My husband and I are currently in the process of selling our house; a house that will likely outlive us. While there are no guarantees, as no building can be considered safe from disaster, our rooms are enclosed by bricks that outlived their bricklayers. The sturdiness of the construction suggests it could take 50 years of calculated neglect before the house would disintegrate to a point past repair. At one point during its history, our modest 900 square feet housed a chemist, his wife, and four children. Of these, the chemist and his wife are almost certainly at rest; the children may be as well.
It is unnerving to have conversations with others about buying, owning, selling. When what we have really been doing throughout is borrowing. While we own our home from a legal perspective (and have important rights associated with that ownership), when we forget we are borrowers in a long timeline of borrowers, we can easily become overly possessive – wishing we could control, for example, the tastes and feelings of future owners. Wishing we could require them to love the house’s architectural details in precisely the same way that we do. When we rely too heavily on the language of ownership, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the best we can hope for is the opportunity to be a responsible steward to our house and to reap reasonable benefits in return.
Our society is comfortable with the language of ownership, of objects, of acquisition. So it feels natural to use this language when describing places of all sorts – my house, my block, my neighborhood, my town. Except that just as my house will likely outlive me, my neighborhood almost certainly will. Every place I love and care for is only temporarily my responsibility. Every proud resident, generous block captain, concerned neighbor, devoted community volunteer – they are all stewards of borrowed places.
I believe acknowledging our relationship to the places we care for can help us become better community leaders. When we mistakenly believe a place belongs to us, even if that belief is a subconscious assumption, our good intentions can become subverted. We are used to an economic system where ownership is total. So when we feel we own a place, we tend to shut others out as we take on the burden of full responsibility. We allow for only one narrative, stifling alternate readings and alternate perspectives of what a place might be. Thus a legitimate desire for a neighborhood identity might manifest itself as a micromanagement of appearances or a stringent definition of permitted uses. Or a legitimate concern for safety might result in unfounded suspicions of new residents who don’t fit a preconceived idea of what characteristics make a “good neighbor.”
In the language of borrowing, places are more clearly the result of care from a wide range of individuals. Places are treated a bit more like library books. When you check out a library book, you are expected to treat it with respect. You protect it and enjoy it for the time it is in your care. However, the book doesn’t belong to you. You can’t control who else has read the book before or who will read it next. There isn’t one correct way to experience the book, and no two people will read it in the same way. Places are experienced as readings over time by people with varied perspectives, and the best places are those with engaged, yet humble, readers who seek to make improvements while still acknowledging their understanding to be incomplete.
In 1904, a bricklayer mixing mortar could not have known that my husband and I would decide to marry while living in the house he helped build. A chemist raising his family could not have anticipated that his hectic room full of children would someday serve as a library for two quiet introverts. And yet, it is in part due to their care that we have been able to live contentedly in our house for the past six years. Out of gratitude to them, I, in turn, want to care for buildings, neighborhoods, and cities in a way that leaves plenty of room for people, ideas, lifestyles, and experiences that I cannot predict.