Tag Archives: David Brooks

The Haimish Line

Chances are, you missed David Brooks’ column last week in the New York Times.  You were probably too busy mucking out your basement — or you didn’t have lights or computers to read it with.

Too bad.  Brooks described his family’s summer visit to 7 African safari camps.  Some were simple, lacking electricity or running water.  (Sound familiar?)  Others were relatively luxurious, with showers, even pools.

A haimish-looking safari camp.

The simple camps, Brooks said, were “friendly, warm and familial.”  Guests dined together at communal tables.  There were impromptu soccer games, spear-throwing and archery competitions with staff members.

The more elegant camps, Brooks said, “felt colder.”  Families dined at separate tables.  Tents were further apart.  Staff kept their distance too.

Brooks used a Yiddish word — haimish — to describe the simpler camps.  The word, he said, “suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.”

The columnist devised what he called “an invisible Haimish Line” to describe American life today.  Restaurants and bars can exist on either side of it.

So can hotels.  “You’ll find multiple generations at a Comfort Inn breakfast area,” Brooks wrote, with people “likely to exchange pleasantries over the waffle machine.”

In a 4-star hotel, meanwhile, guests “quietly answer email on their phones.”

So too with money.  “When we get some extra income,” Brooks noted, “we spend it on privacy, space and refinement.”

That has benefits, of course — “let’s not forget the nights at the Comfort Inn when we were trying to fall asleep while lacrosse teams partied in the hallways and the rooms next door,” Brooks said — but too often we fall on the wrong side of the Haimish Line.

Last week, Hurricane Irene forced all Westporters to the same side.

When disaster strikes, everyone heads to the diner.

Sherwood Diner — one of the few restaurants in town that never lost power — epitomized haimish.  Lines stretched out the door — so strangers shared tables.  Not all the staff made it in — so patrons cleared food and served coffee.  Conversation flowed easily.  Everyone had stories to tell — and hear.

We were haimish with neighbors, offering extra ice, beds and hands to clean up, even as we worried about our own homes.

We were haimish at the hardware store, providing little tips on how to cope with big problems.

We were haimish as we drove, stopping at light-less lights, waving others through the very intersections we always zoom by, even when red.

Westporters are not normally haimish.  We like our private tables, our luxury safari tents.  Given a choice — and we usually have one — we pick the Ritz over the Comfort Inn.  Or at least the Marriott.

Last week, we didn’t have a choice.  We had to be haimish.

So we were.  And we lived to tell the tale.

Just a few days later, we’ve reverted to our non-haimish ways.  We’re back at our own tables at the diner, and if the waitress doesn’t ask for our order quickly, we’re pissed.  The traffic lights work again, which means we ignore them.

In fact, just a couple of days after Irene, we complained that the noise from our neighbors’ generators kept us up at night.  That’s not very haimish, is it?

Westport will never live on the good side of the Haimish Line.  It’s not in our DNA.  Besides, it takes work.

But maybe — just maybe — now that we’ve seen what the other side is like, we can wander over more frequently for a visit.

The Great Age Of Headroom

Sometimes, David Brooks makes me tear out what remains of my hair.

Other times I agree with him so strongly, I wish I’d written his words myself. That happened again last week, when the New York Times columnist wrote that one result of our current economic woes is that “the great age of headroom” has ended.

Yours, for only $5,825,000.

“The oversized now looks slightly ridiculous,” he writes.  “New houses had great rooms with 20-foot ceilings and entire new art forms had to be invented to fill the acres of empty overhead wall space.”

Online, the Times invited experts to respond.

Architecture professors Ellen Dunham-Jones and Jill Williamson said:

Facing the ongoing deflation of the housing bubble, it’s time to dramatically rethink the types and locations of dwellings we build….

For the past 60 years the housing market has catered to boomers with a “move-up” model providing ever-larger houses.  It worked while they were receiving raises and raising families – but not as they approach retirement.  Who wants to upsize now – especially with all of the related costs?  Instead, we see great benefits to a renewed emphasis on the lifelong use value of our homes and neighborhoods for all stages of life.

The downsizing of housing is coming at an opportune time.  Because neither of the big demographic bulges, the Boomers and Gen Y, is in prime child-rearing years, demographers predict that 75 percent to 85 percent of newly formed households through 2025 will not have kids in them.

These will be the folks controlling the market. They will be seeking more compact houses and apartments, flexible in use and located in lively settings, both in cities and in the suburban areas where the most job growth can be expected.

To adapt and prepare for a more resilient future, communities would do well to revise their zoning and subdivision codes: increase street network connectivity and walkability, eliminate lot size minimums, permit accessory dwelling units, and allow for the subdivision of large homes into duplexes, even quads.

Recognize the benefits – from reduced carbon footprints to providing options for “aging-in-community” by older residents – of building well-designed multi-unit housing, including rental, in transit-served locations.

“06880” readers are invited to join the debate.  Some questions to consider:

  • What are the pluses and minuses of super-sized houses?
  • How did these homes become the de facto standard?  Why — in these tough economic times — do they continue to be built?
  • Are they appropriate for Westport?  Will they keep selling in the near future — and longer term, as families grow smaller, and our population ages?
  • If “the great age of headroom” has ended, what will replace the current large houses?  Is another type of housing economically feasible in Westport?
  • Is Westport unique in this debate — or are we just another suburb?

Be thoughtful.  Play nice.  Don’t drag your neighbors through the mud.

Will Westport Be Fine Too?

I like reading David Brooks.

The New York Times columnist often infuriates me.  Sometimes he surprises me.  Always, he makes me think.

Yesterday’s piece — “Relax, We’ll Be Fine” — was particularly thought-provoking.

David Brooks (Courtesy of the New York Times)

Slapping down the doom-and-gloomsayers, Brooks describes “a great luscious orgy of optimism. ”  Despite all the problems, he wrote, “America’s future is exceedingly bright.”

Well!

Not one to simply declare, oh, say, “Morning in America,” Brooks backs up his sunny prediction with a slew of statistics.  (He also gets slammed hard in the Timeswebsite comments, by both the left and right.)

Seeking to make limoncello out of the columnist’s lemonade, I wonder if Brooks’ optimistic orgy applies to Westport, as well as New York, Washington, and all the normal places that are not those 3.

For one thing, Brooks says, as America’s population surges by 100 million people over the next 40 years, our country will become “enterprising and relatively young.”  In 2050 only a quarter of us (er, you — I don’t think I’ll be around) will be over 60.

Will this still be viable housing in 2050? If so, for whom?

That should put a spring in your step.  But:  Will Westport follow suit?  Will our town be more affordable to young people in 2050 than 2010?  Will we attract young singles?  Perhaps people will have more children, realizing that the large homes being built today can contain “Big Love”-size families.

Brooks notes the trend toward “neo-downtowns — suburban gathering spots where people can dine, work, go to the movies and enjoy public space.”

That’s one of the ideas behind the current revitalization of Saugatuck.  There will be retail space, offices and residences.  It’s envisioned to be a lively, exciting place — the 2010s version of that 1910s neighborhood. 

Will Saugatuck stand alone, or will other sections of Westport follow?  Who knows?  But it’s certainly an exciting prospect (particularly the part about a movie theater ). 

Brooks hails America’s position as a “magnet for immigrants.”  Half the world’s skilled immigrants come here, he says — and they start a quarter of all new venture-backed public companies.

Despite its Stepford stereotype, Westport is a magnet for those abroad too.  I wouldn’t call them “immigrants” exactly — most here work for international corporations and banks — but keep your ears open at the beach any day, and you’re bound to hear a number of foreign tongues.

Will Westport continue to attract these global citizens?  What should we do to keep them — and how can we leverage their experiences and talents to improve our community?

Will Wall Street and Westport be synonymous in years to come?

Brooks also calls the U.S. a world leader in economic competitiveness.  He cites our cutting-edge scientific and technological development.  In addition, the average American worker is nearly 10 times more productive than his Chinese counterpart.

But those are 2 areas in which Westport does not compete.  We’re not an R&D center or a manufacturing hub.  Our economic engines are finance and media.

In 2050, will those sectors continue to serve us well?  Will Wall Street still be around, and will our own Main Street be tethered to it?  What about Madison Avenue, and 30 Rock?

David Brooks peers intriguingly toward the mid-century mark.  Tuesday’s column might be eerily prescient — or 4 decades from now it could be passed around whatever succeeds the internet as a hilarious example of delusional thinking.

A lot can happen between 2010 and 2050.  Hell, a lot can happen between 2010 and 2011.

But it never hurts to look ahead, think, and wonder about where we’re going, how we’ll get there, and what our Westport world will look like if we arrive.