Saturday, July 05, 2008
A Question of "Character"
This past Wednesday, one of my best friends from college popped in for a visit. She and her family were elsewhere on the East Coast and drove to spend half a day with us. However, the half-day turned into a few hours for dinner. They figured the "4-5 hour drive" between destinations would be like that between DFW and Houston, which she and I can both do in our sleep, and undoubtedly have. They didn't count on the toll-roads, the crowded freeways, the lack of access roads, and the poorly labeled exits and exit-warnings. It was good to see them, though. We see them about once every year, or year and half when visiting friends and family in DFW. As we pulled out to grab dinner for her hungry toddler, she said something that struck me as odd. She loved our neighborhood and commented on how much "character" it had and then said Texas neighborhoods didn't have character.
I took the compliment for what it was, but was kind of amused by her observation. To begin with, I think there are plenty of people in our metro area who would look at our neighborhood and would think that it lacks "character." We live in a development built about 40 years ago in a style inspired by the older architecture of the area, but definitely in a style fitting to the late 60s, early 70s. Plenty of folks around here complain about the architecture that goes up in neighborhoods that are being "revitalized" because it looks too similar to that of everywhere America. (While I agree about the architectural conformity, I think the bigger issue is the "chainization" of decaying neighborhoods than the sameness of style. Frankly, though, "revitalization" is a topic for a whole other musing.) If she drove another 15 or 30 miles out from our neighborhood - if even that far - she'd find suburban neighborhoods and developments populated with houses that look almost exactly like hers, in her neighborhood planted between Dallas and Fort Worth. (Not Arlington; there are a bajillion bedroom communities between the two.)
I commented to my friend that the "character" is only a function of the oldness of the settlements on the East Coast. Texas, by and large, was settled much later than New York, Philly or Charleston. But, that got me thinking: what is "character" in a neighborhood? Or in architecture? Is it really about age?
Back when McMansions started cropping up in the late 80s, I remember thinking those were full of character. When we visited Mom's baby brother in a Dallas suburb and saw the two-story, high-ceilinged, attached two-car garage manse he and his wife had, I remember thinking that was the pinnacle of success. That was a unique house - one with character. But that was because in our small town, I only knew the Levittown-style shoebox houses that I, and virtually everyone around me, lived in. But now, every new house within a pretty broad price range, looks like that. Now, at least where we live, those tiny shoebox houses that felt so stifling to me growing up, are the ones with "character." And what of Santa Fe? Every building in that city is traditionally made of adobe, in keeping with its Pueblo Indian heritage. I believe there is an ordinance requiring it. Does that mean that an adobe McDonald's has "character?" Certainly, a McDonald's that is in the architectural style of a Pueblo building is less shrill amongst like buildings than a typical white box with a red roof and yellow stripes. But isn't it like slapping lipstick on a pig?
Of course, there are some communities that don't allow the proverbial pigs in in the first place. A friend of ours from Maine likes to brag that Maine doesn't have a Wal-Mart, because the locals won't permit it. Vermont also has laws that make it difficult for chains to settle in. It certainly is easier to preserve the architectural tradition of a community by disallowing the eyesore giants to enter in the first place. (Not to mention it's a great way to preserve local small businesses.) But again, is "tradition" really "character?" New Orleans has an architectural tradition, as does Brooklyn and Santa Fe. But maybe that tradition only has "character" outside of its home. America, in general, is still pretty new to have a clearly-defined architectural tradition, compared with most of Europe and Asia. We're still developing accents; our language may not be settled for a few more hundred years. ... rambling off, now ...
A house with "character," as described by a realtor, generally means one that is older, needs work and one upon which the new resident could imagine a past story (or glory?) and can write his or her own story. Really, every edifice has character of some sort. A mobile home has character as much as the White House. Just because it isn't stately with an imagined past history doesn't mean it doesn't have character. It still communicates and reflects a lifestyle. It just may not be the kind of lifestyle most of us are conditioned to aspiring toward, or the kind of lifestyle most of us would desire or envy. Just because brand new cookie-cutter houses in suburbia are the norm for a wide swath doesn't mean they aren't places where people can't write their own stories. The same holds true for condos atop Bally's gyms in "revitalized" communities. Just because they're the Trapper-Keeper notebooks of residential architecture, doesn't mean the stories that can and will be written in them won't be any less interesting or valid than those written on the pages of parchment.
... now I miss my Trapper-Keepers.