I began looking at real estate listings when I arrived in town, mostly out of curiosity because the prices were so low compared to the East Coast.
I was utterly amazed that anyone could own a home for under $400,000, much less for a mere $150,000. A three-bedroom, one-bath fixer-upper in the Washington, D.C., suburbs would maybe start at $465,000. As I perused the photos in the weekly home sale guides, I began noticing something else: the amount of space devoted to garage doors as opposed to people doors. Many homes featured three-car garages facing the street with only a small, narrow front-door entrance off to one side like an afterthought. I was so intrigued by these photos that I began cutting them out.
And then it became a game, a variation of "Where's Waldo" that I call "Where's the Entrance." I half expect to one day find a house with no front door at all. Once in a while I think I've found it, but if I drive by the property, I realize that someone just cropped off the inconsequential front entrance from the real estate listing photo. The duplexes are the most intriguing: two side-by-side double garages with small front doors slightly set back on either side.
I've begun calculating the ratios between space devoted to car and people doors on the curbside views of houses for sale. Most come in at a 75 percent face space for the cars, 25 percent for the people. But last weekend I found the winner. A house - I won't embarrass anyone by giving its address - that devoted 90 percent of its full frontal view to a three-car garage. The front entrance occupied 10 percent.
I once lived in a house with a two-car garage that faced the street, so to be fair, I pulled out pictures of it and did the calculation. The garage door occupied 40 percent of the face space. Even at 40 percent, it sucked the sense of community right out of my soul. It was the first garage I had ever owned. Always before, I'd lived in houses that required on-street parking or featured no more than a small driveway to park a car. I loved having an attached garage, especially in the winter. I could hit the automatic garage door opener, drive in, close the door behind me with another hit to the remote, and enter the kitchen with the day's weather never touching me.
For 13 years I lived that way. I seldom saw my neighbors, except to wave at them as we passed each other in our cars on the street. One neighbor became pregnant, nine months passed, and I was unaware of it until a wooden stork appeared on their front lawn announcing the birth. Ditto for her second and third. Not only births, but also marriages and divorces occurred on the cul-de-sac without anyone knowing. Attached garages and high backyard fences do that for you, insulate you from your neighbors, along with the rain and snow.
Back to the real estate listings, I seldom see a front porch - except, of course, when a house in one of the older neighborhoods comes on the market. The fine art of porch-sitting hit the dust with the suburban housing boom in America - and along with it went the gossip, the lemonade and the cookies. Now America is reduced to eating potato chips out of the bag and gossiping about Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.
So it was rather startling when a community appeared on Delaware Street - a group of newly built homes with no garages and two porches per home - a front porch facing the street, and one in "back," facing the other back porches facing back at them. And in the middle of it all, a community house with a large kitchen and dining room for periodic shared meals, a living room with a fireplace, an exercise room, a kids playroom, a laundry room, a mailroom where everyone has a mailbox (and a cubby just like in kindergarten). As for cars, there is a shared parking lot out back along with a community garden, a recycling sorting center and a woodpile. A carport is in the process of being built, given that homeowners don't want to scrape ice off windshields in winter or worry during hailstorms.
The porches and lack of attached garages were not money-saving features, but deliberate design decisions for which Delaware Street Commons and its architect won a coveted design award. It is a community designed - gasp - to encourage people to have daily contact with their neighbors rather than find ways to avoid it. What a concept.
The whole point of co-housing, a movement that came to America from Denmark, is to help people know and connect with their neighbors in a deliberate and natural way. To live "in community" is what they tend to call it. Actually, no one had to borrow the concept from Denmark; it is quintessentially American - small-town, turn-of-the-last-century America - before cars became so all-important in our lives.
I suspect (and hope) that neighborliness is alive and well in most Lawrence neighborhoods - even the newer ones, despite their three-car garages and lack of porches or sidewalks. But I still worry that even here in such a people-centered town, recent building trends show little regard for the human need for interaction.
Besides my Saturday morning "Where's the Entrance" game, I also play "What Would an Alien Cultural Anthropologist Think." Were an alien with highly developed reasoning powers to study our home architecture - based solely on the outward appearance, he/she/it would conclude that Americans revere their automobiles as gods, and in the housing of these gods either honor them or go to great lengths to appease them. Look at the architecture. Besides occupying prime space, the abodes of the automobiles are topped with regal roofs that resemble churches or temples. The people entrances have no such emphasis or elegance. They look furtive. The alien scholars would shake their heads (if they have heads) in sadness, and they would surely conclude these Americans must be slaves to their cars.