking over your shoulder. I want a houuuuuse.

That is, I wanted a house. Until last week.

Last week, the weather got nice. And suddenly, in our apartment complex, the kids from the area flooded out into the common spaces. Flooded is too strong of a word, there are only maybe ten of them, but this one-bedroom apartment with no private outdoor space suddenly became a big storage unit for our stuff while we spend all of our time outside with a community. Living in an area with common space (there is a playground here, tennis courts, a pool, basketball courts) means that the community is there. Ready for you. All you have to do is get swept up.

Princess Tower

And living in a house, at least in my experience, has meant that unless you are motivated to go somewhere, there’s no reason to interact with your neighbors. I’m sure there are houses with built-in neighborhoods, but when you have no personal outdoor space, it forces people to use what you have in common. In the last two weeks, I have tentatively built up friendships with several other tenants. Me! Who lived in an apartment for five years in graduate school and never did more than wave to my neighbors!

But it’s not about me. It’s about my kid. And sort of about me, too.

I have lived in fear of the day when she would start having friends and I wouldn’t know the parents. And I’m not the kind of person who gets to know other adults easily (see above note about neighbors). I have met some of the other parents at gymnastics class, but at the rate that’s going, it’ll be years before we end up really knowing each other.

And all of the parents of all of the kids are out at the playground in our apartment complex. Sofia has learned more English in the past two weeks than she has in her entire life. She bolts out the door and sprints to her favorite kids, desperate to hug them. In the meantime, I’ve gotten to know their families, and I feel pretty confident that those kids aren’t going to sell her drugs. Or if they do, or if she sells them drugs, all of the parents will be on the same page.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this – the dream I have of moving into one of these amazing houses. I want to. I yearn to. For a million reasons, none of which changed when the economy tanked.

But then I hear Sofia babbling on a fake telephone about the baby that she saw on our playground, and the doggies, and the meow-meows, and how they played with a ball, and her friend Audrey helped her go down the slide, and all of those reasons why having a house is important seem so silly. I don’t know if I can put a price on community.

I still drool at the for sale signs in the yards of amazing houses that we drive by. But that American dream of owning a house, for me, might just be better as a dream than a reality.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

5 replies on “American Dreaming”

The old apartment we owned was in a complex with mostly old people who were annoyed at the influx of younger families. Eventually I met a couple other younger moms, but with no play area in the complex it was hard to spend time together. The city playground a few blocks away was amazing, but it was still hard to get to know the parents because there were always different people there (and a lot of them were nannies). But now we’re in a house with very few kids around and none Lexie’s age for her to play with, so it gets lonely. My neighborhood growing up was awesome; every house had kids and we all ran around in the connected backyards all day. It can work out either way.

First of all,  I know what you mean about people coming in your apartment and fixing stuff.  My place is rarely neat and tidy and I also worry that they judge me over it.  Then there’s the fact that the maintenance use to come in my apartment and check on things while I was sleeping in my underwear.  I woke up on three separate occasions to find a man standing in my bedroom.  ‘Oh! Sorry ma’am.  No one answered the door so I figured no one was home and it was safe to come in.’  No, not okay because a) I had told the office I work nights and sleep during the day so to please not come and “check on shit” in the middle of the day (I requested that routine maintenance be done after 3, instead) and b) these guys would wait literally 10 seconds for me to answer the door before they would decide I wasn’t there and come barging in.  That is not enough time!  However,  I don’t have this problem anymore because I have a dog and once Odie came along the maintenance men decided it was a bad idea to just come into my apartment whenever they felt like it.  Shame.

My apartment complex has a lot of community space (a pool, a courtyard, a dog park, a picnic area) and while it is used,  I don’t feel like I’ve made any friends here.  Sure I know dogs and their owners, but the conversations at the dog park are usually pretty limited.  It’s pretty sad actually.  A week after I moved in, Hurricane Gustav hit and we lost power for 10 days.  It sucked, but the one good thing that came of it is that everyone was driven outside.  We use to hang out at the pool at night and talk to our neighbors. There was a great sense of community at that time, but once the power came back on we all went back inside and never spent time together again.

As for the house thing,  I think it’s very possible to have a community in a neighborhood.  I personally grew up on a street that had block parties and all of the kids were outside playing together every chance they had.  Everyone had their own space and their own yard,  but there was also a lot of shared space.  I guess in the end,  a house or an apartment is what you make of it.  I also kind of think it’s luck of the draw.  If you have neighbors that are similar to you in some way (they have a dog, they have a kid the same age as your kid) it’s going to be easier to develop some sort of community with them no matter where you are. :)

Definitely.  I’m just not good at creating a community, and it is already here.  It’s like magic.  I’m not sure I can give that up.  I’m afraid (this might be illogical) that in places where there isn’t shared space, communities are disappearing as people get sucked more and more into their own houses with the internet and blah blah blah.

Maybe you just need to know what you’re looking for. There’s a playground around the corner from where I live that’s always full of parents and kids. Everyone looks unnervingly happy all the time, and it makes the baby-crazy part of me (it’s really just one vocal ovary, I think) want to live here forever.

I thoroughly agree with the community being what you make of it.  We used to live in an apartment complex- lots of people out and about.  But it was too much for me.  And there were always unsupervised children running around defacing things.  As a cranky old lady (and a teacher to boot!) this annoyed the shit out of me.

I prefer the little house we rent; there’s not usually a ton of people out and about, but I see enough people walking their dogs and pushing their children in strollers.  We also live near a community park, so that helps.  Although, sometimes I do miss the apartment community.

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