Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Once White House

Maybe when it was first built it was bright white. Now the little house in our backyard has chipping paint, burn marks, wasp nests. Leaves from yard plants stenciled in green spraypaint overgrow one corner. The building is a construction in decomposition, the original structure cut apart and added to in layers. The tacked-on bathroom's tub pipe snaps one night and floods the yard. We cap the water main and lug the tub to the front courtyard as a pond. The once white house could be made livable again, but most people would just tear it down and start over, send the house to the landfill. The wood floor pitches like a funhouse. Two tiny rooms under the leaky roof glow with potential, waiting to be lived in or gussied up as a micro-tourist destination. Maybe we could transform it into the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata's new space for community exhibitions (since we're turning the old space in our house into a bedroom). Or fortify the structure and add a roof garden.

Did the house's first, tiny incarnation--before its last owners extended both its ends, doubling its floor space--have a bathroom and kitchen at all? It must have, since there's a sewer main. Across the yard concrete steps lead nowhere and a sewer pipe opens to the underworld, traces of another little building that got struck by lightning and burned. Small houses like these dot east Austin. They are being torn down one by one, or refurbished, additioned. Their abscences trace changing habitation patterns of extended families in humble houses giving way to McMansions, shifts in racial demographics that fit familiar gentrification stories. The pair of backyard bungalows were added by the family that bought our house when it was new in 1950--part of the Chestnut neighborhood constructed for segregated Austin's growing Black middle class--when their son returned from the war. The Hispanic family who bought the property in the 80s concreted over the front yard rose garden to make a courtyard, planted fig trees, and modified the bungalows as well as the main house, extending its kitchen and adding a bathroom and an odd, narrow bedroom with rough plank floors.

Their handmade additions are cobbled out of wood and fixtures from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. The corners don't quite meet at right angles. They did the wiring and plumbing, too. They knew how to make do. This capacity to make things like housing work without means has long been racialized and maligned as underclass. Hispanic improvisations are derided as rasquache--cheap, ghetto, bootleg. Use of the censored saying “n-word rigging” persists in online rants, trade unions, and even among public council representatives.* Poor whites improvise "hillbilly fixes"** or "white trash repairs,"phrases that mix derision with amusement or even endearment. These terms point to improvisation as something those people do. In this pejorative mode, improvised engineering and construction practices take on the qualities of a bad aesthetic style by which middle class or licensed experts (racially) differentiate themselves.

But the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and self-reliance behind improvisation can become a point of pride. Rasquachismo is an aesthetic sensibility celebrated as a style in both domestic interiors and homemade shrines, as well as the high art world. "In its broadest sense, it is a combination of resistant and resilient attitudes devised to allow the Chicano to survive and persevere with a sense of dignity. The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors."*** Self-taught arts of making do circulate in wider publics and the formal economy not only as bad examples or failures, but as a particular kind of rough beauty.  Lovingly repurposed and repaired things can become valorized as "outsider art" or "vernacular architecture" and marketed as do-it-yourself. Their idiomatic singularity expresses a learning process and a way of living outside of the standardized, routinized, and formalized.

Making and repairing houses in the rasquache mode might not always be permited and up to code. Structures are never finished, always in process. Buildings might take form by the grace of cast-offs and decay, an urban waste stream of construction debris that only comes into being because something else was torn down. But these informal ways and means are held together by something new like wires, nails, 2x4s, concrete, or duct tape, relying on Home Despot-style do-it-yourself supply retail stores. 

While retail workers in the formal economy wait smiling at their registers to fill the informal architect's needs, code inspectors at municipal regulatory departments wait by their phones for call-in violations. "My neighbor's building some kind of second story on this old house in his backyard. Looks like he's gardening up there." When Dan Phillips first started building small houses out of recycled and salvaged materials in Huntsville, the code inspectors scratched their heads. His methods are experimental, trying things that have never been done, learning what materials and trash can do, assembling landfills into housing: wine bottle cork floors, bathtubs and towers of caulked 2x4 stubs, glass dinner plate windows, license plate shingles! 

The mission of Dan's design/build company Phoenix Commotion is to construct "aftermarket housing" out of scavenged materials, catering to "single parents, artists, and families with low incomes." By hiring "unskilled laborers at minimum wage," he trains apprentices in all aspects of construction so they can move on with marketable skills. This tactic, along with using free and recycled materials, keeps costs low for an affordable mortgage. Working with Houston's Code Department, Dan helped to pass "Appendix R," a set of guidlines that formalizes the use of recycled materials in code compliant construction.  He hopes it will "be a model of how large metropolitan areas can respond to the social issues of affordable housing and overburdened landfills" (and resource depletion, high unemployment and foreclosure rates, and disasters that leave thousands homeless). 

When people who could afford McMansions started asking him to build their homes, Dan joked that his formalization of informal, improvisational building was "gentrifying icky." While Dan's mission is "to prove that constructing homes with recycled and salvaged materials has a viable place in the building industry," this kind of improvisational construction is the norm in shantytowns, squatter settlements, favelas, and slums in megacities like Karachi, Pakistan; Mumbai, India; São Paulo, Brazil; and Mexico City. Stewart Brand writes,**** "Squatters are now the predominant builders of cities in the world" (42), their enclaves criss-crossed with a welter of "do-it-yourself infrastructure" in the absence or abandonment of state-regulated urban services (45):
The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually, increment by increment, by the people living there. Each home is built that way, and so is the whole community. To a planner's eye, squatter cities look chaotic. To my biologist's eye, they look organic. (42)
To my quack scientist imagination, they are living machines. The once white house is an atmospheric anomaly that yearns for solidarity with these informal survival modes, learns from them another way to live the good life. It is part of an urban future constructed of aftermarket materials and little, local improvisations and self-taught knowledges. The magic of the City of Living Garbage lies not in bourgoise bohemian romanticism (or not only), but instead, in an aesthetic of working within limits, doing the most with the least, finding value even in trash. Some kind of optimistic humility, learning to be happy with less in response to financial and environmental meltdowns.   


*See Bass, Holly, “Union Bias: Black Members Blast Local 1110’s Record on Race,” Washington City Paper 15, no. 31 (1995), Frank Donze, “N.O. Council Ends Deal After Racial Slur: Spokeswoman Loses Her Job,” The Times-Picayune, December 15, 2006, and Jonah Owen Lamb, "Questions raised about councilman's conduct after discovery of racist e-mails," Merced Sun-Star, July 17, 2009. 
** Hartigan, John. Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1999, 102.
***Mesa-Bains, Amalia. “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquache.” http://sparcmurals.
org/ucla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=129&Itemid=74 (accessed March
23, 2010).
****Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, New York and London: Viking, 2009. Thanks to Amanda Jones for my copy of this book. 

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