Not my town, but it could easily have been.
I grew up in a small town that, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, became a “small town.” If you grew up in one of these towns during that era, you probably know exactly what I mean. If not, allow me to explain.
My father grew up in this town when, nestled between the WWII and Vietnam eras, it was the quintessential New England community. People knew you based on your family name, you graduated with maybe 100 other kids, and you entertained yourself by going to the movies, hanging out at the nearest diner, or setting off fireworks inside an old TV in a local meadow (actually, that last part may have been drawn more from my adolescence…). Anyway, it retained a good deal of that character through the Vietnam era when my dad went to college and eventually met my mom. They were living in Boston when I was born, and then when my sister came along, we moved back to said small town where he had grown up and my grandparents still lived.
The year was 1986, and we moved into a house bigger than what we had lived in for the first few years of my life. It was by no means a mansion (it was completely modest compared to other houses in my town), but the street it sat on had not existed when my dad was a kid. The town had certainly grown, but the population (as of the 1990 census) was well under 10,000. Over the following decade, though, the population would balloon from roughly 8,500 to well over 18,000. It was no longer a genuine small town in the Mellencamp sense; it was transforming into a “small town”: a community that capitalized on widespread skepticism of all (or at least, most) things urban and clung to relevance as a bucolic simulacrum of its former self.
Even as a small child, I noticed various indicators of those gradually-forming quotation marks. No indicator shone more brightly than the new developments of these big, ugly, uniform houses that were popping up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I don’t remember when I first learned the term “McMansion;” it may have been from a friend later in high school. Either way, it made me laugh.
None of this is meant to disparage the experience I had growing up where I did; a lot of the reasons it grew so quickly during the Bush I and Clinton eras were what made living there nice for most of us. The public schools were really good, it wasn’t hard to get (or commute) to New York or Boston, and the crime rate was so low that (1) most anything violent that did happen was an isolated incident and (2) the highest-profile petty crime was often committed by the cops.
I never disrespected people for working hard for years to buy those big conforming houses and put roofs over their families’ heads, but even as a teenager, I failed to understand why anyone would consider these clunky and gaudy fake mansions a signpost of success. I suppose that real estate developers at the time had some pretty good PR campaigns, and the baby boomers really devoured what they were selling: Gaze upon my really, really big house! Look at how successful I am! Are you not jealous of my amazing riches!?
Though I’m sure Syracuse had its share of these kind of developments, my exposure to them was somewhat limited as a University student. When I moved to Washington after college, my roommate at the time was playing in a band slated to open for Rusted Root (yep) at the 9:30 Club. He asked if I wanted to help him out as a guitar tech, and I jumped at the chance. The day of the gig, we drove out to one of the planned communities on the city’s periphery for a rehearsal with a drummer the band had hired for that gig. The drummer was an incredibly good dude and, unlike the vast majority of people who lived in these McMansions, actually worked in this town (rather than contributing to the choking of the DC-area roadways). His wife had their first baby on the way, so I understood the need for space, but at least three of the rooms in this house were empty, save for maybe a piece of furniture or two. The ceilings rose a couple stories off the ground, which I can only imagine made the heating bills astronomical six months out of the year.
The other moment that really stuck with me, however, was how long it took us to find the correct house. We had the address. The houses were almost completely indistinguishable from one another, and the addresses were all about 5-digits long for some reason (there weren’t 10,000 houses on the road that circled through there, so it’s still a mystery to me). I remembered the old wives tale of the London drunk who kept wandering into the wrong house during the London fog, since he could not tell his own house apart from all the others the working class had been shuffled into during the age of industry.
This was yet another contradiction of McMansions: why would one still feel special in a giant house if everyone around them has the exact same house or at least something very, very close to it? Thankfully, building codes prevented people from building cheap, inflated houses in neighborhoods nestled together with more modest homes, as seen in Kate Wagner’s TEDx talk, embedded below.
Kate Wagner began McMansion Hell as a blog last year as a way to make fun of these quintessentially American excesses. What she probably did not expect was to generate an articulation of this frustration that so many of us have been feeling for decades. Last year, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media that “if you buy a record solely because you think it will go up in value, you deserve to die cold, alone, and penniless.” Buying houses, at least to me, is a similar venture when you are not wealthy. Buy a house because you look forward to being able to come home to it for decades. Buy a house because you want to leave your mark and imbue it with character, “turning space into place,” as the saying goes. Don’t buy a house just because you want to show it off and then flip it for a marginal profit, especially one that wastes resources and looks stupid. Every day, my deep respect grows for architects, graphic designers, and other people with professional grades of taken-for-granted knowledge, and this is a quintessential example of why more geographers, sociologists, and economists should listen to them.