Last May, Joan McCarter wrote a fantastic story about her ancestors and their long history in the American West. She wrote about the legacy left by her kinfolk, generation after generation. Like all salt of the earth folk, that legacy was tied to the land that provided. There was one sentence in that piece that made feel like I was missing out on something:
Life didn't change appreciably when they moved back to take over the McCarter family ranch and homestead in Idaho.
Joan's great ancestor embody the American dream. I think it is something all of us can relate to. I'm not talking about venturing west and going cowboy. I'd be more feckless than Billy Crystal in City Slickers. The American dream as it relates to building things and anchoring things. Wouldn't you like to have your great-great-grandchildren be able to return to a place that is theirs, that will always be home. That thought made me think about how we think of home and what it means for the American dream and those people who still believe it is something worth pursuing.
Reading Joan's piece wasn't the first time thoughts of legacy have come to fore. Years ago I visited the ancestral home of a very close friend of mine who comes from a New England family that can trace its roots to 1774. There are pictures on the wall of Revolutionary War veterans, Abolitionist preachers, Suffragists...all the way up to people who stormed the beaches at Normandy. It is a moving experience seeing what people have built and assembled over the years. Their letters preserved in a place where they need not be moved. None of these people were famous or great in their time. That isn't the point. They saved things. Then their people held onto them. Today my friend can connect her children to this place, making it something more than a shelter.
Many familes in America grow up with none of this. The sort of families that move around and pay rent are quite common. My grandfather was 60 years old when he built his first home, something we all celebrated as if a child was born. That little house in Trinidad, which he built himself, is now being rented by someone. My parents brought me up in public housing projects because that was all they could afford in the beginning. Having just arrived in America in the early 1970s with nothing, housing provided by the city was the only thing better than homelessness. For 13 years of my life, I saw the 1980s crack epidemic up close. I also remember how difficult it was to pay the rent. Even project rent was hard to pay sometimes. And then, the moving. We moved to other buildings within the project several times. Then we finally moved out to a run-down apartment building. And then another. And another. Sometimes we moved up, as in our apartments got bigger or the buildings better. Sometimes we moved laterally, as in just somewhere long enough to hold us down while my dad was laid off from work. Finally, my dad was able to gain his citizenship and join a good union. We still moved though. Paying rent. Sometimes behind, sometimes ahead.
The rent iss always a topic of discussion in a low income house. Rent should have had a plate on the wall next to my mother's beloved Martin Luther King, Jr. and John and Bobby Kennedy commemorative plates, because it was certainly discussed more than they were. When my parents were jovial, I knew the god of rent was pleased. But woe unto us if the god of rent was not satisfied. In those times, meals were not as bountiful and asking for things brought swift denial and maybe a bit of cursing. More church too. When I would come home from school and hear my mother in her room praying and wailing as my ancestors had taught her to, I knew that rent had made her do it. We had one television and my father controlled it. If rent was unhappy, we had televangelism on 24/7. If rent was sated, then we were free to see The Cosby Show. "Don't you see, boy? We have to pay the rent!" That meant I would have to do without.
Things changed when, after many years of toil, my father bought his first home, a large Victorian. It took him one year of sou sou to save up the down payment. I remember what a joy it was to have a home. A room of my own. Our own little piece of the world. Something for my sister to inherit, of course. But maybe me if I ever stopped being "a bad boy." As a teenager, it was like getting a social promotion. "I live in Ditmas Park," I'd say, as if I always had. No longer a project kid who moved around, I had what we all really understand as a home, in the physical sense of the word. A place that is yours, your children's, your grandchildren's.
For many today, getting that first crack at building the sort of legacy that Will McCarter or my Dad did is becoming impossible. The complexity of financial instruments has made things unstable, unsure. Buying a home is no longer thought of as a dream come true, but a risky, almost reckless endeavor. What must it be like for those millions of children who are moving from place to place all over the country? Many of them are not fortunate enough to draw on a tight-knit community of immigrants as my family could. Families are more scattered and community ties less pulled together. Chances are if you are paying rent, you probably don't know your neighbors. If you do, how long will it last?
Owning, keeping, and passing on a home is at the very foundation of the American Dream if you grow up poor. I still remember the great party that was held on the lawn of my house. My mother couldn't hold back the tears, the many pats on the back that made my father swell with pride. His talking about how great this country was. How he was going to give this house to my sister, which he did, because I made too much mischief to be responsible. What pictures will my niece's grandchildren see when they walk around that big old house? What are we losing when all these things become just another blip in a great game of money management?
Somewhere underneath all the mortgage-backed securities, automated notarizations, etc., there is a dream. A dream of someone who believed that if they just worked hard enough, they too could get a piece of the pie. I saw that dream play out right before my eyes in my own little way. I've also seen it turn into a modern-day national nightmare. I've seen friends from my old neighborhood rent, buy, and end up renting again just in the last five or six years. We are sliding backwards into "rent for life." For many families in 21st century America, there nothing else goin' on.