Magazine article Dissent

The Last Page

Magazine article Dissent

The Last Page

Article excerpt

THE FAMILY HOUSE has left the family. Built in 1898, the two-story frame house was sold last fall for far more than I would have guessed and probably more than it was worth. The 1200 block on Carmen Avenue in Chicago's uptown area is a mix of wooden and brick houses along with low-rise, three-story, apartment buildings-most of them owner-occupied. Chicago two-flats, once ubiquitous, are a tribute to the value put on home ownership and thrift: the owner and mortgage-holder living in one apartment, the rent-paying tenant in the other. Gradually these houses are being torn down and replaced by condominiums of four and six apartments in which everyone becomes a mortgage holder. Deep lots and wide frontage make these frame houses attractive to developers, who have bought up several on the block and replaced them with square brick buildings built to the property edges. Front yards, side yards, backyards disappear; porches are no more. There is no grass to mow or shrubs to trim, no liminal territory, thresholds where inside and outside, private and public subtly mingle.

Our old house, 1257 Carmen, awaits the demolition crew. O'Briens of three generations lived there for more than sixty years, beginning with my uncle and then my father, and ending with my sister and her children. No preservationist sprang to save it, nor did a young family appear, eager to renovate. Were buyers put off by the drab, brown-shingled exterior, an economy my uncle made to avoid painting, or by the concrete stoop, another economy? That square mass of concrete replaced a wraparound wooden porch once the scene of childhood dramas, story-telling, doll play, a world outside the house but inside the yard. In adolescence, the steps of the concrete porch served as debating posts for sorting out the world with friends and schoolmates. Civil rights, unions, Korea, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, romance, and gossip filled the summer nights as pressing points were argued up and down the stairs and back and forth between the iron banisters. …

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