Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor
Harvard University Press, 2016
320 pp., $35.00
The Squatters Next Door
The first home we almost bought was a renovated loft in downtown Los Angeles. We were young urban idealists. The loft boasted an Italian-designed kitchen, hardwood floors, natural light, and all the charm of luxury amenities tucked inside the hollowed out Art Deco shell. We figured we would be a part of revitalizing a lost urban core with a cohort of similarly minded entrepreneurs, artists, and would-be world changers. We would be hipster Jesus before hipsters were in. In our eagerness to be a part of what some would term urban revitalization, we hadn't yet seen the underbelly of gentrification played out on a national scale. But, when pregnancy and job changes suddenly moved my husband and me to new cities and suburbs, we said goodbye to our schemes of urban renewal in Los Angeles. We could no longer use the city as our site of identity, and home ownership—that prerequisite of the American Dream—slipped through our fingers.
What is it about owning land, and specifically the image of the owned home, that has become part and parcel of what it means to be American? That is the question that chased me throughout Lisa Goff's Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor. One need only think of a few instances in American literature to cement the link between American identity and home-making: from the floating Mayflower to the Puritans' "city on a hill," the gothic homes in Hawthorne, Thoreau's hut in Walden, the Southern homes in Faulkner, and, today, the sprawling suburban McMansions of reality television. But this question of home ownership is one Goff does not answer, except through the back door, presenting an alternative history to the largely white Protestant middle-class narrative of pioneer homesteading on the Eastern seaboard. Lisa Goff's book doesn't look to clapboard homes or plantations or the do-it-yourself cabin on the frontier. Instead, she focuses on shanties and the "tangled and intricate combination of American anxieties over race, ...