A South End lexicon
A South End lexicon
by Alison Barnet
Thursday Oct 29, 2009
And another thing ... WORDS!
Years ago, housing was affordable; otherwise, how could we have afforded to live here? Although rents varied, we didn’t call a high rent "normal" or "market rate" and a low rent "affordable"-"gouged" and "cheap" sufficed. Today, affordable is a loaded word.
Some developers of condo complexes have the rudiments of a social conscience-or are forced to have one-and set aside a small percentage of affordable units; in other words, living spaces for people who can’t afford the unaffordable units that people in more fortunate circumstances can afford. This is supposed to encourage diversity. Affordable housing is, however, often unaffordable even to the people it’s purported to be affordable to. To qualify for an affordable apartment in some new buildings, people have to have a lot of money. The well-to-do, meanwhile, are comfortably ensconced in market rate units. Funny how we never use the word unaffordable to refer to their living quarters, although that would be the logical word. We’ve been bamboozled into believing that market rate people carry their own weight in the world while the rest of us are affordable slackers.
I suppose, when first used, the word apartment sounded cold, but nothing sounds colder than unit. Cold and faintly obscene, as in "How big is your unit?" Like it or not, however, we all now live in units. Only a few years ago, utility companies sent bills to apt. 2; now, with no say-so from us, the bills come to unit 2.
Diverse and diversity are the most common words in today’s South End-for the least reason. The South End has traditionally been known for its diversity. It used to be true that all kinds of people lived here-different races, ethnicities, national origins, ages, levels of education, levels of income-and, for the most part, got along. Social workers once claimed the South End was home to forty-two different race and ethnic groups. With gentrification, however, the numbers have sadly decreased, but New South Enders don’t notice-they see diversity everywhere. They point toward-but would never dare to go there-affordable or subsidized housing projects where poor and non-white people live, segregated from the rest of us. That’s how diverse the South End is, they say. And oh! some of those valets parking cars at fancy restaurants are diverse.
As countless buildings have "gone condo," homeownership seems to have become everyone’s goal, and now we think something’s wrong with renting. If you don’t own the roof over your head, you’re nobody. "He’s just a renter," says a condo owner with disdain of a poor schlump without a granite countertop and a roof deck. No matter that home is tiny and he has no control over the building or over the other homeowners who live (or don’t live) in it. The old end-of-the-broomstick to the ceiling doesn’t work when the noisy guy upstairs is a condo trustee.
Condo owners are inordinately proud of being homeowners and talk incessantly about their investment. "I got five times what I paid for it!" they crow when they sell. They talk of their brownstones (even when brick), townhouses and town homes (does that mean they have a country house too?).
All South End condos, even if they’re nothing special, are luxury. Luxury is luxury because the developers say it is, and saying so makes it so. Luxury is an added boost to the self-esteem of a young master of the universe who’s already brimming over with self-importance, a massage for a buyer who doesn’t need a massage. He looks at the 11 LUXURY CONDOMINIUMS COMING SOON sign posted on a dilapidated dump and sees a "fireplaced" living room and granite countertops. It doesn’t matter to him if the condos were thrown together in too big a hurry; he wants everyone to know he’s buying a "luxury home." He’s blind to the garbage outside and the undesirable elements of the neighborhood he’ll later vehemently rail against. Sorry, but my own definition of luxury involves a track record of elegance, not dump one day, lavish digs the next. By the way, whatever happened to being embarrassed by pretension?
Back in the day, activists were arrested for what they believed in. They fought for peace and equal rights and advocated for affordable housing. Yes, they may have been scruffy and plastered with political buttons. Today’s activist is a Republican in a three-piece suit picking up garbage in front of his condo. He participates in neighborhood clean-ups with a vengeance and is on the board of the neighborhood association, where he lobbies passionately against social programs.
The talk is of revitalization, bringing our neighborhood back to life. Yet there was more life before, a lot more. Stores once sold things we needed and could afford. We had evenings in wonderful local restaurants and seedy bars and didn’t land in the poorhouse. We took public transportation and walked; we didn’t need a car. Once, after a hardware store closed, a developer asked what we’d like to see in its place, and a woman said, "What we need around here is a hardware store."
My dictionary defines pioneer as "one of the first to settle in a primitive territory." Does this mean that the South End of the past was a rough place inhabited by savages-blacks, middle-easterners, Spanish-speakers, Asians, Greeks, the poor, elderly roomers, interracial couples, large families, and me? If so, it’s fortunate that plucky urban pioneers came to reclaim this backwater, making it safe for democracy.