I started reading a curiously entertaining book called Home: the story of everyone who ever lived in our house by Julie Myerson. I have paused at page 47, the mere beginning of the 451-page book.
The book deserves to be large because, like so many houses, it gives birth to more stories than its space can readily contain. The single-family house that is now the author’s home is 150 years old and, for reasons yet to be revealed, has had an unusually large number of people living there.
In the pages of this book, the reader is treated to the rare, voyeuristic (and in this case, legal) pleasure of peeking both inside a family as it goes about its private life and looking inside the bones of a house as it morphs and molds around its residents.
The surprising success of this book gives me hope that just maybe the 20th century obsession with virgin buildings (an odd Victorian relic in an otherwise hedonistic world) is finally and blessedly giving way to an appreciation of the old. This, despite the fact that the marketplace continues to measure economic vitality by housing starts, even in this environment of bulging house foreclosures and an over-stocked housing market. I wish someone would explain that to me.
Perhaps the American 20th century urge to dismantle or, worse, simply abandon the old and begin anew, to venerate the untouched as opposed to the well-used, to build where no one has ever built before, is abating.
Why, for example, should uncirculated coins be worth more than circulated ones? Why should something pristine and never-used, wrapped and boxed and locked away in a vault somewhere be more valuable than one that survives after having withstood exchanges, drops, moving, loving hands caressing it, flooding, fires, being tossed, lost or otherwise misplaced? Why is disturbing old-growth forests and undeveloped land with impermeable surfaces, strip malls and cul-de-sacs in non-walkable communities preferable to re-inhabiting, renovating and rebuilding neighborly neighborhoods? Gratefully, attitudes are changing and the tide is turning.
More and more municipalities are pursuing smart growth; young adults and retirees both are moving back to the city. Homeowners and developers are building with salvaged materials, re-using planking, tiles, bricks, stone. Sometimes we are even charging premiums prices for that privilege.
While historians will no doubt speak of the first decade of the 21st century as one of ethnic and religious conflagration, and as a reckless, recurring, and astonishing betrayal of fiscal morality and abandonment of concern for public good by Wall Street, hopefully they will also see it as the struggle of individuals – millions of us - to reclaim a sense of the depth of time, the richness of history, the call of tomorrow and the realization that we are just a blip in the endless flow of time and place.
Our legacy, such as it is, will be carried downstream - as a blessing or curse for others. The choice is ours.