I put down roots and put my fist in the air — how buying a house radicalized me

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When we bought a house, I was excited to start a garden and a permanent studio. Those were my main issues: vegetable maintenance and where to paint. I was ready to live out life on my quarter acre of land. Quietly. Keeping to my own business. I didn’t even leave the house much that winter.

Except every time I looked beyond the borders of my quarter acre I saw things I wanted to change. It started small. I wanted to reach out to my neighbors and get them to take action about the unchecked traffic on our road. I wanted to reach out to the kids walking by each day and…I don’t know. Be the weird-but-cool neighbor who treats them like adults and talks to them about real world issues in a way that changes their lives so they can go on to achieve self actualization and write life-affirming best sellers. Before I knew it, I found myself emailing my city councilman, learning about our neighborhood association meetings, and engaging in spirited debates about how Monsanto shouldn’t be able to prosecute seed saving. From there it was just a short skip over to participating in rallies and boning up on Thoreau.

Our plan to stay in this house for a while makes me much more appreciative of the fact that we’ll be living in this world for a while, too — and I have a responsibility to do my part to keep this hill on the plains habitable.

Buying a home is part of the process of settling down. It’s often treated as a sign we’ve matured and are ready to handle adult things. Unfortunately, I think my home purchase broke me. It turns out owning a home is a trigger to past activist tendencies. I’m no closer to learning to bake the perfect batch of cookies or birth a brood of offbeatlings, but I am trying to think more like a citizen of the world.

It’s like we signed a letter of commitment — not just to this neighborhood, but to the city, to the state, and even to the country. We took on a new tax and we staked a very public claim that we believe this corner, on a hill, on the plains, will be worth living on for a while. Our plan to stay in this house for a while makes me much more appreciative of the fact that we’ll be living in this world for a while, too, and I have a responsibility to do my part to keep this hill on the plains habitable.

After I signed those mortgage papers, after I entered the social contract which says this bit of land is mine, come feast or famine, I felt attached to the rest of the world by a very real tether. It’s one thing to know, cognitively, each action has a real consequence; it was a new experience to feel that knowledge gutterally. It added weight to every choice I made.

So I bought a house, but I haven’t settled down.

Comments on I put down roots and put my fist in the air — how buying a house radicalized me

  1. This happened for my husband and I too. We’ve been in this small college city (Richmond VA) for years now, but we bought a house earlier this year and it changed the way we are citizens. Suddenly, we have a long-term stake in how this neighborhood — this isn’t a lease for a semester or two. We don’t have kids, but we should care about the neighborhood school *now*, for example. We want to go to community meetings, help in creating the community garden that’s been proposed, and more because this is now *our* city in a way it wasn’t when we were students coming and going. Now we find *we’re* the ones complaining about students who don’t respect the city.

    I think home-owning is hard work, but the relationship it can help cultivate with your community is also both hard work and rewarding. (Not to say you can’t have that sort of relationship while renting…but for my tiny family, the home-buying definitely cultivated it.)

  2. Yep, happened to me as well. Once we owned our own place we all of a sudden became active in our community, rubbing elbows with councilmembers, and then we became food justice activists.

  3. I finally just added Offbeat Home to my google reader. I don’t know what took me so long! This post makes me want to smother you with kisses. I want to participate more in my community too. I’m a renter & I live in Scotland, but I’d still love be more engaged.

  4. Same for us! We lived in Mt. Airy for a few years before buying our home, which we purchased with the intention of staying in FOREVER. On the night we signed, as we walked to dinner at a neighborhood place we’re well familiar with, I said to Todd, “I’m glad we consummated our love affair with this ‘hood by buying a house here!”

    Now, when I see that a storefront a couple blocks down on our street has been recently purchased by an LLC and is applying for a liquor license, my immediate reaction is no longer “Cool! Another bar in walking distance!!” but “Hm, I wonder what kind of clientele they’re trying to draw, whether they’ll serve food, whether this will affect street parking availability, and how many drunks will be walking home past our front porch on weekend nights?” But then when I learn that the owner is a guy who lives a mere three doors down on our side of the street, I feel better because I know he’s in the community as well, he GETS IT, and I can probably trust him because he’s my neighbor.

    We go to community meetings, we keep an eye on what’s going on along our block and we care about things like zoning, trash removal and rainwater management in a way we never would have otherwise. They say that owning a home is a tough job, and I think a large part of that is due to the fact that when you buy, you not only have a building to care for and invest yourself in, but a whole community around you to invest in as well.

    • We almost purchased a place in Mt Airy! Ultimately we couldn’t find what we were looking for, and put in an offer on a place in Manayunk. Noise/bars/clientele is certainly an issue there, but it’s similar to where we live now (just outside NYC) so I’m not that worried about it.

      Is it weird that I’m a little worried about civic involvement in Manayunk? I’m just hoping it’s not an army of intense type-A people.

      We own our current place, and have to be involved by default because every owner in the building has to attend the condo association meetings. I made fun of it at first, but it’s actually been a great way to get to know our neighbors, and no one is super crazy.

  5. Same thing happened to us. We go to the neighborhood association meetings, check crime rates, walk the neighborhood, and try to do business as locally as possible. In our city, there are many little neighborhoods tucked away, some nicer than others. All of our other friends look on our choice of buying in the city with disdain, even though we live in a great, quiet neighborhood. I think that makes us even more “Hey! This is our city! It rocks and bugger to the people who disparage it.” The only way a neighborhood can thrive is if the people living there believe in it.

  6. Hah! I’m suffering from the opposite — I’ve been super involved in every community I’ve lived in (permanently or temporarily), and yet now, this new area we moved to when we got married, I kind of don’t care about it. At all. I’ve lost all sense of community, and I hate that, and I can’t figure out how to get out of the rut. It’s not even that there aren’t things that interest me going on here — for example, I sat on the transit advisory boards of every other place I’ve lived, and right now there’s big talks about transit here, but I can’t bring myself to truck out to downtown and add to the discourse, even though I know I probably have valuable insights to add having lived in other major transport hubs. I think that’s part of the reason I want to look for a new place this summer…I need to have that level of engagement in my community but here, I just don’t feel like I belong. There’s gotta be a better place for us…

    Has anyone else suffered from reverse-radicalism and have some advice?

  7. This is one of my favorite posts on OBH thus far, and I suppose by favorite I mean one that has helped me see the structure and meaning of an experience I hadn’t totally made sense of yet.

  8. I bought my first home this Spring too. A feat I am incredibly proud of. I had lived in apartments and condos my entire life. I have always enjoyed my neighborhoods but never felt that tether. The moment we moved in here I felt it. I LOVE my house. I LOVE my neighborhood. I love my little acre of the world. I hope to be here a long long time and have no real desire to move anytime soon. Owning this house, making my payment every month just makes me feel like an adult. And I am 39!!! I like feeling like this is where I was supposed to be. I have a very strong bond with my house. A 1959’s Pink Stucco post war ranch…She was built for me, I just had to wait a few years to find her.

  9. Agreed, except for the one line that “buying a home is a part of the process” of maturing and becoming an adult.

    Buying is not in everyone’s best interest: a good plan for many, but for some their lives and life goals would be better reached by renting, or buying much later in life. For example, we live in Taipei. We *could* buy here, but real estate prices compared to what you get for that price are ridiculous, like just-pre-market-collapse in the USA prices. It makes no sense for us to buy, but we’re not planning to leave for several years yet.

    I wouldn’t say that those people – or that I – skipped a part of the maturation process or have not thrown off a “sign” that we’re ready to handle “adult things”. Not at all.

    • I think the wording, to me, implied that buying a home generally belongs to that set of processes of “settling down”… not a prerequisite for it or completely proof of it, but indicative of a stage of life/experience.

  10. I agree too. I had a few giggles over the “quarter-acre” part….I’m currently living on 10 acres and it’s the smallest bit of land I’ve lived on, lol, but the main feeling is the same. Actually owning a place makes you feel deeply connected to it in a way that just renting doesn’t, for me anyway, even if you know you might not live there forever.

      • That’s how I’m feeling these days. I grew up in the middle of a national forest and am now living in the crowded suburbs. I’d love to see some ideas from readers on how to make high-density living feel a little more nature-y and peaceful.

  11. I’m glad anytime someone becomes more radical. But how I wish I had that sort of privilege it takes to buy a home. I can’t imagine a time I’ll ever be able to afford a home, anywhere. Often I think home ownership actually makes people less radical, since they have their needs taken care of and its easy to forget those of us living month to month who can barely even pay our bills. It also makes people more afraid to challenge the status quo since they have to be fearful of losing their jobs and not being able to make payments. I wish I could put down roots, but even if its not in the cards for me I’m glad for anyone who can and think it is something we all deserve.

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