room with a view

curtain hanging off interior wall, Jefferson West (September 15th, 2014)

Coming home from work a few weeks ago, I swung open the front door to the shock of a real downtown Portland view—impermanent, but a view of something other than a wall. Let there be light, said God (or, rather, the development company)and south-facing light at that. I can't remember how many times I've stood in my apartment in the last year, especially in winter when trying to snap photos, wishing I had more light. It reminds me of that Oprah quote, "You can have it all. Just not all at once."
Everything has a price. The cost of all this light has been the five Saturdays in a row (and counting) that the demolition crew has woken me up at 7:15 AM on my day off, for the increased layers of dust on everything I own despite closed windows, and for their knocking down those old street-sound-muffling brick walls next door at the Jefferson West into what looks like a war zone, minus the bodies. (No, I haven't forgotten the collateral damage to the pigeons.) But this temporarily bright light is the silver lining in all this mess and something to be grateful for, though my windows are now so clouded with dust I can barely see through them in the afternoon glare.

window view (September 18th, 2014)

And good thing I have curtains now because who knew just how many people congregate at the convenience store across the street, seemingly with nothing better to do, plus all the pedestrians who stop and gawk on the south side of Jefferson Avenue. And then there are all the people living in the taller, newer, shinier apartment buildings on the streets south of me, some of whom may own telescopes.

This post is tardy because a) I've been feeling unsettled over seasonal changes and b) I can barely think on Saturdays anymore because of the incessant earth-mover noise, the persistent beeping, honking, grinding, and crashing—nonstop till around 4 PM. This last Saturday, finally, I began wearing earplugs, but the constant whine still eats into my brain like a head full of bees.

Jefferson West view from kitchen window (September 15th, 2014)

half-torn brick wall, Jefferson West (September 21st, 2014)

rubble in basement, Jefferson West (September 21st, 2014)

brick & rubble piles, Jefferson West demolition site (September 27th, 2014)

I stopped photographing demolition-progress scenes from my windows when I could no longer see clearly out of them, but the novelty of the experience has also worn off—and most of the grief. It's done. The Jefferson West is gone. They're chewing up the east-side basement and sorting the last of the brick, metal, concrete, and wood rubble into piles and hauling it away. Now it's become just another noisy city hassle to be endured, rather than a symbol of larger cultural problems. I spoke with one of the demolition workers at the site last week, asking if the upcoming construction stage would be louder or about the same as the demolition phase, and he said, "Well, when they start pile driving, it'll get really loud." Pile driving, huh? Good to know.

Jefferson West street face (September 18th, 2014)

What's ironic about all this is that my rich landlord, whoever that is, masked by the big property management company, has decided to raise my rent by $165 a month—or by a lesser amount if I sign a new lease and commit to construction hell for the next year—because in this tight housing market he or she can. Everyone make way for the young professionals with lucrative jobs who can afford to spend nearly $2,000 a month on a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in a luxury new-construction building, driving up everyone else's rent. Landowners hold all the power; so when they want more money—and they always want more $$$—renters must fork it over or bow out. But sometimes it's good to have our lives shaken up by external forces (and my walls sometimes do literally shake these days). Sometimes we need to wake up.

workers jackhammering at Jefferson West (September 27th, 2014)

machine chomp, falling bricks, Jefferson West (September 27th, 2014)

One of my life goals is to own my own home outright, with no 15- or 30-year mortgage, no rent, no leases, no payments: owned. That's the closest to security we can ever get (other than the nonattachment of owning nothing at all). Of necessity, that home will need to be nontraditional, handmade, and very small, the only way such a feat is possible for anyone other than those lucky few who inherit property or large amounts of money. I've long dreamed of outfitting a shipping container on a small plot of land with a striking view. Maybe it's time to start thinking about building a tiny house from scratch, using mostly repurposed secondhand materials to cut costs even further. And what if a few single friends bought a plot of city land together and lived in a little modified cohousing community, separate and private but close and able to be more to each other than the usual kind of neighborly? The point is that significant savings can be found by thinking outside the typical boxes.

Regardless, it is foolish to be paying over half my income on housing expenses (rent and utilities) just to live alone. I followed that dangling carrot for the last year, but it's gotten me no closer to my goals than before. And though I love living downtown for its compact conveniences and easy public transportation routes, and while I enjoy my curated secondhand stuff, I dislike paying landlords who live off my labor more than I like high-cost privacy and all these furnishings. What if could instead keep half my hefty rent check each month by downsizing and living with a friend in a cheaper, less convenient part of the metro area? Do I need to own this much stuff? No. Would I need a full-time job? No. Would I want one? Not unless I were self-employed or working to save money to fund my own small paid-off home and thereby gain greater financial freedom. As the slightly modified saying goes, Few ever get rich working for somebody else. The same can be said for paying rent to someone else for the privilege of a few humble rooms in which to cook, bathe, and sleep.

Jefferson West demolition scene (September 15, 2014)

Distinguished French economist Thomas Piketty ends his recently published tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century with the following admonition (p. 577):

[A]ll citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.

My entire life I've detested thinking about practical math related to money, the grubby "root of all evil." It's impossible to return to my late teens and ask some wise adult to sit me down with a compound interest table. My working-class parents, doing the best they knew how, reared me to be a good worker, to expect no wealth or even a real career but instead seek marriage and a modest mortgage, to prepare for life as an unpaid, hardworking homemaker focused on child rearing with a straight view to the afterlife, where all the rewards of good behavior lay. Yet, though I rejected that religious upbringing, look where those residual ideologies combined with my own willful financial ignorance and poor choices have gotten me: a divorced woman in her early 40s with no debt and a pretty, thriftily-furnished apartment but no real savings, having like the proverbial ostrich avoided basic fiscal realities.

three Portland buildings (September 18th, 2014)

Americans are living amid the greatest income disparity between rich and poor since 1928, with global warming the looming elephant in the room about to, as Naomi Klein argues, "change everything"—climate run amok. Is the modern status quo of two-earner, 30-year mortgages working well for most U.S. families or primarily for the rentier 1% who feed off others' labor and debt? How many Americans are actually content with their lives and not popping antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds or else overeating, overdrinking, or overspending to relieve stress? How many people have zero debt, plenty of savings, and enough time to give back to their communities, let alone for building strong family relationships and social support networks crucial to health? While nothing short of mass revolution (or implosion) will topple entrenched structural systems to make life fairer and more sustainable, I can at least make better personal finance decisions within the existing flawed framework, bypassing the mortgage-debt-worker trap by diving deeper into simple living principles, essentially experimenting on myself. What's left to lose? So after the little external shakeup this week and much subsequent reflection, I will be returning to shared housing—but this time by choice and with a clear goal and thus increased motivation to perpetuate a widening cycle of downsizing and saving. And that gives me the most hope I've felt in a long time.

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