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Good Letters

vintage image, public domain

“The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Americans are shopping seriously for two things this September: houses, thanks to an interest rate decrease, and presidential candidates, thanks to desperation. Is there a connection between what people look for in homes and politics? Do we draw on an underlying aquifer of values when we choose where we will live?

Red state and blue state residents are divided not just on politics but on the nitty gritty of their personal lives, from what they bingewatch on Netflix to what they bookmark on PornHub. Surely, then, a process as life-changing as home-owning should reveal something fundamental about what matters to Americans. 

A process as life-changing as home-owning should reveal something fundamental about what matters to Americans. 

As my wife and I moved this summer—from one of the reddest parts of the country, Montana, to one of the bluest, Washington, D.C.—we decided to treat the process as an informal study. We fell in love with our house not for a single reason but because it felt, somehow, very us. But perhaps our house—like The Bachelorette—was polyamorous. Maybe it could love another family as much as we loved it.

So, we wondered: was our house Democratic or Republican? Were those slate blue shingles its true persuasion, or merely a façade?

We assumed selling would be straightforward. We even hatched elaborate strategies for when we’d inevitably get multiple bidders. Turns out, we didn’t live in a dream house after all. With each visit, our agent texted us dispiriting feedback from the buyers.

Turns out, we didn’t live in a dream house after all.

First, there was the fact that it was multi-level. The same people who enjoyed a weekend hike in the Rockies had no intention of summiting the seven steps from living room to bedroom. FitBit, it seemed, was still a distant rumor from the east. There was no convincing Montanans that stairs somehow constituted an activity, much less a commodity.

For much of the country, multiple floors help maximize space and resources. In Montana, that’s irrelevant. Sprawl is not so much a dirty word here as a sign of progress. A month into listing, we learned that the most coveted home style in our area was the ranch, followed closely by its female consort, “the ranchette.”

The best ranches and ranchettes have extensive basements; cool in the summer, warm in the winter. Families gather around flat screen televisions so massive they look like flight decks aboard an imperial star destroyer. Invariably, there’s a wet bar in the corner. For a state with prudish mores, at least in public, this ubiquitous feature makes it feel like one’s always on the cusp of a seventies key party.

The fortified basement also appeals to another, presumably unrelated, demographic: doomsday preppers. For those convinced Montana is a hot target for ISIS (a theory I heard espoused more than once at Costco), a secure refuge with ample pantry space is not to be underrated. Unfortunately, our lower level is cursed with sunny egress windows. There’s a small crawl space under the kitchen, but not enough to rely on in a proper apocalypse. My wizened contractor, knowing I was Jewish, called it “a nice Anne Frank space if you need it.”

With severe weather routine—there’s a repair shop in town named “Hail Team 6”—garages are essential. But they’re also objects of desire. If houses in Montana had Tinder profiles, four-car garages would be their most swipeable quality. As owners of a mere two-car construction, occupied by one lonely Subaru, we were clearly poor judges of what makes a garage sexy.

We also neglected to consider where people would park their RVs. We’d spotted RVs around the state, propped up on bricks like vintage tanks in a war museum, and assumed they were relics from a bygone era, before people cared about conserving fuel and calculating carbon footprints. Maybe it’s not too late, now that I think of it, to put up a sign in the yard:  “RVs welcome.”

There’s one final inconvenient truth about my house: it’s old. Over and over again buyers have texted the same sentiment: “For the same money I can get a house built in the 2000s.” All attempts to tout our remodel have fallen on deaf ears. No amount of plastic surgery, it turns out, can redeem or obscure our poor old gal’s birth date: 1985.

While Montanans brim with pride about their deep connections to the land—an unsettling claim given the long history of native peoples here—they appear to have a simultaneous zeal for the new. Even in our little subdivision, there is a palpable sense that there is endless space and time to build. 

So where does all this leave my family and our gentle blue dream house?  It has multiple levels, ample natural light, charming woodwork, and a pleasant corner lot full of trees and gardens. 

It’s a disaster only a Democrat could love.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Aaron Rosen

Aaron Rosen is the visual art editor of Image and Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is the author and editor of many books, including Art and Religion in the 21st Century.

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