A taste of freedom

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City where five of us lived in a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath single family home with our dog Bobo and an occasional cat. Behind our backyard was a wooded patch, a ramble of oak, maple, beech, and various shrubs; in the spring, skunk cabbage would pop up in its water-logged lower end, and yellow flowers of tiny forest lilies would nod towards the ground.

From the earliest I can remember, our backyard housed a vegetable garden planted by my mother. She’d plant peppers, cucumbers, green beans, and tomatoes, all of which would variously appear on the dinner table. At the far end of the vegetable garden grew some raspberries, and despite the thorns, I’d pick and eat them as they ripened each year. It was glorious.

My father Norman was the breadwinner, my mother Flory a housewife. He’d leave every weekday morning at 7:30 to travel to Manhattan, where he and his brother ran a freight forwarding company started by my grandfather Bill. Bill, a Jewish immigrant, arrived at Ellis Island from Eastern Europe in 1910 at twelve years old, his eight-year-old sister in tow, after a 38-day passage in steerage, the lowest inhabitable area of the ship. Neither spoke any English.

My family’s story is like that of many others; I was raised within a meritocracy that rewarded hard work and the advantages of luck. Our single-family home with its backyard represented the fulfillment of the American Dream, a patch of land we called our own. In that sense, those raspberries symbolized the success of self-reliance and imparted a taste of freedom that began with Bill’s escape from the antisemitic pogroms of Russia.

The dream of a single-family home lives on, but in our increasingly stratified economy, meritocracy has been challenged by ideas of privilege. Bill, of course, was anything but privileged. After arriving, his family lived in a basement tenement with damp walls on Manhattan’s lower East Side; he learned a new language and over time built a better life for himself and his family. Several years after my father was born in 1919, the family moved into a single-family home with a small backyard on East 29th Street in Brooklyn, where my Grandmother Hannah planted tomatoes.

I’ve enjoyed privilege stretching back to Bill and Norman, the benefits of their hard work and success. Moreover, 45 years of work behind us, my wife and I have built on that legacy, owning a single-family home with a backyard. And yes, there are tomatoes.

Strangely, the single-family home has now been branded an element of privilege, along with the meritocracy that built it. America’s social argument is now centered on equity, the equity of opportunity. From the view of privilege, meritocracy unfairly produces winners and losers. Without the social and economic exploitation of others, the argument goes, meritocracy would fail.

Politically, this process is now playing out with measures such as California’s Senate Bill 9 (SB9), which turns the idea of single-family homes on its head by monetizing backyards and permitting four residences on a single-family parcel by right. Promoted as a housing equity solution, it remains unclear who will take advantage of the provisions of SB9; indications are that corporate America is gearing up. So much for backyard garden tomatoes.

3 thoughts on “A taste of freedom

  1. Nice writing Larry.
    I am thinking of a few mixed metaphors,
    one being the “privilege” of backyards as emblematic of
    not only gardens and swimming pools,
    but also of hard work, hired help, and expense.
    Think high rise mansion-like penthouses in
    Manhattan occupied by the privileged who
    do not have, and probably do not want or miss,
    a back yard.
    I suppose disproportionate ownership of the land or
    the condos is the issue. Not sure the new SB9 state
    mandate will do more for home ownership, but rather
    will probably only make available more rental square
    footage at a reasonable distance from city centers.
    What would the Manhattaniteshave done if it were
    not for Peter Minuit!

    1. I suspect that corporate America’s housing industry will exploit the SB9 opportunities. SB9 does not define “ownership” which opens the door to the likes of Pacasso and its fractional home ownership model. Monetizing backyards is the just the latest development scam; no affordability requirements are built into SB9 either. The rewards of hard work (meritocracy) lead to privilege; it’s the way our individualistic system works. There may better systems, more balanced and fairer. In the 50s, high income tax rates combined with union jobs built the middle class. Both of those elements have disappeared, and our society has become more unequal. Housing is just one segment of a system out-of-whack, but SB9 is not a solution.

  2. Larry: A very sweet family story. The story drives the energy to see the wrongness of our present intellectual morality toward making all society equal and in stagnation.
    Also, your welcome editorial on Fred used logical distinctions to reveal that Emperor Fred was wearing no clothes. Thanks- Jim

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