Skip to content

Too in Tents

March 22, 2009

I did a piece for The Tubridy Showon Friday (the final item on the 20th of March slot; my name isn’t on it) about living in hotels and motels, how long-term transience is a feature of both extremes of the economic spectrum. The super-wealthy have always been peripatetic: if you have sufficient means, home is not where the heart is, it’s wherever you damn well please, and get out of my way, you prole. The medieval aristocracy frequently moved from castle to castle with their minders and entourages, safe in the knowledge that when you’ve got a territory named after your family (or vice versa), it hardly matters where you hang your fancy pointed hat.

And today, people still live in hotels, either in long-term suites or in condos, like at the newly refurbished Plaza in New York, where you had people buying 50-million dollar condos off the plans, and then moving in to discover they were dreadfully unhappy with what they got. As of this time last year, the Plaza’s condo residents were complaining of persistent lonelinessand long bouts of the sads. Boo hoo, rich people, having their own Great Depression. You know what, rich people? If you’re lonely for some company, why don’t you try heading downmarket?

So what’s our new Depression looking like? It seems that motels are now where it’s at, with at least 1000 families living in motels in Orange County, CA alone. Some people are paying more for the hotel room than they would pay for an apartment, but they simply can’t save up the first, last and deposit needed to get one. Or they have bad credit. The motel grew up with the suburb, with the growing mid-century, postwar prosperity of the American middle and working classes who wanted a home away from home as they explored the American landscape in their family cars. They were sometimes designed to resemble the suburban houses people might have lived in, providing a sense of uniformity and familiarity to a diverse physical and social landscape. Motels became common overflow shelter space in the 1980s, when the bottom dropped out of the American working class. It’s disturbing to see how the motel has followed the fortunes of the middle and working classes up, and now back down again.

The motels are bad, but the Hoovervilles are most probably worse. The name “Hooverville”, used to describe the tent cities and shantytowns that developed around the US, was a derisory reference to President Herbert Hoover, who was in office at the time of the 1929 crash. From the parkside windows of the Plaza, you should be able to see where the Depression-era shantytown once was. After the crash and what followed, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were evicted from their homes, and many thousands moved into shacks and makeshift lodgings along the rivers and in whatever space they could find. The best known was in the middle of Central Park, an encampment that actually became something of a tourist attraction.

And now, in a place where there is enough unsold or foreclosed or otherwise vacant housing stock to give everyone a main house and a guest house and a pool house and a party house, the Hoovervilles are back. Or, well, more back, since they never really went away. Some of these are people who bought their tents for Coachella or weekend camping trips and got the portable grill to make burgers in the parking lot outside the Big Game, not for moving in the whole family. They are not always strictly legal settlements, but shelters were overflowing even before this: more people than ever have now found themselves in a position where they can’t go to sleep without breaking a law or violating some city ordinance.

They’re springing up all over the country. This one in Reno, NV was built next to the overbooked homeless shelter last summer, a lot of people who just couldn’t even catch a break enough to leave Nevada, the state with the highest per capita homelessness. More recently, I’ve been following the story of one in Sacramento, and in light of the fact that California’s unemployment map is terrifying, things don’t look so great. Now there’s talk of closing it. Because it’s illegal to be homeless, and they’re annoying the neighbours.

In the meantime, here are some other ideas:
If you’re willing to be a hippie who has no nookie,you can move to Yogaville.
Treehugger has a list of alternative accommodation, which is great if you know an industrial designer and have a local government that gives a shit about putting a roof over your head. Not a long-term solution, but better than shantytowns. Finally, our attention is brought to an

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: