Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor
Harvard University Press, 2016
320 pp., 42.00
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, class, and ethnicity."
Goff's scholarly quest begins with the word "shanty" itself, first used in the 1820s to describe self-constructed hovels on the American frontier. In Goff's history, the term refers to any housing built from materials at hand. But like all dwellings, shanties aren't simply physical structures; like sprawling plantation homes or today's suburban tract homes, our dwellings send messages about class, race, and our values. Shanties, too, have their own mythology.
Whether built from poles, urban debris, or mud, shanties allowed the poor to create an alternative to life on the grid. Shanties were often a stepping-stone, the sort of structure you put up while you cleared land and waited for the money to build your log cabin or frame home, Little-House-on-the-Prairie style. Shantytowns had their own logic antithetical to a growing urban grid. They were the places where outsiders got lost. The cobbled-together shanty structure was not the well-ordered, pre-planned, single-family home; instead, shantytowns privileged adaptation—not only in their construction but also in their use of space to farm and garden and in the barter economy that flourished in their precincts. Shantytowns, though poor, could thrive. And if the poor could thrive, like the Hebrew slaves under Pharoah's harsh rule, then, from the position of threatened power, they must be eradicated. Shanties always infuriate the middle class.
Whereas on the frontier, shanties could be read in the vein of self-reliance (although only if they were temporary structures en route to immigrant homes), in urbanizing areas shantytowns showed the middle classes how precarious their newfound wealth was. Shantytowns, Goff writes, were the "marker of the border between civilized us and uncivilized them," and by bulldozing such eyesores (in Manhattan and countless other locations), the "haves" kept their wealth secure while disenfranchising the "have nots."
Goff chases this line between "us" and "them," showing how shantytowns were racially other—from Irish immigrants often vilified in early American literature, to African American shanties outside Atlanta during Reconstruction, and to present-day colonias on the Mexican-Texas border. Shanties have always stood in for the outsider, whether through racial or class difference; Goff cites a wide range of examples, including paintings, promotional literature, and an 1882 Broadway play she spends a chapter on, Squatter Sovereignty. As the disparity between "us" and "them" widened, Goff writes, "Shantytowns helped middle-class Americans perform the task of deciding who was a citizen." Increasingly "American" meant a white, middle-class dweller on the urban grid (and later, in suburban tract homes).
Shantytown, USA is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but its relevance to our present moment is clear. Gentrification, the vogue for tiny houses, the narrative of living off the grid competing for attention with sagas of large house-hunting: all of these signs of the times (and many more) connect with the story Goff tells. If shanties are indeed "cultural signposts leading the way to a deeper understanding of class consciousness in the United States," Goff's book should be read alongside Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. "The discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty," Isenberg writes, "highlights the disconnect between image and reality … . American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. 'They are not who we are.' But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not."
It's hard to see how conversations about race and class can cross the aisle in an increasingly polarized country, if we do not have models that implore us to take a closer look at difference. When humans become "us" and "them," there's a slippery slope from bulldozing structures to bulldozing people. The temptation with a book like Goff's is to treat it as yet another artifact, like the shanty itself, for the conscientious middle-class reader to investigate, classify, and put gingerly on the shelf, without any real change in behavior or outlook.
We have a rich American legacy of equating home-building with moral goodness. As a Christian, I believe there is something right and God-given in this equation, as the Bible narrates a story of homecoming: from the first Garden, to the heavenly feast where all of creation will be redeemed. We long for homes that are places of refuge and welcome. Such a longing isn't just American; it's part of our human DNA. It is more than a justice issue that humans have a home: it is also part of the care of a home-making God, the one who pitched his tent among us. But there is something twisted in imbuing homes with a corresponding morality, as if our dwellings reflect or confer exceptionalism. When we attach morality to a structure, the poor always lose. When we make houses into emblems of self-reliance and "middle-class values … [such as] privacy, property, and individualism," homes (regardless of size and construction) simply cannot hold that symbolic weight.
Although Goff doesn't answer my questions about owning land or a home as part of the American ideology directly, the question lurks behind her analysis of shantytowns. Shanties bypass the middle-class path to success and its values. As such, the destruction of shantytowns—whether by bulldozing them in the 1870s, parodying them on stage, or pitying them as symbols of a culturally backward "Third World"—is necessary to sustain the myth of the American Dream. By giving us a history of the American working poor through their dwellings, Lisa Goff asks implicit questions about how we relate to one another, to our landscape, and to our national rhetoric. When we read books like Goff's or Isenberg's, we are required to ask: What sort of dream are we promoting? And who has access to it? What does it look like in our cities, suburbs, and rural communities? And perhaps more personally, how have we attached symbolic meaning to our own homes?
All this leads me back to wondering what would have happened if we'd bought that loft in downtown Los Angeles. I imagine it would have been quite easy to insulate myself from the homeless "them" I stepped past on my way to corporate America. But I hope that our cities (and America) are a large enough space to work out differences of class, race, and ethnicity under a banner of common humanity. Not that it will be easy or without mistakes and offense. Yet I hope that as people of faith, when confronted with difference, we will look into another's eyes and see someone also made in God's image. It's in empathy that civility starts, no matter where we pitch our tent.
Ashley Hales holds a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh, but she spends most of her time writing, chasing her four children, and helping her husband plant a church in Southern California.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.