The middle class rediscovers life beyond the picket fence

It’s not out of the blue, this belated discovery by the SF Chronicle that rational people sometimes live in vehicles.

Yesterday I had some bitter fun here at the expense of the paper’s startling news feature, “These Young SF Professionals Choose To Live in RVs“. As I wrote yesterday, the article is a symptom of the exceptionalist free pass that San Francisco lately accords young “entrepreneurs” when it comes to breaking inconvenient laws.

But there’s a deeper trend going on too. When a newspaper derives as much income as the Chronicle does from real estate and high-society advertising, and yet it finds the RV housing option to be no longer beneath its notice, it follows that something new is up with American housing patterns.

What’s up is, urban reflux has brought back respectability to old-fashioned housing compromises. Post-industrial cities, with San Francisco in the lead, are replacing their factory and shipping employment centers with clean-aired, socially insulated tech campuses. The types and class characteristics of the work are new but the housing demands created by high-density urban workplaces are familiar. They’re leading young working people, newly separated from more rural (or suburban) families and too busy for elaborate housekeeping, to look for economical, compact homes and cheap, quick meals near their workplaces. Naturally, also, to seek out community and amusement as well as places to live, eat and work.

So, OK, the notion of long-term living in vehicles may be a little bit new for non-itinerant, middle-class people. But RV living, as it exists now, is part of a whole intermediate category of semi-communal, semi-permanent housing, also including residential hotel living, that has been there all along but is only now resurfacing in middle-class awareness.

As political scientist Leonard Feldman has argued, these ways of living were denigrated in the 20th century under a politically inflected ideology of real estate that set up the suburban single-family home as ideal symbol of complete respectable adult citizenship.

Now the home mortgage crash has dented the ideology of the stand-alone house as sign of competent middle-class adulthood. Bunkhouse arrangements are becoming mentionable again, as in this feature on San Francisco’s Noisebridge (h/t to Ben Brumfield) or last year’s New York Times report on “hacker hostels”. Middle-class professionals, in moving back downtown, are returning to downtown ways of life that their great-grandparents would have found familiar.

By this point anyone who knows Paul Groth’s work on residential hotels will have seen his imprint in what I’m writing here. After dipping into his stuff in the past, I’ve gotten around to reading the whole of his 1994 book, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. (Wonderfully, the whole thing is available as a free PDF download from the University of California Press.) Groth demonstrates that hotel living had — and has — and will have again — as many social strata as life in houses. He walks right down the scale from “palace hotel” suites at the likes of the Waldorf-Astoria, through many levels of middle- and working-class respectability, down to shelter-standard flophouses for laborers and ex-laborers who, he notes, have been falsely labeled as “homeless” for a century. Along the way he notes many layers of living standards that would have been middle-class choices at the turn of the last century.

As Groth explains, there’s nothing new about residential hotel living, nor roommate arrangements for both economy and companionship, nor compact housekeeping setups in alcoves behind office or storefront spaces, nor the kinds of hotplate/washbasin makeshifts that become necessary in RVs. It’s just that, for the post-WWII middle class, these choices became temporarily unthinkable. Now they’re rethinkable.

Unfortunately, the poor people who occupied hotels and RVs in San Francisco for so many years are now being turfed out to go and live in the emptying inner suburbs, bereft of the high budgets for maintenance, transportation and policing that make suburban living tolerable. Now that inner cities are the rage, crud-suburban life is the new chronically-ignored hardship story. The transportation problems there, especially, are going to be hell in the next few decades.

But one cheer, I suppose, for the renewed realization that you don’t have to maintain an isolated nuclear family establishment in a high-maintenance stand-alone house to be a full-sized adult member of society.

And another cheer, I suppose, for the Chronicle, for being on it.


2 thoughts on “The middle class rediscovers life beyond the picket fence

  1. ramblinginthecity

    It’s amazing how the current dominant ideology and rhetoric around it put the blinkers on what we see or don’t see. This is eye opening. Have visited many RV communities in Texas when I was a grad student there. They make for interesting communities though some i went to were rather secluded and dependent on personal motorised transport to be connected to the city.

  2. marthabridegam Post author

    Thanks for reading and commenting on this. I hadn’t realized you have experience of U.S. RV communities as well as informal communities in Gurgaon. Would be really interested in your comparisons of the two.
    Yes, what worries me most for the next generation or so of poverty housing in the U.S. is that poor people driven out of center cities by the urban reflux will be stuck living in suburban or rural areas that were planned for based on the assumption of continuing cheap transportation. Already I’ve heard from a couple of former clients, formerly marginally housed in San Francisco, who are now stuck in outlying Central Valley towns where it’s difficult even to travel to a legal aid or social service office, let alone receive actual help with housing or benefits problems.


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