I Miss My Crowded, Messy, and Crumbling College House

The house on Pine Street was a place to gather. Now, home is
safe because it’s not shared.

Most of the time, eight of us lived in the house on
Philadelphia’s Pine Street. Between semesters, it sometimes
dropped to seven; one semester, the large front bedroom became a
triple, making us ten. Often, we were more: In the summers, the
futon in the living room hosted a rotation of friends, friends of
friends, and out-of-town relatives. Sometimes, guests occupied both
the futon and the overstuffed sofa we’d lugged in from the curb
during move-out.

I lived in the house on Pine Street for two years, from June
after my sophomore year of college to the end of May when I
graduated. In my current home, a two-bedroom apartment close to
downtown Mexico City, photos of the house — which we referred to
only as 52, the last two digits of the address — hang on my
bedroom wall, from one of the first days I stepped into the home.
The summer I was 19, the first residents moved in, among them my
older sister, though she’d move out before I entered. We spent a
weekend painting the living room pale pink, the vestibule midnight
blue, and the kitchen yellow. I wouldn’t live there until the
next year, and probably half of the other housepainters never
would, but the home worked like that. We didn’t want the cramped
high-rise dorms, where we had to swipe our IDs to enter; we
didn’t want the looming sorority and fraternity mansions, where
arrogant sophomores in designer sneakers sized up anyone hoping to
cross the threshold to their sticky-floor parties. We wanted a
space to gather. We wanted a door to open.

So we moved to Pine Street. Three doors down, eight to 11 of our
male friends shared a similarly dilapidated house. (The gender
divide was one of the only things we preserved from the
sorority-fraternity system whose houses lined the next block over.)
The house itself was a mess. The wood of the back porch rotted
away. The kitchen ceiling threatened to cave under the weight of
the bathtub above. In the springtime, cockroaches crept out of the
shower drains when I turned on the bathroom light. But the house
became defined by its gatherings more than its physical state. For
a while, we had monthly potlucks, which we called “stranger
dinners”: The conceit, just a little precious, involved inviting
a roster of people who wouldn’t have met otherwise. We shared
house meals with 20 or so of us around every table we could find in
the two houses. In warm weather, we hosted bonfires in a firepit we
built from old bricks in the weed-congested backyard. Most
memorably, on the first or second Saturday of each spring, we
hosted an attempt at a lamb roast. The food itself was a barely
edible afterthought, but it made a good pretext to cram a hundred
or so friends and strangers within our back fence.

The open-door policy extended beyond planned events, though.
More often, we came together spontaneously: A study group morphed
into an ad hoc pizza dinner, a neighbor visited and called another
person over, and the roommates joined in. When I returned from work
or the library late at night, I could find a cluster of people
crying over a breakup, or a roommate baking cookies, or a handful
of strangers drinking cheap wine, or all of the above.

Home began to mean a place to share. The space came to life when
we had people over, even just to drink beers on the collapsing
porch. The magic lay partly in the candor of the encounters there.
Anyone could be in the kitchen. They might be dissecting the latest
campus controversy or cutting each other’s hair, and we’d
probably have a good conversation about it.

I moved out of 52 four years ago now. It remains the home where
I’ve lived the longest in my adult life, and it was by far the
most formative. When I moved to Mexico a few months after
graduation, I spent six months living in a
guesthouse–cum–migrant shelter. At any given moment, my
housemates included a rotating cast of ten to 40 asylum seekers,
backpackers, academics, students, and NGO workers. There, I began
to tire of communal living. The flipside to the lively bustle, the
perpetual drop-in party, is the lack of control. At best, the
living room will never stay neat; someone will always hang up a
print or trash-pick a chair that you don’t like. Someone will
always catch you in the kitchen when you just want to eat in
silence. So I moved into a one-bedroom apartment alone, where I
quickly realized I missed having others around. Over the following
few years, I bounced around a variety of roommate setups, some even
with dear friends. Nowhere, though, have I managed to replicate
that open-door lifestyle.

After college, it’s harder. Friends are scattered around the
city; work hours conflict; coffees and beers and dinners are
choreographed in advance. Late last year, I moved into my own
apartment, where I’ve rented the second bedroom to a streak of
short-term roommates. Most of the time, I’ve enjoyed being able
to control my space more. For upwardly mobile urban professionals,
home is
mostly a retreat
. It’s also a place to curate to an
aspirational aesthetic standard, on display through occasional
gatherings. I’ve always found the use of “entertaining”
strange when referring to hosting visitors, but it reflects a
common view: Home is a place to selectively open to guests for a
meticulously produced experience. In the United States,
homeownership has long been a middle-class ideal, and entertaining
has been a way to signal status. On Pine Street, of course, we
rented — for a price that seemed exorbitant given the drafty
windows and vermin — but home often felt, for better or for
worse, more like a semi-public space: not the pinnacle of personal
success, but a common good, an equalizing terrain.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, I find myself missing the
candid encounters of 52. The primacy of the household unit has been
centered as a matter of public health, and the home has become more
hermetic than ever. In our COVID-19 world, home is safe
specifically because it’s not shared. My coronavirus living
conditions have shifted considerably over the last few months: I
was first home with one roommate; then two became four when friends
and partners needed a temporary place to stay; now we’re back to
two. We’ve sought out activities that feel more intentional than
just encountering each other in the kitchen: planning a game night,
decorating the apartment for a Zoom party, having a picnic on the
roof. But if home is a place to share, it’s nearly impossible to
feel settled in a time of social distancing.

Meanwhile, millions worldwide anticipate a wave of evictions
that could cause an unprecedented spike in unhoused people. About
half a million people in the U.S. lack housing altogether. And
state violence doesn’t respect the home as an impermeable
sanctuary: The police criminalize and violate Black and brown
people in public and private spaces alike. In a world where access
to safe housing is so limited, it’s contradictory to idealize
home itself as a potential equalizing oasis. Recent stories of
homeowners sheltering protesters from the police remind me of this
tension. When public space is criminalized, an open door — a
private home — may provide a momentary refuge, but the threat
outside remains, and that door is never guaranteed.

I’ve daydreamed about the gatherings I’d like to host when
social distancing ends: the roof barbecues or wine nights or
clothing swaps. But more than ever, in my home as much as in my
political imagination, I’m longing for deeper forms of
communality. If home isn’t a human right, it can only be an oasis
for an elite few. If home is the only oasis, most of us will have
nowhere to go. More than entertaining, I hope for new ways of
making space. I yearn for a world in which everyone has at least a
futon to crash on, a place where home is a collective project, a
public space, a perpetually open door.

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
I Miss My Crowded, Messy, and Crumbling College