Reflections from a tiny house move

1.28.2015

Three years ago, I built a small house. Three days ago, that small house moved.

Last Sunday, the Matchbox set sail on its debut voyage. It didn't move far—just a few miles up the street, into a cozy, quiet yard in Brookland. And it won't be there long—just a few months, until we find a new permanent site for Boneyard Studios, our little tiny house community-in-exile. But as I prepared for the move, I found myself burdened by all sorts of doubts and fears, questioning whether this small mobile house was even really mobile. The roads, they had bumps(!) and potholes(!) and little hills and big hills and tight turns and crazy drivers and low-hanging power cables; and then there was the house, stuffed with jars and frames and gear and appliances—it all just seemed like so much work, so much that could bump or bend or break.

Stress kept me from packing, and not packing left me stressed, and after a few weeks of this silly cycle and the inevitability of a Sunday morning move looming, I finally got to it Saturday evening. And to my surprise, it was so easy, perhaps just an hour of putting jars and candles in a big garbage bag on the floor. I jacked my floating table up with a few books resting on adjustable stools, and I taped up the cabinets and took a look around and, well, that was it. There was a little more work on the outside: detaching the rainwater tank, moving rocking chairs and planters inside, clipping together the rain chains and, of course, lifting the whole thing with four bottle jacks. But two hours of packing isn't bad for a move, and early the next morning, my friend Robin of Build Tiny arrived in her shiny red Ford to haul the house to a happier home.

A few cranks of the hitch handle and we were on our way, crawling cautiously through the alleyways of Stronghold. A journalist from the BBC and a crew from Offload Labs came out to document the move, so we had something of a parade marching down the block, directing Robin and moving windswept rubbish bins out of the way. And then we hit Michigan Avenue, and the crews hopped in the car and I hopped on my bicycle and we all turned east for a straight shot to Brookland.

Lifting power cables out of the way (Photo courtesy Offload Labs, offloadlabs.com)


It's funny, watching people react to a tiny house on the road. Some stop and stare and point and photograph; others look over with an uninterested glance and go back to what they were doing. Cars pull in dangerously close to take a peek, or honk endlessly in the hopes their noise will speed the house along (which it won't). Not that it was a slow tow, I should say. Robin's a pretty expert tiny house mover—she hauled Lee's just a few months earlier—and within twenty minutes, we were pulling into the Brookland alley. All told, the move could have taken a half-hour.

The Matchbox driving by the National Basilica
It didn't. Though the first three miles were easy hauling, the last twenty-five feet were a tad trickier. The fence I had hoped the house could squeeze through was a tad too tight, and so we had to take the house around the long way, removing another fence, manually trimming a number of branches in the way, and putting those bottle jacks to use in raising a bench that was more than a little difficult to move out of the Matchbox's path. It was muddy, too, and so the heavy house sunk a good foot into the mud, limiting just how much we could fine-tune the Matchbox's position in the yard.

Robin and her amazing crew, accompanied by Colm from the BBC
Robin and her crew, nonetheless, were nothing short of fantastic, and after another two or three hours prepping the site, my house was finally settled in its new temporary home. Unpacking took, perhaps, another hour, and the interior turned out remarkably undisturbed: picture frames still hanging, a deck of playing cards on the shelf still right where I'd left it, a tiny bottle of eye drops on the counter still, unbelievably, standing proud. Despite a bumpy ride and a near-thirty-degree tilt getting the home around a tight alley corner, not a bit of plaster was cracked, nor a single throw pillow disturbed. Move: complete.

***

Almost. There's still a bit of an electricity glitch to figure out, and that rainwater tank to reinstall, and then the requisite leveling and stabilizing underneath the house. The porch will need a set of stairs for the flat yard, and the deep grooves left by the tires will have to be filled in—stuff like that.

But most of the adjustments will be internal. I had a dizzying moment after unpacking when I stood up and felt positively shaken by the windows just not looking right—that is, the house looked the same as it always had, but the scene outside the windows was different: the surroundings of a different place, a different vista. Three days later, I'm just starting to get used to it.

There's the obvious compass-resetting, too, where I head home from a friend's and point my bicycle to North Capitol, forgetting that, well, I don't live there anymore. And, most happily, there are the emotional adjustments, the good fortune and warm realization that my new landlords are kind, gentle, generous people. There's a slow dissipation of the deeply pervasive fear I've harbored these past six months that I'd come home and find my house ticketed, or chained up, or towed away by Brian, my next-door-neighbor-turned-tiny-house-tyrant. There's the feeling that I've escaped something dangerous, and abusive, and harmful to mind, body, spirit, and community.

There's that, and then there's hope, and possibility: my home can move, and tiny house communities can work, and though Boneyard Studios may be physically separated at the moment, there are a whole lot of people that I feel so fortunate to create something wonderful with in 2015, and I can't wait to get that started very, very soon.

But first: I need to go to India.

Following the Matchbox on its way to Brookland (Photo courtesy Offload Labs, offloadlabs.com)

Game of thrones:A head-to-head comparison of tiny house toilets

1.24.2015


Cross-posted from boneyardstudios.org, and published here with the acknowledgement that this blog once used to be about tiny houses.

Let’s talk about toilets.

It’s a taboo subject, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about it at dinner, or on first dates, or even with close friends or lifelong partners or twin siblings. But everyone does it, as they say, and every house needs one, or just about, so let’s just set the queasiness aside for a moment and jump right into it (the topic, not the toilet)—a personal journey through, and head-to-head comparison of, types of toilets for tiny houses.

Incinerator

One thing you can do with waste is burn it. Incinerating toilets offer a neat, nearly-instant solution: do your business, push a button, and boil your bowel movements away, leaving nothing more than a sterile pile of ash in its chambers. And having used two of these Back to the Future-looking steel appliances in the early days of Boneyard Studios, I can confirm that, yeah, they get the job done. Basically, you open the lid, drop a paper liner atop a pair of closed metal jaws, and fill that liner with liquid or solid waste. When you’re done, you push a foot pedal, and those jaws open wide, and the paper package plummets to the bottom of the incinerator, which heats to 1,200 degrees for ninety minutes and incinerates whatever it can.

Cool, but shortcomings abound. For one, those jaws can sometimes get stuck, and loosening the hinges requires carefully reaching your hand into a container of, well, now-burning crap. Also, heating a small pan to 1,200 degrees for an hour and a half takes a lot of electricity—about 1.5kW per “flush,” to be exact. And that pan is small, meaning it must be heated after every use, liquid or solid, and then left alone for the better part of an hour. Incinerators work well for an individual, but during a Boneyard Studios party, it wasn’t uncommon for that pan to be filled more quickly than it could empty, leaving the floor of the bathroom covered with spilled, steaming piss. Gross.

They’re noisy, too: a grinding hum that fills small spaces quickly. And the exhaust, of course, must be vented out. I’ll admit, the smell of burning human waste isn’t as bad as you might think, but there definitely is a smell, and it’s one that’ll fill your house and then waft into the open windows of neighbors without their welcome—not the best for respecting boundaries in an urban neighborhood.

Finally, Incinolets create an intensely hot fire in your home everyday. They seem safe, and are pretty well put together in sealed-up steel, but there is an unavoidable fire risk, and in small spaces, fire is a big no-no.

So when you have to go-go, incinerators are probably not the best bet. Despite all their shortcomings, incinerators cost about $2,000 new (a shortcoming in itself), and thus aren’t really recommended for the small house dweller on a budget (or anyone, for that matter).

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 5/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 2/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 1/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 19/30

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Honeybucket

After a few unpleasant months trying out the Incinolets of Brian and Lee (Lee has since upgraded to a Separett, discussed later), I punted my decision-making down the road by picking up a five-gallon bucket from the hardware store, building what many affectionately refer to as the “honeybucket.” It works like this: there’s a bucket. You open the lid and do your thing. When you’re done doing your thing, you cover everything with sawdust and close the lid.

My sister and brother, who live out on an intentional community in Missouri, use these everywhere. They call them Fillmores, ’cause President Fillmore was the last president to have a non-plumbed toilet in the White House, and I was always impressed by how odorless they were in their outhouses. The innards of honeybuckets are typically composted as well—a great benefit over using electricity to burn away rich future soil. They’re cheap to build (about $6 for a bucket, and $7 for a top-of-the-line airtight lid), obviously totally noiseless, and they don’t take up much space. The dimensions and contours of a five-gallon bucket (with aforementioned airtight lid) provide a pretty decent seat. All in all, not a bad functioning toilet for $13.

But not great, either. For one, you need to find something to do with the bucket when it’s full. That’s easy if you live on a farm, but a little more tricky if you’re tethered to a city. They require sawdust (or a substitute) to absorb moisture and neutralize odors. When building a house, sawdust is plentiful; afterwards, rummaging through Home Depot’s dustpails becomes a necessity. And undoubtedly, that sawdust will get everywhere, leaving the bathroom with an inescapably “unclean” feeling. The toilet itself never really feels clean: it is, after all, a bucket full of soggy waste, and we humans have evolved to feel a natural squeamishness around such piles. In the warmer months, a few gnats might hang around the lid, or start a whole colony in your bathroom if the lid isn’t airtight. I didn’t find it too difficult to use the honeybucket on my own, but I always felt a little self-conscious having friends over: a tutorial is needed, and they’re looking at your last bowel movement, and you’re later looking at theirs, and it’s just, well, not ideal. Ultimately, in the words of one Matchbox YouTube commenter: “I love this innovative space but can’t help but think of when he brings home a partner and tells them they have to shit in a bucket.”

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 3/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 5/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 3/5
  • Total: 20/30

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Honeybucket 2.0

After months of using a standard honeybucket, I opted for a few upgrades. Like many do, I had a little chest built around the bucket, and screwed a seat to that chest, so it looked a bit more like a latrine than a bright orange pail. I started lining the bucket with a black garbage bag, making it much easier to empty the bucket when it was full. And most importantly, I turned a wide-mouthed funnel into a urine diverter, separating liquids and solids.


If there were a documentary of Boneyard Studios, this would undoubtedly be the scene of comic relief after a tense build setback or dramatic plot twist: me and Tony, my builder, crammed in the darkness of the Matchbox bathroom, holding a funnel centered over a bucket, and then slowly moving it closer to the front, and then back again, eyeing each other, asking “does that look right?”, trying to figure out, crudely, approximately where women pee from when seated on a toilet. Thankfully, we placed the funnel correctly, and the next day the Matchbox was sporting a totally functional and totally unisex honeybucket 2.0. By separating solids and diverting liquids into the ground, smells were improved, the toilet had to be emptied far less frequently (most waste, of course, is liquid), and sawdust wasn’t needed after every pee. Plus, it just looked better.

Nonetheless, swapping out an airtight seal for a standard lid welcomed gnats in the summer months, and the urine diverter had to be plumbed through the floor, adding time and cost to an otherwise $13 toilet. The chest took work and wood, and it almost became more difficult to instruct people on how to use the thing. It went from “just dump sawdust on top of everything” to “if you’re a guy, aim into the funnel; if you’re a girl, act natural; but either way, make sure no sawdust gets in the funnel,” and undoubtedly, sawdust got in the funnel. Sawdust got in the funnel, and clogged the pipes, and after spending three hours after a Boneyard Studios party snaking through clogs of urine-drenched sawdust, I decided the upgraded honeybucket wasn’t much of an upgrade at all.

Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 4/5
Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 2/5
Total: 19/30

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Composter

With the honeybucket part of my life over, I considered what was next. A composting toilet seemed a worthy solution—it’s still just a plastic container, more or less, but it looks like a toilet, and diverts urine in a much more streamlined way, and with a little fan and a little turning rod, it actually begins composting waste while it’s in use.

The key word, here, is begin. Their price (around $1,000) would be justifiable if they really got the job done, but they don’t: they just start it. What that means is that they just don’t have enough room to really keep waste for a full composting cycle (about two years left alone, or at least three months if assisted), so even with the substantial room they do take up (typically the entire footprint of a tiny bathroom), they must be emptied every month or so. Sometimes there’s a shovel involved, and still that problem of disposal. And unfortunately, one-month-composted crap is just about as gross as zero-month-composted crap; at the end of the day, you’re shoveling shit.

I should note, though, that I never actually owned a composting toilet—just used a few and read more reviews than I’d ever imagined I would—so consider these (already subjective) ratings with a grain of sawdust:


  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 2/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 4/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 2/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 1/5
  • Total: 19/30
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Composting toilet, meet honeybucket

I was in the throes of despair about what to do with my waste when Lee arrived on the lot one day with a big white box. It contained a Separett 9200 (I wasn’t asked or paid to plug the Separett; I just think it’s the most magical thing in the whole world), a toilet that’s something of a hybrid between a composter and a honeybucket. On the outside, it looks like a composting toilet: uninspired white plastic, a proper urine diverter toward the front and a hole for solids toward the back. There was a fan, and it required venting outside, and a tiny bit of electricity to make the fan go. Yet on the inside, it was nothing more than a honeybucket: a wide, shallow tub lined with a composting bag. But where the Separett really shone was in the barrier between the two, a simple blue spring-loaded plastic plate that sealed off the bucket when not in use and opened when weight (like, a butt) was put on the seat. That simple little barrier ensured the contents of the bucket were hidden from sight or smell, opening just for the moments of use and snapping shut before the Separett’s user even returned to her feet. Odors and pests are nonexistent thanks to the fan, sawdust isn’t even needed, and wrapping up one’s business almost feels too easy, as though one’s forgetting to flush, or put back a lid, or heap some neutralizer over their waste.


Is it perfect? Of course not. It requires a tiny bit of electricity, and it makes a tiny noise (though not enough to be heard outside the bathroom through a 3/8″ plywood door), and it takes up more room than a honeybucket, and that fan does have to run 24/7 or the odors emerge. Its use is fairly self-explanatory, but those who stand up before discarding their toilet paper will get a bit confused with what to do with it. And meanwhile, those who pee standing up will have to aim well or the surrounding area will get a little splatter. The plastic, though well-made, does feel a bit cheap, and the toilet, so well-made, definitely isn’t. At about $1,400, the Separett is a pricey investment, but after three-plus months of use, I’m certain it’ll be the last toilet the Matchbox ever needs.

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 5/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 3/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 24/30

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Rethinking the default: the flush toilet

I suppose this game of thrones wouldn’t really be complete without the reigning king of the toilet world: the iconic porcelain commode first popularized by Thomas Crapper. An unavoidable staple of industrialized nations (and now, sadly, industrializing ones as well), the standard flush toilet would undoubtedly score the highest in effectiveness, odorlessness, and ease, and do pretty well in the realms of quietness and affordability and cleanliness as well. Which leaves one to ask: why not just do what we’ve been doing, and outfit a small house with a regular flusher?

The simple answer is that flush toilets create blackwater (while urine can be safely diverted into the ground and diluted with nine parts greywater, solid waste cannot), and blackwater must be plumbed, and installing septic systems on unplumbed property is expensive, and when small houses are built on wheels, limiting where those wheels can travel to just specific places with existing pipes is totally unfortunate.


The not-so-simple answer, meanwhile, is that flush toilets are destroying our waters. Over a quarter of all water consumed in the home is used to flush waste down pipes. Older toilets typically average about 3.5 gallons of freshwater per flush; some use 5 or as many as 7 gallons. So when a guy needs to take a leak—the average leak being about 0.15 gallons—at a regular toilet, he’s flushing 23 parts freshwater and one part urine down the drain (why urine needs any help traveling down a drain is another question altogether). Low-flush toilets are better (they use about 1.6 gallons per flush), but still soil about 2,900 gallons of freshwater per person per year. And we’re just talking freshwater.

Remember, all that water has to go somewhere. We can treat it, and we sometimes do, and it’ takes massive resources to do so, and sometimes the chemicals we use to treat wastewater are harmless and sometimes we find out they’re actually pretty harmful after it’s way too late. But either way, we’re just flushing too much. When it rains in DC, and the stormdrains fill with rainwater, and a citydweller flushes the toilet, the overtaxed wastewater treatment plant simply can’t manage the volume, and it gets diverted to Rock Creek. And so, the urine and the bacteria-ridden excrement of an entire city flows into our once-pristine waterways, and the city tells us it is no longer safe to swim in the Creek, or even the greater Potomac River.

Shit flows downstream, as they say, and while we may be fine with ours piling up in our waterways, it isn’t really fair for us to make that decision for others down the river. I once had the privilege of speaking to a young man of Taos, a stunning pueblo village that had existed in what eventually came to be called New Mexico for over 1,300 years. It was the oldest continually-inhabited town in North America, and for over a millennium, its First Nations inhabitants had used the tiny creek running through it for everything: water to drink, to cook, to bathe and swim and play. And ten years ago, they stopped. Americans upstream had started dumping pollutants into it: the chemicals of waste treatment plants, the raw sewage of towns who couldn’t afford to treat their waste. Everything we flush goes somewhere, and affects something, and so in the quest for a safe, sustainable toilet, it’s probably best we don’t flush at all. Water’s a terrible thing to waste—especially when we’re wasting it for our waste.

Island, deferred (India, booked!)

1.05.2015


Almost a year ago, I made this plan to go live on this island for this long-but-not-too-long stretch of time, and it was going to be fun and maybe a little boring but most definitely educational and instructional and rewarding in an isolated, introspective, existential sort of way.

That was the plan, and that remained the plan all throughout Europe and after my return and even until early last week, when I was tying up the logistics of getting myself, a yet-unowned kayak, some thirty gallons of water, and a pack containing ungodly amounts of trail mix and an unwieldy machete to a remote shore of the Florida Keys.

I was stressed, 'cause it all seemed a lot to haul around, and there was this lingering question of how I'd manage to cram it all into a kayak and paddle at least ten miles with my gear. And then there was the greater lingering question, the one that had been rattling around in the back of my mind recently—was an island adventure really even necessary at this point?

The island, after all, was supposed to be a reprieve from distraction, a reexamination of what was important, an imperative to focus. Yet for months, I have been making small, perhaps less extreme forays in removing myself from the clutter and chaos of modern life. I turned off push notifications on my phone; I left my phone in my bag or stopped carrying it around altogether. I got rid of my television, and I became much more deliberate about how long I was using my computer, and what for, and I stopped distracting myself with what was easy and began occupying myself with what was fulfilling. When great masses of friends left DC for the holidays in mid-December, I stuck around, and I spent nearly two weeks of tranquility holed up in my humble abode, just cooking and reading and reflecting and simply living—or living simply—on my little island by the cemetery. In the words of Rilke, "I shall move into a quiet and simple room ... I shall live there the whole winter and rejoice in the great quietness, from which I am hoping for the gift of good and profitable hours."

The hours were, indeed, profitable—so profitable I've decided that the island would no longer be the adventure I'd dreamed it, at least not right now. I won't say it's aborted; let's just called it a dream deferred, and toss it back into the maybe-next-time pile with El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

But for now: new plan. I still don't like the idea of being in DC for February, because it's cold and dreary and all the little amber strings of light have been boxed up and stowed away for reasons unknown. I still want to be somewhere warm, and I still want to have an adventure. Same time, same duration, just a difference place.

India.

I've always said if I had a month I'd go to India, and I have a month, so I'm going to India. Sorry: I'm going to India! India and Nepal, actually—four weeks in the former and a week in the latter, or something like that. Flights are already booked: DC to Mumbai on January 30; Delhi to DC on March 6. What'll happen between those dates is beautifully uncertain: I'll have a pack, and I'll have the Himalayas, and I'll the buses and the trains and the planes and the roads, and the towns and the villages and the great big cities of the Indian subcontinent. I might even have a little accompaniment.

I'm excited. I'm, like, totally excited. As with Europe, I'll be packing crazy-light, just a little messenger bag, a few changes of clothes, a camera, and a few basics. As always, I'll be writing. And as always, thanks for reading.

Happy 2015!

Robert Montgomery, selected works

12.29.2014

I have lots of things to write: about land, about tiny homes, about a little island in the sea that will be my home thirty days from now. Maybe in January, I'l try to write about those things. But for now, some really lovely poetry by Robert Montgomery








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Island, expanded

12.04.2014


"There is an intense but simple thrill in setting off ... knowing that everything you need is on your back. It is a confidence in having left all inessentials behind, and of entering a world of natural beauty which has not been violated, where money has no values, and possessions are a deadweight. The person with the fewest possessions is the freest: Thoreau was right." — Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania

Thirty days.
One island.
Zero distractions.

Eight months ago, it seemed a wild idea. But now, as with all my far-flung adventures, the time has come to buy the ticket, pack the bag, and make it happen.

On January 30, I'll board a plane and fly to Key West. I'll buy a kayak and some provisions, have a nice meal, and sleep in a hotel with running water and beds and electricity. The next morning, I'll dip my kayak in the water and paddle north, seven short miles away from all of it.

For thirty days, I'll simply exist on a tiny island, something five-hundred feet in diameter with some sand and trees and sun. It'll have no name, no people, no traces of development, no billboards or wifi, and certainly no rowdy rumble of automobiles.

For thirty days, I'll build a shelter, and maybe fashion some tools, and see if I can't set my provisions aside and find some food and water on my tiny floating universe. I'll read books, and write, and meditate, and do little else. Call it a reboot—a needed detox from a society of big wants and little attentions.

I don't imagine it'll be much fun. I don't imagine it'll be very comfortable, either. Hell, I don't really know what I expect to learn, or what I hope to. I suppose I never really do with these things, but I always end up learning something beautiful anyway.

More details in a bit.

One of these islands will soon be home.




Yerba Buena

11.15.2014

San Francisco, California
November 2014













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Travels to Europe: 3 months in 3 minutes

10.17.2014



"Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu." — John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Ceilings

10.11.2014

Istanbul, Turkey
June 2014

Amusements

10.09.2014

Spreepark
East Berlin, Germany
Abandoned 2001, arsoned August 2014
Photographs taken July 2014

'Tiny House Plays' arrive at Boneyard Studios

9.30.2014


"For Emma" in the Minim House. (Ryan Maxwell Photography)







Last weekend, Pinky Swear Productions kicked off the first performance(s) of their Tiny House Plays, five one-act "playlets" staged in the tiny houses and outdoor spaces of Boneyard Studios. Explains the Washington Post

"The bright minds at Pinky Swear Productions thought it would be fun to stage a cycle of brief new plays in the wee homes. Each show is short—15 minutes or so—and set in one of the often ingeniously efficient little units, several of which are actually being lived in part time. The audience is split into small groups and shepherded from station to station to see playlets about love, death, aging and coping."

On Friday, we had the privilege of joining the actors, playwrights, production crew, and the friends and family of Pinky Swear for a lovely dress rehearsal, hopping from set to set for a wonderfully diverse collection of plays, all developed by local female writers. I can't really offer an impartial review, of course—how could I not absolutely love seeing the Matchbox transformed into the lovers' cabin of "Josie, June, and Death," or be more-than-a-little moved by the break-up taking place in the Minim House's "For Emma" as we come to terms with a tiny house break-up of our own?

"Josie, June, and Death" in the Matchbox. (Ryan Maxwell Photography)


Impartial or not, the quirky, clever plays—"sweet, funny, and sad"—were a treat to witness, and totally worth a three-weekend displacement from my home as the show runs its course. Of course, they're also a living, breathing example of what we're all about at Boneyard Studios: awesome events, free space for artists, big silly dreams that always seem to work out.

Oh, and you can check 'em out yourself for much less than a three-week displacement from your house—just $20, every cent of which goes straight to Pinky Swear and its army of hard-working (and really lovely) actors, playwrights, and the dozens of other people, props, and port-a-pottys they need to make these Tiny House Plays run. Remaining showtimes Saturday & Sunday, 10/4, 10/5, 10/11, and 10/12, 1PM, 3PM, 6PM, and 8PM. Tickets here.

"Big Bread" in the Pera House. (Ryan Maxwell Photography)

Liberalism & gentrification (& tiny houses?)

9.29.2014

Washington, DC; March 2011.


A friend passed along this, and it was one of the best pieces on the oft-studied and oft-misunderstood topic of gentrification that I've read in some time (also, local; also, note how the mobility of tiny houses on wheels can actually mitigate a lot of the capitalist ills that arise from the landed gentry discussed). Emphasis added.

***

Liberalism and Gentrification, by Gavin Mueller
Gentrification isn’t a cultural phenomenon — it’s a class offensive by powerful capitalists.

When I want to examine the limits of liberal ideology, I look for class struggle; when I want to find some class struggle, I simply step outside my door. You don’t have to live in Washington, DC, like I do, but it helps. 

Like a lot of cities, Washington is really two cities in the same space. We’ve got “Washington,” the place of popular imagination, gleaming white marble monuments and 
Aaron Sorkin speechifiers, the mostly-from-out-of-town professional class keeping the rusty wheels of state administration turning.

We’ve also got “DC,” the city distinct from the operations of the federal government, made up of “residents,” who are mostly poor and mostly black. These two cities are locked in a one-sided war of attrition, with affluent “newcomers” and their local allies conducting clear-and-hold operations against their less well-heeled neighbors. I can watch from what 
Forbes magazine, that barometer of bohemianism, has labeled the sixth-hippest neighborhood in the US, where I live.

This is gentrification, which, if you’re reading this and live in a city, is a process you’re caught up in. There’s a violent side of gentrification — think Rudy Giuliani and his “
broken windows” alibi for crackdowns on petty crime. But there’s a softer side to this war as well, the liberal project of city governance whose patron saint is the activist Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of American Cities.

In the face of rampant suburbanization and slash-and-burn urban renewal, Jacobs emphasized the attractions of urban life in all its diversity, revealing the support networks that lent resiliency and quality of life to neighborhoods otherwise deemed undesirable. She was also a fierce critic of the monumental architecture of public housing, in favor of the historic charms of low-density buildings. Jacobs’ once-revolutionary ideas are now liberal urbanist common sense: pedestrian traffic, mixed-use development, a heterogeneous mix of architectural styles, businesses, and people. My city councilman’s slogan, “
A Livable, Walkable City,” comes straight out of the Jacobs playbook, and it is difficult to find it objectionable.

However, as urban sociologist 
Sharon Zukin has pointed out again and again, Jacobs’ aesthetic insights can’t make up for her avoiding of class realities. Lambasting “planners” while ignoring the far more powerful real estate developers, Jacobs’ polemic has been turned against even her prized East Village neighborhood, a site of rapacious gentrification stretching back to the 1980s.

As Zukin remarks, “What Jacobs valued — small blocks, cobblestone streets, mixed-uses, local character — have become the gentrifiers’ ideal. This is not the struggling city of working class and ethnic groups, but an idealised image that plays to middle-class tastes.”
In the absence of true diversity in income and ownership, a simulacrum can be easily substituted. In my “up-and-coming” neighborhood in Washington, the superficially eclectic mix of bars and restaurants are owned by the same developer.

Zukin points out that Jacobs’ fondness for buildings ran roughshod over the actual people who made up the neighborhood. A line from the excellent gentrification documentary, 
Flag Wars, set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, makes the point clearly: “I just feel bad for the houses,” intones a somber yuppie, as he gazes upon the dilapidated buildings in which his neighbors reside. Moved by this sympathy, he and his cohort of gentrifiers pressure their poorer neighbors by anonymously reporting housing code violations.

Liberal support for gentrification was a contradictory and even an embarrassed thing not too long ago. Carol Lloyd’s 1999 Salon article “
I’m the Enemy!” sees the writer joining an anarchist-flavored group trying to mount opposition to the dot-com yuppies invading San Francisco’s Mission District, before it dawns on her that she herself is a gentrifier. But things are changing.

One advantage to living in DC is that these liberal niceties are being quickly thrust aside: here the word “gentrification” has lost its pejorative sense, ceasing to scandalize the yuppies who proudly reclaim the term as they “reclaim” homes and neighborhoods from the communities who have lived here for decades.


Such bald-faced attitudes stem from dire inequality in cities like the nation’s capital, and the profits to be made from it. In this respect, Washington is a good case study in the uneven development at work in cities across the country. It’s always been a starkly unequal place here — slave labor built the Capitol building — and census data reveals the biggest gap between rich and poor in the nation.


Within Washington city limits, 15 percent of families earn $200,000 or more a year, 15 percent exist below the poverty line. Washington has one the highest percentages of college graduates (46 percent) and one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy (33 percent). Poverty is entirely racialized: the median income for a white household is over $100,000; for black families it’s under $40,000. In the poorest neighborhoods,
HIV infection rate approaches double-digits, and like every other indicator of inequality, it’s only getting worse.

The speed and rapacity of Washington gentrification lets you see clearly who’s responsible, without 
Richard Florida nostrums about “creatives.” We don’t have creatives. We have bureaucrats and IT workers with a few more years of beards and bong hits in them, and really, isn’t this what most “creatives” are? The sheer expense of living in Washington, and the squareness of your average fed worker, mitigates against the hipster bohemianism we’ve come to associate with the first wave of “neighborhood revitalization.”

Gentrification has always been a top-down affair, not a spontaneous hipster influx, orchestrated by the real estate developers and investors who pull the strings of city policy, with individual home-buyers deployed in mopping up operations.


The first installment of DC gentrification began as the smoke lifted after the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Large parts of the black areas of the city (at the time, everything east of 
Rock Creek Park, including what is now “downtown”) were burned. With the fear of urban insurrection hanging in the air, property values plummeted, paving the way for local real estate magnates to snap up hugely lucrative portfolios.

Developers succeeded in getting the city government and banks to assist in their purchases, promising community projects, like homeless shelters and hospitals, that they rarely delivered before they flipped the property. Often it was enough to throw chump change into Mayor 
Marion Barry’s re-election fund, or fly out some city council members on a junket to the Virgin Islands, to secure lucrative city projects and advantageous loans. Now the big operators, like Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, simply bypass the city government: according to broker Jerry Coren, when it comes to DC real estate deals, “Politics is really not essential.”

By the 1980s, funded by huge amounts of capital, including millions in overseas investments, DC’s characteristic architecture, the soulless mid-sized cube of office space, had replaced the eclectic mix of local businesses around the White House. Currently the area’s fortunes are managed by the 
Downtown DC Business Improvement District, a cabal of property-owning hacks who talk Jacobs-style beautification in the interest of pushing property values higher.

Among their tactics: implementing mandatory fees to price out small businesses; hiring non-union workers to pick up trash and check parking meters; encouraging crackdowns on poor and homeless residents to push them out. The Downtown DC BID was one of the first organizations to raise an alarm about Occupy DC’s encampment in McPherson Square. The BID’s president, Richard Bradley (who gives himself $70,000 raises while squelching efforts by BID employees to unionize) pressured the National Park Service to evict Occupy from the very first week, and continued to insist on a police response throughout the entire occupation.


Today, government-abetted gentrification has trickled down to small home buyers. Forget your fairy tales of urban pioneers bravely staking out territory in the urban hinterlands — at every point, this has been a takeover planned by large business interests who fund their projects with tax abatements. 
In Columbia Heights, developers dropped a Target into the middle of a neighborhood stricken by violence and poverty to jumpstart capitalist development. Real-estate values soared, and speculative condo developments — cubes again — began to replace single-family homes, in spite of a bit of residual gunplay at the metro stop.

The construction of a trolley line (of dubious utility, but just try to convince a yuppie that a streetcar is pointless) flagged my own neighborhood for skyrocketing property values, precipitating a rush that has become a steady churn of property circulation. For-sale signs have the lifespan of a mayfly before the realtor sets a smug “GONE!” on top of it. The house across the street from me has been sold each year I’ve lived here.


Real estate is practically recreation in DC — go to a bar and instead of gabbing about local sports (few yuppies grew up with Washington’s teams, and feel little loyalty to them), people chat about the up-and-coming neighborhoods, where the deals are, which neighborhoods have undergone the most drastic change. And which are still “scary” or “sketchy.”


It’s important to understand what’s going on here. A powerful capitalist class of bankers, real-estate developers, and investors is driving gentrification, using a mixture of huge loans (to which only they have access) and government funding to push land values higher.


This leaves DC’s professional class with a choice. If their household income is in the six-figure-range, they can generally secure mortgages in gentrifying neighborhoods, buy property, have low-wage workers fix it up for cheap, and ride those property values into a secure position in the middle class. Or they can pay exorbitant rent until they move back to Peoria. Not much of a choice. If they buy, they’re putting everything on the line, albeit a line that, in this city, has only gone one way in the past decade.


The median price of a home in 2000 was around $150,000. In 2009, it was over $400,000. Home values went up over 10 percent in the last year. If you’ve got a $400,000 house, you just made more than the median income of a black family, just for belonging to the propertied class.


Tying up your assets, your middle-class future, in home values does something to people.
It alters their interests. It sutures a professional class, of liberal and even progressive beliefs, to the rapacious capitalist expansion into the city. The people who move to gentrifying areas tend to have liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan sympathies. But they are aligned materially with reactionary and oppressive city restructuring, pushing them into antagonism with established residents, who do nothing for property values. Behind every Jane Jacobs comes Rudy Giuliani with his nightstick.

This produces racism. Racism isn’t just a bad feeling in your heart, as a liberal believes when she insists that she isn’t at all racist. It’s a force that emerges from the pressures of maintaining one’s own position, and the resentments that spring forth from this process. It produces fear and hatred of the poor for being poor, for having any pretense of being on equal footing with the propertied. It is a hatred for the potential threat to the property values which underpin a tenuous future among the professional middle class: blackness.


This bubbles up into everyday life in all sorts of ways. At a cookout in a gentrifying Northeast neighborhood, I watched as a guest, a nice man with a nice job and a nice family, became increasingly incensed by some black teenagers riding mopeds through the alley. Their bikes were loud, but they did nothing to us, said nothing to us. And yet he seemed to resent their very presence: he glared, he muttered under his breath.


It was not only that these boys 
existed, but that they enjoyed themselves unapologetically, in full purview of the gentry. They didn’t shuck and jive, they didn’t cower, and they didn’t stay quiet. His rage grew every time they passed by, his fists clenching and unclenching at these children who were born in this neighborhood, who dared to have fun to his face.

This rage is a counterpart to fear: the man was angry at himself for being afraid. 
Frantz Fanon, writing about his experiences as a black man in white Paris, gave a diagnosis apt to this day: “The Negro is a phobogenic object.” Young black bodies have been mass culture’s symbol for irrational, savage violence for decades, for centuries. And so the whites fear them, and this fear can manifest as anger, as callousness, as hatred. And yet, Washington’s rate of violent crime against whites is lower than the national average. White skin is quite literally a protection from harm. But it doesn’t insulate your property values. That requires extra vigilance.

The fact is, these phobogenic boys have much more to fear from the whites living alongside them. We can leverage state violence against them — we can call the cops.
On message boards, police officers urge gentrifiers to report any “suspicious activity,” which includes legal activity such as walking, talking, and standing. Smoking weed in the alley? Call the cops. A group of teenagers talking loudly? Call the cops. Litter? Call the cops, just whatever you do, don’t actually approach people! State repression is the solution to all problems.

Locals lament that boys as young as thirteen can’t be given “adult time” for petty theft and vandalism. In the era of mass incarceration, “adult time” could mean a decade or more of rape and torture in America’s overstuffed gulags, to be released forever marked as an enemy of the propertied classes, practically destined to end up behind bars again. As bell hooks 
remarks, “black folks associated whiteness with the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing. White people were regarded as terrorists, especially those who dared to enter that segregated space of blackness.” And so we are.

The liberal discourse on gentrification has absolutely nothing to say about finance or prison, the two most salient institutions in urban life. Instead, it does what liberal discourse so often does: it buries the structural forces at work and choreographs a dance about individual choice to perform on the grave. We get tiny dramas over church parking lots and bike lanes and whether 7-11 will be able to serve chicken wings. Gentrification becomes a culture war, a battle over consumer choices: gourmet cupcake shop or fried chicken joint? Can we all live side by side, eating gourmet pickles with our fried fish sandwiches? Will blacks and whites hang out in the same bars? wonders Racialicious.


The problems of gentrification always boil down to those of mutual tolerance (and so, poor black people often become “racists” intolerant of yuppies); the solutions, therefore, reside in personal conduct and ethical choices. In “
How To Be A Good Gentrifier,” Elahe Izadi offers such helpful pointers as saying hello to your neighbors and not crossing the street to avoid them. After all, if you’re going to participate in the expulsion of poor people from their communities, you might as well be civil.

Every liberal account of gentrification ends with the same question, with which gentrification chronicler Will Doig helpfully titled one of his columns: “Can gentrification work for everyone?” It takes a conservative pundit, Jerry Weinberger, to reveal the bad faith behind this question by 
answering it:

The fate of the dysfunctional and fatherless black underclass is likely to remain grim. Like their brethren across the country today, they’ll be invisible to both political parties, and in DC, they’ll be confined to pockets of murder and mayhem, with no one to look after their interests.


He then concludes with a shrug, pointing out that an interracial couple, symbol of liberal progress, lives next to him. Liberal gentrification articles love to traffic in these vignettes about how “complicated” Washington gentrification is, because some of the propertied are black themselves.


Recently, the 
Atlantic published an article on the history of gentrification in the U Street corridor of DC that ran over 4,500 words. Large financial interests merited two of them. The rest was the typical shambling, rambling piece about restaurants rising from the ashes of the 1968 riots, of the fascinating existence of the nonwhite petty bourgeoisie, of Obama eating a sausage at local mainstay Ben’s Chili Bowl. In short, it had nothing new to say. Nevertheless, it had to keep saying it, for 4,500 words. The repression of urban class struggle can never be total, and it weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the liberal gentry, surfacing again and again in hand-wringing op-eds.

“What choice do I have?” ask the liberal gentrifiers, if you press them a bit. “This is the only place I can afford to live!” This sums everything up perfectly, puncturing the bubble of individual choices that make up liberal politics.


You have no choice; everything’s been decided ahead of time. If you want the American dream of a middle-class life with a home you own in the city in which you work, you have few other choices than to join the shock troops of the onslaught against the urban poor. Align with big capital and the repressive state in the conquest of the city, and maybe you’ll have enough equity to send your kids to college.


Sure, you may feel a bit of guilt, but when it comes down to it, you’re still calling the cops at the slightest provocation. After all, it’s not just trendy bars and cafes at stake — it’s the yuppies’ privileged position in ruling class administration, one of the dwindling means towards any semblance of economic and social stability in this time of crisis. The gentry weren’t drafted into this army, but they didn’t exactly volunteer.


Marx called the violent expropriation of the poor from their lands “
primitive accumulation.” The term conjures a one-time sin, in the distant past — Adam Smith called it “originary accumulation.” 

However, primitive accumulation accompanies capitalist development every step of the way, wherever valuable land meets valueless humanity.

In the early days of America, before Washington existed, nothing short of genocide would suffice. Today’s colonization requires little more than a low-interest mortgage and 911 on speed dial. In the face of this slow destruction of the urban poor, liberals have only one question: can’t we have fried chicken and cupcakes, too?

Epilogue

9.25.2014

Bergen, Norway; August 2014.
Five months ago, I set out to see the Old World—to take the trains of Europe from end to end and see as much as I could in between. And for three months, I did just that; I traveled far and I saw much: the thirsty palms of Barcelona and the twisted spires of Tallin, the haunting closes of Edinburgh and the many minarets of Istanbul, the Old Stony Bridge of Mostar and the ancient fjords of Bergen.

Such nature: those Norwegian fjords, certainly, but also the uninterrupted Romanian countryside, the grassy Alps of Austria and the calm Croatian coastline. I found beauty in the golden Scottish Highlands, and Moher's jagged cliffs, and on every last lilypad-shaped island surrounding Stockholm. In the quiet trails connecting the old towns of Cinque Terre, and the great plains of France, and the turquoise lakes of tiny Slovenia.

Such cities: cities where people lived—cities with sprawling altstadts free from the ridiculous rumble of cars. Cities with all the charm of fairytales and all the splendor of childhood dreams: castles and drawbridges and narrow cobblestone alleyways, ramparts and walls and great big boulevards. Ljubljana, Munich, Berlin. I saw the great cities of the ages; I saw Paris and London and Rome, and Prague and Budapest; I saw Vienna.

Such people: friendly locals and friendly travelers alike. I met hundreds of good souls, and some mean ones, and a whole lot of people just trying to make it by somewhere in the middle. I met friends kept for an hour, and others for a day, and some I hope to keep for as much life as I have left. I saw old pals in England, made new ones in Marseilles, in Bruges, in Doolin, in decaying train stations and sparkling coaches and crowded hostels. I slept on the couches of kind strangers; I was poked awake on the cold benches of surly ones. I learned a few customs, and a few rough words when I could, and I learned a whole lot of things I could never possibly express with the words, rough or smooth, of any human language.

Five months ago, I set out to see the Old World—and now I'm back, and busier than ever. Finishing up the Matchbox. Cooking. Baking. Fermenting, preserving, pickling. Learning: how to be back indoors, how to stare at a computer, how to live on much less than my income provides and maybe stop doing all of that very soon. Learning how to (finally) fix a bike flat. I bought a skateboard, built a skateboard, started learning how to skateboard. Learning the best way to treat bloody ankle scrapes caused by learning how to skateboard. Learning that I am (and have always been) genderqueer.

I started taking an improv class. I started painting, or maybe started trying to paint. I started really making an effort to get to the climbing gym and learn some proper climbing technique. And of course, I've started planning for my next big adventures—a kayak and an unnamed island, a bicycle and the Japanese coastline. Meanwhile, new adventures have found me. I left behind my tiny house community in May and came back in August to find it in ruins, the short-sighted work of a friend-turned-landlord, landlord-turned-slumlord. I'll soon find myself part of a tiny house community-in-exile, and I've spent a lot of time grappling with that: the uncertainty, the loss, the betrayal. And a whole lot of time looking for new land.

Five months ago, I set out to see the Old World. I came back, and things are different: some good, some bad. But hey, thanks for sticking with me during that adventure and this one—their ups and their downs—and for those many more to come. <3

Vienna, Austria; June 2014.
Istanbul, Turkey; June 2014.

Munich, Germany; June 2014.


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