Gentrification is old news, it’s been going on for a long time, but not in my neighbourhood, at least not until recently. I’m part of it, we got our place fixed up, and we’ve done the renovation thing. Nice kitchen, a cleanable bathroom, floors without holes, windows that don’t rattle as much as they used to, insulation, French doors. It looks good, feels good, it’s a home, our home. I’d like to think that the renovations kept the character of the house and the neighbourhood. I’d like to think that the previous owner, Barbara, would still recognize it and sense the contours of her life spent in our house: that she’d know that this was still the place her kids were raised and the place where her husband died.
I’m not entirely sure why this is important, why it matters to me. Barbara wasn’t a stakeholder we consulted when we got the plans drawn up or called the builders in. We didn’t consult the neighbours either, bar the proprieties of approval by the relevant public authority. They were in our minds though, they were factors in our considerations. To make our place our home we wanted to build it with a kindly spirit. Kindly to its occupants (current, future, and past), kindly to those who see it everyday, kindly to our guests, kindly to the kids in the street and the people on the train: we want our home to be about hospitality, for those who we know and those who we don’t.
I see lots of that hospitality around our town. There’s a community garden with kale and rocket (arugula) and little bush tucker plums. There’s the surf club and their summers watching my kids not drown. There are the shopkeepers who learn your name and the baristas who remember how you take your coffee. There’s the bus drivers who wave, the early morning joggers who nod as we pass each other on the coast path, the dog walkers with their plastic bags, the bush care group removing the lantana from the creek banks, the school assistants who call me about my daughters’ lost hat, the neighbours who go around The Chook as she cycles nonchalantly down the middle of the road. It’s a good place and a good home.
This morning though my teeth gritted defensively and I began to rant to myself about how the neighbourhood was not the same anymore. Our town is getting the treatment. There’s a new estate, beside the railway line, quickly filling up with McMansions and multiple SUVs parked on pebblecrete. They’re not pretty but they’re someone’s home and I guess they like it. The big old houses, like ours, are starting to be knocked down and developed: replacing verandahs and eighty year-old eucalypts with townhouses and colourbond fences eight feet high. I can see that this is par for the course, the way of the real estate market. Buy, do up or knock down, plant some hebes and agapanthus, sell at a good margin.
But there was this house, formerly part of a row of weatherboard homes, lived in by an older gentleman who sat on a kitchen chair just inside his screen door watching the street. It was a big place: roomy front verandah, huge underhouse, a yard the size of Rhode Island, veggies down the back protected by a ragtag array of chicken wire. The front yard, always a somewhat neglected space, was unadorned but for a few weeks in springtime when a host of freeborn and untended freesias came through the couch grass. The freesias brought the place alive, scent and colour and growth. The freesias were kindly, uncultivated and unpicked: a gift from being.
The older gentleman died last year, didn’t make it through the winter. The house was sold and renovated. The huge yard was subdivided. And the corner in which the freesias grew was used as the dump site for the refuse from gutting the house. I had hopes the freesias would survive but this morning I saw that a large and concreted in fence has been planted right through the freesias corner. They’ll not be back.
It isn’t kindly.