Thursday, July 9, 2009


How much space do we actually need? Here in North Texas, people feel they need a lot. Urban sprawl is ubiquitous in cities across the continent, but everything really is bigger here. Shortly after I moved to the area, I was sitting in the "watching room" at my kids' gymnastics class, and heard a woman say, "My house isn't that big. It's only 3300 square feet." My own sixties ranch house had about a thousand square feet less, but our yard was almost half an acre, with huge, beautiful live oak trees and the requisite sprinkler system. After ten years in Toronto, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of room I had around me. This woman (married to an orthopedic surgeon, she later disclosed quite loudly) thought my quarters quite close indeed.

Now my house is a little "cottage" of about 1,200 square feet, positively Lilliputian for Fort Worth, but perfect for my life now. The ranch house with the live oaks felt positively huge during the first weekends I spent without my children, and couldn't possibly keep it up. So my husband moved back in and lives there still, giving the kids a place with history, at least half the time.

When women walk into my house for the first time, they usually gasp, "Oh, it's so pretty! And you have it almost all to yourself." Men mostly say, "Wow, it's small." In truth, now I know it's more than I need, at least half the time. My friend in Houston is now an empty-nester and has moved into a 1/1 apartment, albeit in the building with the infamous pool. I can imagine myself in such a small space (although not at party central, which I can visit but would wear thin inside of a week) but at this point, a house with a yard in the neighborhood where my children's classmates live is the life I need now.

Today there was an article in the Real Estate section of the New York Times website. It showed photographs of a 350 square-foot space in Greenwich Village. It is lovely, but I laughed when the tenant--who is a buyer for an upscale retail chain--said she'd moved from Portland where she'd had twice the space for half the money. Living small isn't necessarily inexpensive, even if it's a relative bargain.

A wonderful magazine called Dwell has some fabulous ideas for small spaces. The magazine is devoted to showing how regular people (not those of Architectural Digest pedigree, it's implied in their mission statement) can enjoy good, comfortable design, often in diminutive floorplans. Their website features photographs and lots of resources for good home design. See the link on my right sidebar.

Back to real life, far from bohemian Village garrets. A couple of years ago, the kids and I were in the car, stopped at a light. My son looked over at an admittedly nice house and said, "Maybe I'll live there when I grow up." I asked he and his sister if they thought they'd live in Fort Worth all their lives. Their response was along the lines of, where else would we live? I decided then and there that they needed to see more of the world. Fort Worth is a wonderful, livable town, but I want them to know people live differently elsewhere. Although I am not about to haul them off to a Calcutta slum, I do want them to see that people live happily in spaces that don't include a media room or a poolhouse.

It's taken me some time, but in a couple of weeks we are off to Chicago. A very generous friend of my parents has offered to let us stay in an apartment on the ground floor of her house, and I can't wait to show the kids the joys of a city where one can take public transit and walk, walk, walk. I want them to know that a big city isn't necessarily impersonal, that there are neighborhoods where people will get to know them. I grew up in a town of about 1,800 people, and felt, with good reason, like I lived in a fishbowl. Fort Worth has nearly a million residents, but inside Loop 820 it is almost as socially incestuous as my hometown. Someday my kids might get sick of this, so I want them to have a little street sense if they decide to head off to the big city. Which I hope they do, at least for a little while.

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