Big boxes

For a year, I've rented a room in a comfortable but semi-dilapidated shared house, in a neighborhood that's too quiet for my tastes. I dream of moving someplace louder and more alive.

Meanwhile, someplace quieter and deader has been coming in. There's construction across the corner, and all along a sloping hillside, where hundreds of new houses have been hammered together and painted on ten blocks that had previously been who knows what — woods or wetlands, I'm guessing.

Now, it's a great many brand new houses, in six designs. Along the development's weirdly winding streets, they've made sure that identical designs are never next door to each other, and all the houses are painted in muted but slightly different shades of bland. 

There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same

                        —"Little Boxes,"
                            by Malvina Reynolds

Recently, sawdust has been scattered around the tiny, transplanted trees in front of some of the finished houses. Wooden fences have been added, separating this one from that one, and people have started moving in.

At the corner behind my bus stop, about half a house worth of real estate was given over for a very tiny park. It's only a patch of grass surrounded by concrete, and in the center are some painted plastickish bars for children to climb on. When they reach the top, there's a slide for coming down.

The mini-park intrigues me. It's not a public park, it's private, part of the development, and it's so small. There's no fence around it, though, no gate to prevent kids from down the old streets from playing there, even though some of those kids are black.

I predict drama in and around that tiny parklet, but so far there's been none. Some kids I recognize as long-timers were climbing the bars and sliding the slide yesterday. It's nice.

Behind the parklet, Bekins and U-Haul trucks have infiltrated the streets over the past week, and now families are living in a dozen of the houses. SUVs are parked in front of driveways, and only SUVs — none of the new occupants drives a sedan, a motorcycle, or a bike, apparently. I doubt that any of them will be riding the bus.

I strolled the new streets yesterday, streets that weren't there a year ago. There are no oil stains on the asphalt yet, no gum blotches on the sidewalks. All the streetlights are of a quaint, matching design, and oddly on even during the day.

It's a neighborhood, if only because there's no other word for it, but it looks more like a sprawling movie set. (Where are the cameras?)

I waved at a 30-something couple carrying boxes from a truck to their porch. They waved back. Hello, neighbors, I didn't say.

Malvina Reynolds wrote "Little Boxes" sixty years ago, and the only thing that mismatches her song is that these all these new boxes are not little. They're not full-fledged McMansions, but the smallest of the six designs is bigger than any house in the real neighborhoods surrounding this new and oddly artificial one.

Beyond the cluster of occupied houses, construction continues. Nearest the newcomers, concrete porches and steps are still being poured. Further away, the houses are still exposed boards, the lawns remain dirt.

It's a shiny new neighborhood fresh from the factory. Looming over it, a billboard still brags about hundreds of new houses, in six different designs, with all the conveniences and luxuries. Call this number, to arrange a tour...



  1. Nice piece of writing Doug. You captured the hellhole well. And thanks for the Malvina Reynolds. More people need to meet her.


    1. I need to listen to more of her songs, probably.

      Thanks for saying something nice about the piece. Watching those houses go up has been strange, and it urges me out of this neighborhood.

  2. Excellent.
    Building this cardboard neighborhood right by your house was like lobbing an easy pitch to Aaron Judge, and then BLAM.

    1. Also, they gave me a year to write about it...

  3. Today, May 22, is Arthur Conan Doyle's birthday. He's dead, so not celebrating, but we could take a moment. It's hard to imagine how popular Doyle and his fictional detective were. It started slowly enough with "A Study in Scarlet", but by the time the third or fourth short story appeared in a London newspaper (Doyle's stories were serialized in newspapers before they were collected into books) people were lined up outside the newspaper office. Within a couple of years, after Doyle killed off the erstwhile Detective and moved on with his medical practice and other kinds of writing, there were protests outside his residence demanding the return of the people's protagonist. Doyle finally caved and made a tidy sum both serializing and publishing. When ships carrying London papers featuring The Detective reached New York, unruly crowds of people on the piers shouted to those on deck, asking about the new adventures, then rioted to get a copy of the paper. Holmes was a Big Deal from 1887 through the 1920s.

    He's still a fine read -- something I reread, at least in part, every decade or so. Happy Birthday Arthur.


    1. I read a little Holmes long ago, so happy birthday. Was the death and resurrection of Holmes on the British TV show directly based on Doyle's account? It seemed a bit much on the telly, but I did love that show.

    2. As you know, when taking a story from print to video or movie, you have to leave a lot of details out. Given that, the British TV treatment of the Doyle stories was about as true to the originals as one can get. It's been a while, but as I recall, when Holmes returns in The Adventure of the Empty House, the TV treatment was as true to the short story as a TV treatment can get. It was a dramatic return, both fictionally and culturally.


    3. When I die, I'd prefer to remain dead.

    4. Not me. If I can avoid the pain of what finally kills me, I'd be happy to stage an encore. In the race between being and nothingness, I'll choose being, at least for a while.


    5. I am definitely enjoying life, and in no hurry for it to end. When that happens, I intend to enjoy death.


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