The New American Dream(home)

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What and where is America’s ideal home? The answer is complex, confusing, and personally, disappointing. While I claim no expertise in neighborhood or urban planning, the disconnect between academia’s opinion and the public’s reality startle me as a designer, a young professional, and as someone who can’t understand why an hour car commute to work would be preferable to a 15 minute train ride?

Crisply painted walls, freshly laid carpet, and that new house smell. Mm-mm-mm. I walked into my sister’s sprawling suburban home last month and the contrast in preference hit me like a ton of bricks come loose from the hearth.

It’s lovely, large, modern and everything she dreamed, but it’s not for me. I’ll take century-old wood plank floors, slightly wonky, warped plaster walls, and cozy rooms resplendent with built-in nooks and crannies any day. Rehabbed and renovated correctly, the comfort of an old house is comparable to that of a new one, and the charm in the architectural details of the former can never be replicated by the latter. (Another reason living in Collinwood suits me to a T).

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But I might be in the minority, or so it would seem. A recent survey conducted by Real Estate agencies across North America cite mixed opinions when it comes to home size, age, and location. While divergent preferences obviously exist amongst urban and rural dwellers, clear priority is assigned to privacy from neighbors, eat-in kitchens (+ walk-in closets), and contemporary construction at the expense of a longer commute to shops, cafes, and even work. While the notion of walking just a few blocks to accomplish errands tickles me pink, walkability, cyclist safety, and compact living ranked low among survey participants’ desires.

It’s not surprising then, that in a recent edition of the Real Estate section of a Nationally circulating newspaper the headline read “improvement in NEW housing demand”. The article goes on to quote a prolific home builder who credits young professionals for the best business in years. Nationwide, an unbelievable 1.5 million new units are built yearly and most in districts that pride themselves on “commutability” (note: NOT walkability). For each former factory retrofitted into a cold-water loft, a few dozen McMansions crop up in former cornfields. For every building that undergoes a facelift, a condo development, Target, and Chipotle also break ground.

The proverbial cherry on top of an older home is its immediate relationship to transit, retail, schools, cultural institutions, and anything else you would expect to find in an established neighborhood. Conversely, newer developement is pushed to the outskirts of predefined cities, where adjacency to highways and future (redundant) development is its best connectivity.

While my bias is apparent, the fact is that older homes are more likely to enjoy density and diversity. Looking around Cleveland, and especially Collinwood, supports this: In the past decade, Downtown and near-neighborhoods have witnessed an influx of new residents moving from half acre lots and 1990’s era homes in the suburbs into nineteenth century homes and apartment buildings. Furthermore, published papers and academic conferences promoting the concept of mixed-used, transit orientated development are on the rise and in the spotlight. A conference on walkable neighborhoods is scheduled this year in Columbus, while our own Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative advocates for improved cycling paths and pedestrian-friendly public space.

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Confused? I warned the answer would be difficult to pinpoint. Surely, there is evidence and research to support either side of the “ideal home” debate: new or old? drive or walk? bus or car? large, individual, fenced yards or communal parks at the end of each street? And for every city-dwelling ally I find, I can just as easily find someone who’ll side with my sister’s glam camp out in the ‘burbs.

So where does this leave us? You, hungry for knowledge? Me, terrified that our downtowns will out-mode themselves with commercial and residential mixed-use / TOD endeavors no one desires, as home builders continue to sell oversized kitchens on freshly poured cul-de-sacs?

It’s an interesting conversation, one that must evolve, be kept current as preferences ebb, and one that I pledge to keep alive at home in Collinwood.

Dear neighbor, what can Cleveland do to make your house the ideal home?

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3 thoughts on “The New American Dream(home)

  1. Love this, Ali! Especially as Nick and I begin to dream about what type of a “home” we could like to save for. I simply cannot, and will not live in a development. I was raised on a 45 mph road with houses a .5 mile apart and no sidewalks and now i live in a high rise on the lake – I’m all about ditching the cul-de-sacs…but for what? That, I don’t have the answer to yet. I remember being in University Heights to get a gift at Nighttown and grab some groceries from Dave’s and thinking that it would be ideal to buy a home within walking distance of that consortium.

  2. If you’re looking for something to read, The Geography of Nowhere is very good and somewhat related to this. It does a good job of explaining how home ownership is hard-wired in the American definition of success and all of the factors leading up to the initial and ongoing development of sprawl.

    As for me, I want to live at one end of the spectrum or the other. I either want a loft downtown or a shack in the mountains. Given that I have no survival skills I’m probably stuck in the city for a while.

  3. @ Katie O: You guys should just move to North Collinwood already! Although, I must say, I do absolutely miss being able to walk to coffee shops, the grocery store, and the wine bar in CLE Heights from where my apartment used to be. If I lived closer to Waterloo in NC, though, my dreams would be reality… but then I’d be further from the beaches! Oh decisions!

    @ Ray: I will have to check that book from the library. I want to learn so much about this, to help inform my own opinions and settle some divergent inner-monologues! I think you’d do just fine in the woods, too 🙂

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