Friday, June 17, 2016

The End of the Week: Narratives from the Field

Wednesday we went to two foreclosed homes that are owned by the city. The previous owners were unable to pay property taxes, and were upheaved, throw out of their homes. One home had been stripped down, cleaned and yet musty. The other, far harder for me to walk through, had been left by the city largely unchanged from when the previous owners left--in what must have been a hurry. I imagine the head of the family telling the children, "Take only what you can carry."

On the floor, personal artifacts intermixed with
standard everyday artifacts: social security papers, bank deposit slips, renter's receipts, family photos. Piles of stuffed animal toys, trashed electronics, clothing. What gets left, and what gets taken with?

A mix-tape, graduation robes, overturned furniture. We stand in the middle, taking photographs. How did this home get to here?

Scene one: Sometime in the early 1900's, maybe 1920 at the latest, the home is built by a middle-class family. Upper-middle management perhaps, due to the size. And the structure bears the traces of it being built as a single family home, large with at least three bedrooms. Walking in, the opening to the dining room shows the built-in cabinets that once would have displayed the best china and family keepsakes.

The family owned the home, presumably, because they had it built for them. When did this family leave? After 20 years? A comfortable live framed by the higher-end size of the rooms, a quiet corner lot. This would be the place for family reunions, holidays, celebrations. So why leave, sell or rent out the nucleus of family life?

Scene two: A heavy, heavy door now separates the upstairs and downstairs. A tiny kitchenette is pushed into the back bedroom upstairs. Somewhere, perhaps in the 1940's or 1950's, the two floors were subdivided and rented out. Was this before or after the original family sold the place? Was there an absentee landlord after the original family? By tracing census manuscripts, I will be able find who at least lived there at every ten year mark, but this does not tell the story of who owned it and why they left.

Perhaps 30 years pass, the building being rented again and again to different families. I can feel the presence of multiple stories, multiple families, all overlapping and lingering in the extant walls. The attic space holds a typewriter, ancient luggage, piles and piles of papers accumulated over the years.

Scene three: Sold again and reunited, the kitchenette upstairs partially ripped out. The family that lived here next is presumably the one who was evicted, or the last in a string of homeowners. Yet this is not the kind of family associated with direct poverty. They own their own home, the couches that remain are in an antique style, and a poster of the Eiffel Tower leans against furniture, all markers of a family that has their life at least partially stable. Yet something was said to me recently, "these are the families that are one payment away from disaster."

The veneer of respectability that was maintained up until the eviction links back to the actual security of the first owners. While change over time has doubtlessly occurred, both time periods were occupied by single families trying to convey their upward mobility. Yet only one was only a veneer, and that led to being one payment, perhaps one month, away from being evicted.

Scene four: The abandoned home, squatted in. Empty, at least theoretically. Untouched by the city who now owns the property. Allowed to accumulate dust and rodents, yet now ACTS Housing partners with the city to find a homeowner who will actually take care of this space and build within it both a renovated and a preserved space--the perfect combination of old and new.

I wade through the trash, careful to not step on trash or nails. The musty scents of lives past and intense dust hits my face. This is a place of devastation, most recently, and yet also a space where opportunities can be made. I creep through the attic, seeing a wheelchair, a lock box, evidence of animals. All those details, the lives. Who can sum up a hundred years of life in a few paragraphs? The next few years will see renovation, revitalization, and hopefully home-ownership. Only another visit years away will fill in this presumed future.