By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.
Americans are natural vagabonds—the instinct to uproot and reboot is embedded in our DNA. This issue, “A Moveable Feast,” considers why we are so eager to pick up and go—and what we hope to find at the end of the road.
I understand this never-ending quest for reinvention. In the course of my lifetime, I’ve moved 33 times—from one New Jersey suburb to the next as my parents’ fortunes changed, then to different neighborhoods in Manhattan when I went to college and worked in film and publishing. In those days, I lived in a Greenwich Village studio, a pre-war building on Riverside Drive, a Chelsea garden apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper East Side, and eventually, a commuter townhouse in Connecticut.
A few years later, I purchased an old stone house in a sleepy Hudson Valley town my Dutch ancestors had founded back in 1661. It turned out the basement flooded every spring, so when I grew allergic to the mold and damp I traded that little piece of history for a brand new condo in the Sonoma wine country, making my home on the West Coast.
A mid-life marriage brought yet another change. With my husband and stepson, I refurbished a house in Marin County and planted fruit trees and a rose garden. After the 2008 recession, we moved to Village Hill, a model community in Northampton, Massachusetts, with housing for people at all income levels–from architects to artists, and professors to pipefitters. After cancer, a cross country move and an empty nest, an unexpected divorce landed me in a converted textile mill a few miles down the road.
Today home is a small Japanese-style cottage nestled among the redwoods back in northern California where I founded Reinventing Home.
Each of these moves was associated with a major life transition—a better job, a new relationship, a health crisis, divorce, or economic downsizing. This expand-and-contract pattern is familiar to anyone who has ever pursued the American Dream. In fact, much of American history can be explained by looking at who moved house and when.
But the hope was always there—for new opportunities, more education, a better way of life.
The last century saw three big waves of migration within the United States. More than 7 million African Americans left the South, settling mostly in the big cities of the North and West. Over 20 million whites left as well, and during the Dust Bowl, nearly 400,000 people abandoned their homes in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri, heading to the west, a tragic flight that John Steinbeck captured in The Grapes of Wrath. This reshuffling put great stress on American cities. Most did not have enough housing or jobs for this tsunami of unskilled workers and starving residents. But the hope was always there—for new opportunities, more education, a better way of life.
During World War II, about 13 million men were moved overseas, while women went to work in naval yards and defense plants. Rosie the Riveters arrived at the port of Oakland, California, with their children in tow–and to accommodate them, shipbuilder Henry Kaiser created our nation’s first health and childcare programs.
After years of fighting for the basics—food, shelter, and democracy—Americans entered a new era of prosperity. In the 1950s and 60s, we saw the rise of company towns like Detroit (Ford and General Motors), Battle Creek (Kellogg’s), Bethlehem (US Steel), and Rochester (Kodak), while I.B.M. employees quipped that those letters stood for “I’ve been moved.”
For the next half-century, the American Dream was in high gear, and our notion of success meant trading up, moving from one job, and one community, to another. The 1960s saw the proliferation of housing developments, fast-food drive-ins, and suburban sprawl. New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable summed up this triumph of consumerism over community in a book aptly titled, Hello Hamburger, Goodbye History. Only now are we beginning to question what we’ve lost in translation—and how much of our regional identity was sacrificed to our hunger for the new.
Last year, Americans finally started staying put—thanks to a combination of stagflation, less job mobility, and higher housing costs. Newly released data from the Census Bureau shows that 9.8 percent of the population moved in between April 2018 and March 2019 — compared to the usual 20 percent. Changing houses, like so many worldly pleasures, was suddenly a privilege, not a way of life.
Enter Covid-19—with a surprising side-effect.
During the height of the pandemic, some 16 million people relocated—an increase of 30 percent over the previous year. According to a recent study. the main reasons were financial hardship and to be closer to family members. New Yorkers fled to Vermont, Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley, in search of larger spaces that would accommodate their new home offices and their home-bound children. Over 89,000 people left San Francisco for the suburbs—and greater access to parks, trails, and open land. At the same time, Americans started moving away from the beaches and the forests to escape nature’s wrath. With climate change in full swing, millions of residents will soon be displaced by wildfires, violent storms, flooding, and receding coastlines.
After Hurricane Irma, one couple packed up their possessions and left their handsome townhouse in Charleston, South Carolina. They’d had enough of moldy furniture, and sloshing through water in their living room in high boots. When they learned it would cost more than half a million to raise the house and redo the first floor, they decided it was easier to move. But not everyone has that option. America is now split into those with the means to run from natural disasters and those who have no choice but to stay and bear the consequences.
In 2014, sociologist Arlie Hochschild left her liberal stronghold in Berkeley, California, and went to Lake Charles, Louisiana to “cross the empathy divide,” and meet some members of the Tea Party. The result was an astonishing book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Her subjects protested that liberals wanted to save the earth at the expense of much-needed jobs. Many had already lost their health, their houses, their access to clean water, and to the pastimes, they loved like hunting and fishing, as well. As their way of life disappeared, these people doubled down and dug in, more determined than ever to stay on.
Hochschild chronicles the personal trauma that many working-class people in Louisiana face. Their loved ones are dying from environmental illness, their homes are disappearing into sinkholes, their bridges aren’t safe, and their children are at risk, yet their attitude is, “Don’t complain. Life is hard, so just get on with it.” Says Hochschild, their stoicism—and their pride—are what made them so eager to identify with a billionaire businessman who ran for president in 2016.
They were simply following the first tenet of the American Dream: Identify with the haves, not the have nots.
Today the country is divided into red states that make things—plastic combs, water bottles, and car parts—and drown in toxic waste and blue states that want to put stronger regulations on refineries and manufacturing. The land has become the co-respondent in our great political divorce.
During the pandemic, the economy has taken a big hit, too, and that has meant more foreclosures, more evictions. Not since the Depression have so many Americans been worried about having enough food and keeping a roof over their heads.
In this issue, Harvey Smith of The Living New Deal introduces us to the bold thinking of Catherine Bauer, a visionary city planner who helped FDR come up with a new policy toward affordable housing. We’ll show you some of the beautiful buildings that she championed from the Midwest to Manhattan—and the models she drew upon in Europe.
Bauer had a broad agenda and urban renewal would look very different if she’d had her way. Public housing, she said, shouldn’t be built just for the poor. It should also accommodate the middle class, and it should be built to last. She also believed that communities should be designed from the ground up so that every dwelling would have good light and a pleasing view, and residents would have easy access to parks, shops, and services, as well as a short commute. Why didn’t we listen?
The great champion of American cities, Jane Jacobs, pooh-poohed Bauer’s well-written and exhaustively researched treatise, Modern Housing, saying that we couldn’t trust government bureaucrats to plan our neighborhoods—they’d just strip them of their character. So, for the next few decades, we let our cities and communities evolve willy-nilly. Growth wasn’t planned, and the real estate market increasingly favored big business and developers.
Now the question is: Will the trend toward remote work result in a redistribution of the US population? Will we continue to see a major exodus from our larger cities? And what kind of housing will a Green New Deal produce?
But there’s another way we’re reinventing home. Before the pandemic, we had the opportunity to travel to, and learn from, different cultures. Though we’ve been sequestered for months on end, this has proved a fertile time to reflect upon our adventures. For this issue, we asked a group of writers to tell us how their lives have been changed by spending time in a foreign land and interacting with its people.
Lindsey Cook forged a deep bond with her students while teaching at a Quaker Girls School in the West Bank at the height of the intifada. Ramsay Brown went to Bosnia to teach self-defense to women living in refugee camps. Susan Collin Marks learned from her mother who fought apartheid in South Africa, how to be an activist and a peacemaker—then applied those lessons in other countries throughout the world. Janet Hubbard rode out the pandemic on the Greek Island of Rhodes—helping a good friend mourn her husband and get through her next round of chemotherapy. After recovering from a serious illness, Alenka Vrencek cycled from Lake Tahoe all the way to Baja, Mexico. “Midway through the 2,000-plus mile journey,” she says, “I realized I was looking for a home.”
Others explore the notion of home as a moveable feast, through writing and storytelling. Our latest podcast is with Isabel Allende, a prolific novelist who has lived in Peru, Chile, Lebanon, Venezuela, and the United States. Alissa Medina, whose great-grandmother escaped the Armenian genocide, talks about her homeland as a state of mind—and the importance of honoring her country’s traditions. The poet Adonis, now in his 90s and living in Paris, recalls his childhood village in Syria, reminding us how our early memories of place grow more vivid as we age. Peter Robinson explores the novelist Graham Greene’s uncanny ability to adapt to any country—from the cafes of Monaco to rebel enclaves in Cuba—a good trait for a writer and a spy. Bruce Thompson recalls backpacking through Europe in 1973 and getting stranded on a US Air Base readying its missiles for nuclear war. And psychoanalyst John Hill who left his native Ireland for a mountain town in Switzerland explains how our sense of home changes at each stage of life.
What about travel to remote corners of the world? Architect Rem Koolhaas and his team have produced an interactive exhibit, Countryside, that explores the social and scientific innovation that’s underway in our deserts, steppes, and farmland—and suggests the key to human survival will come from thinkers who live far from our major cities and university hubs. Our art critic Sara Evans describes adventure travel in the 17th century—a time of colonialism and great economic expansion. Dutch painter Maria Sibylla Merriam went to Suriname to study the life cycle of plants and insects, bringing specimens back to Europe and advancing our understanding of the life cycle.
But let’s not forget the kind of transformation we experience in our own backyards.
Phil Cousineau reminds us of Jack Kerouac’s wild and wooly trips through the American West—and interviews the daughter this Beat Generation novelist left behind. Andrea Plate introduces us to soldiers who live at the Los Angeles V.A. and are struggling with drug abuse and homelessness, upon their return from foreign wars. Pythia Peay profiles her hometown of Washington, D.C. in “The Soul of Our Nation” and our film expert Terry Ebinger introduces American Utopia, David Byrne’s Broadway show that celebrates community and inclusion.
Travel—whether here in the states or to far-flung lands—has long been viewed as an experience that deepens over time. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.