Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community

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For David Kirp, a gifted storyteller and journalist, the concept of community stretches beyond a cliched figure of speech to describe what happens when people make decisions that reshape one another's lives. He has collected a fascinating variety of such stories from across America to re-create the immediate experience of community--tales that signify in their particulars, giving meaning to the much bandied-about idea of civic virtue. They paint a rich picture of how, for better...

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Princeton, NJ 2000 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. NEW HARD COVER, INCLUDES DUST JACKET. SHIPS FROM WA-USPS. EXPEDITED SHIPPING AVAILABLE. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. ... 360 p. Audience: General/trade. NEW HARD COVER, INCLUDES DUST JACKET. SHIPS FROM WA-USPS. EXPEDITED SHIPPING AVAILABLE. Princeton University Press, 2000. For David Kirp, a gifted storyteller and journalist, the concept of community stretches beyond a cliched figure of speech to describe what happens when people make decisions that reshape one another's lives. For this volume, he has collected a fascinating variety of such stories from across America to re-create the immediate experience of community. We meet two San Francisco families, one Nicaraguan and the other black, trying to live peacefully with each other; residents in the fire-ravaged Berkeley hills, whose greed and architectural ambitions thwart attempts to build the new Eden of their dreams; residents of a small southern town caring for a parentless teenager with AIDS; resid Read more Show Less

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For David Kirp, a gifted storyteller and journalist, the concept of community stretches beyond a cliched figure of speech to describe what happens when people make decisions that reshape one another's lives. He has collected a fascinating variety of such stories from across America to re-create the immediate experience of community--tales that signify in their particulars, giving meaning to the much bandied-about idea of civic virtue. They paint a rich picture of how, for better and for worse, Americans live together.

We meet two San Francisco families, one Nicaraguan and the other black, trying to live peacefully with each other; residents in the fire ravaged Berkeley hills, whose greed and architectural ambitions thwart attempts to build the new Eden of their dreams; parents and teachers fighting against long odds to improve the East Harlem public schools; residents of a small southern town caring for a parentless teenager with AIDS; residents of the New Jersey suburb of Mount Laurel deciding whether poor families will be allowed to live in "our town;" and neighbors choosing sides when a black teenager kills his gay white neighbor. While there are real heroes--Ethel Lawrence, the Rosa Parks of the affordable housing movement; and Deborah Meier, tireless advocate for better schools--the stories are mainly about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

These beautifully written tales reveal individuals in the process of forming new alliances or falling back on familiar ones, "bowling alone" or promoting the common good. They show us, past all self-delusion, who we really are.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Almost Home is almost a book, but not quite. Kirp (public policy, Univ. of California, Berkeley; Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia) combines evocatively written magazine essays into a lackluster volume. These vignettes tell of people ostracized for being different, towns divided by race or class, and schools in crisis. They read well individually but lack a discernible unifying theme. Kirp's introduction and epilog mention in passing the dual nature of community ties--they may bind individuals together or restrict personal expression. However, the author does not provide an overarching analysis to link these disparate stories into a meaningful discussion of the American experience of community. Conceivably useful to those interested in the craft of essay writing; otherwise, not recommended.--Duncan Stewart, State Historical Society of Iowa Lib., Iowa City Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691049731
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/8/2000
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 5.79 (w) x 8.73 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2000, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers.

Chapter 1


After The Berkeley-Oakland Conflagration, A Man-Made Nightmare

STANDING in the fourth-story tower of his startling new home, his untamed beard flying off in every direction, psychotherapist Michael Lesser resembles an Old Testament prophet looking out over the Promised Land. His house is one of nearly three thousand newly built in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland, California, not as part of a planned development but rather one by one, on three square miles reduced to ashes in October 1991 by one of the most destructive wildfires in the nation's history.

    The fire raged for three days. Before it leveled the pine and eucalyptus trees, thick foliage blocked all but the minutest of views from what was then the Lessers' home. Now the vista is almost unimpeded, and Michael Lesser finds himself pleased by the distant and ennobling sight of San Francisco Bay. "It was God," he said during one of my many visits to these charred hills, "who gave us a magnificent 360-degree view."

    The new houses vary from near-duplicates of those destroyed in the fire to insistently postmodernresidences intended for glossy display in the architecture magazines. The Lessers' house was designed by noted Bay Area architect Stanley Saitowitz. Like all of Saitowitz's buildings, it is meant to make a statement, and in this, at least, it succeeds. Most of the Lessers' neighbors liken the massive gunship-gray building to a motel. The more whimsically minded see a submarine encased in stucco, run aground on a sloping suburban lot.

    All the windows in the Lessers' house are positioned to prevent the eye from gazing downward at the tangle of weeds and debris that chokes the rest of their property. The view instead is entirely upward, east toward a treeless landscape of cracked foundations, tall grasses, and fire-twisted ruins. The middle distance is filled with architectural contraptions risen crazily from the ashes, their variegated roofs (flat and mansard, bowed and peaked) overshadowed, a bit farther up the hillside, by the immense backsides of the boxy new constructions commonly called "monster houses."

    The sight startles everyone who encounters it for the first time. It's as if, after the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii had reinvented itself as Las Vegas. I came to these ominous hills in hopes of understanding how this happened—how so many seemingly well-intentioned people, most of them possessed of large sums of insurance money and the aspiration to do well for themselves by doing good, could make such a shambles of what was once a lovely hillside.

THE inferno of 1991 is the most literal, but not the only, trial by fire through which Berkeley has passed. Berkeley is among the best-known cities of a hundred thousand souls anywhere on the planet, and certainly the most willfully controversial. Its university is worldclass; its cultural offerings rival those of cities fifty times its size; its street-theater politics, although muted in recent years, play two standard deviations to the left of Democratic Party orthodoxy; and its capacity to embrace the artistic avant-garde is legendary. The city trades on this reputation, writing and rewriting advertisements for itself as "the conscience of the white Western world" and "the intellectual epicenter of the United States."

    Berkeley's professed radicalism makes it a refuge for the mad and the visionary alike, for Nobel Prize laureates and lawyers who have seen the transcendent light. Despite this, it remains a socially divided community where geography recapitulates demography. The flatlands that fan out from the university campus west to San Francisco Bay suffer the deprivations that beset every American city. Crowded with modest workingman's bungalows built half a century ago, the flats are social light-years removed from the serene hills on the city's southeastern corner, where the average house sells for half a million dollars and the views reach as far as the Golden Gate Bridge.

    The October 1991 fire did not scorch the flats. It was the hills, covered with 1,800 acres of brush and scrub, parched by six years of drought, that burned. Winds blew at thirty-five miles an hour; tree branches shot flames like spears across two major freeways and a reservoir. During the three days that the fire raged out of control, 3,354 single-family homes and 456 apartments situated along the hilly ridge of Berkeley and Oakland were destroyed. One hundred and fifty people were seriously injured. Twenty-five were killed. So complete was the devastation that observers invoked the image of bomb-blasted, smoldering Dresden.

    For a few short months after the fire, the residents of the Berkeley hills behaved in an exemplary manner. Those who had lost their houses insisted on being called survivors, not victims, and the distinction wasn't merely semantic. They would return, they said, hardy pioneers determined to make this charred desert bloom again. The Berkeley fire survivors saw themselves in noble contrast to more materialistic California disaster victims. After a 1993 inferno in Malibu, a local paper carried a story about two intrepid matrons who piled their jewels and dogs into kayaks and set out to sea, where they were rescued by bronzed and heroic lifeguards. Lost in the celebratory telling was the news that the women had abandoned their Hispanic maids.

    An impromptu meeting at nearby Montclair Presbyterian Church, held just two days after homeowners were allowed back into the burn zone, attracted a crowd of nearly two hundred, anxious for news of their neighbors. At the next meeting, a week later, six hundred people turned up, accompanied by a bevy of TV news trucks. A newly invented newspaper, the Phoenix Journal, supplied badly needed information as well as tales of heroism, a platform from which to promote the survivors' cause, and a billboard for merchants eager to tempt these affluent homeless with everything from stress-relieving chiropractic to Turkish kilims.

    People who had been burned out of their homes painted ceramic tiles to memorialize what they had lost: Grandma's fine china and the grand piano that went up in flames, the tabby cat that had gone missing, "the squirrels who used our telephone lines as a highway." A ten-year-old's tile contained just a single word: "Why?" The tiles, two thousand in all, were joined together in a mosaic 9 feet high and 104 feet long, a memorial, displayed at the BART station on College Avenue, whose message carries an emotional punch akin to the AIDS quilt.

    Many of these new refugees saw their loss in almost mystical terms. Barely three weeks after the fire, Deirdre English, a onetime editor of Mother Jones, pubished an essay in a local weekly, the East Bay Express, describing how she had "floated above the smoldering ruins in a state of effortless Zen detachment." The firestorm had swooped down upon her house, obliging her to flee for her life, abandoning every material possession as well as the manuscript of a book in progress.

    At first, she recalled, those material losses felt liberating, part of a new awareness that "attachment to things is a futile denial of death." But Zen masters live hardscrabble lives, and the East Bay hills weren't filled with the sound of one hand clapping. Very quickly, Deirdre English sensed in herself the temptation to "start denying death all over again from the starting line: by madly consuming." In this she was not alone.


A sexual division of labor asserted itself among the refugees. While the women mostly concentrated on keeping their families intact amid all the uncertainties—finding places to live and clothing to wear, swapping sorrows in emotional support groups—the men set out to engineer a new public order. They organized self-help groups, about fifty in all, known as Phoenix neighborhood associations. These newly minted activists weren't interested in reviving the barn-raising tradition of an earlier West, summoning the unscathed to pitch in and rebuild what their neighbors had lost. Instead, they conceived their mission as one of persuading state and federal politicians to amend the tax codes and so rescue the former residents from the calamity of having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in capital-gains taxes.

    When the refugees turned to local public agencies for emergency relief, they offered their suffering as proof of their worth and courage. They said, in effect, "We've been through hell. Now we deserve all the help you can give us." But because California cities are routinely bankrupt, some of the demands could be accommodated only by subtracting services from the residents of the flatlands.

    In a city as racially segregated as Oakland, where the fire did its worst work, the fire survivors' plaint reawakened long-abiding hostilities between the less-affluent majority who lived in the flats and those who lived in the hills. In a letter to the Oakland Tribune, flatlander Joyce Owens-Smith insisted that she wouldn't pay "for people in the hills to have a clean, safe environment while I and the other poor, minority people live in squalor, abandoned by the same government and corporate entities making this audacious request."

    Such thinking wasn't well received at the higher elevations. "We've paid for their police protection and fire protection long enough," the prevailing argument went. "Now it's our turn." A group of hillside residents proposed seceding from Oakland and founding a new city named Tuscany. Oakland, it was said, was famous only for "baseball scores and murder counts."

    Flatlands residents recalled the scant attention paid by government officials to the people made homeless by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and they remembered bitterly that in 1978 the precincts in Oakland that voted for Proposition 13, the initiative forcing California's cities to cut property taxes, were situated in the hills. Now these same landowners were appealing to the municipality they'd helped to bankrupt, asking and receiving help from a city with a reputation for shabby public services. The bitterness of the flatlanders was ignored. Retired Admiral Robert Toney, president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, told the Montclarion, a local paper, that the refugees were "a very desirable part of the population," leaving the flatlanders wondering just how the admiral regarded their presence.

To the insurance companies the homeowners presented a united front, banding together, in groups with acronyms like FIRE and MIFFED, to negotiate bigger settlements. Insurance claims ran to $1.6 billion, nearly half a million dollars for each household. Property owners complained that claims adjusters were low-balling them, discounting their damage estimates. The insurance companies responded by pointing to a handful of rapacious residents who claimed they'd lost possessions, even entire floors of houses, that in fact had never existed.

    Many homeowners discovered after the fire that they carried woefully inadequate coverage—one policyholders' group named itself the Unexpectedly Underinsured Allstate Policyholders—but by drawing on the force of their unified, well-connected voice, as well as on the support of the state's populist insurance commissioner, they wrung an astonishing concession from their insurers. Policies were upgraded retroactively, boosting the amount a homeowner could recover by an average of $200,000.

    As Deirdre English learned, the lessons of the disembodied spirit taught by the old Japanese Zen masters translated with remarkable ease into the Zen of insurance settlements. "Just when the fire experience is encouraging you to detach from worldly possessions, purify your intentions, and all that," she wrote, "the realpolitik of your insurance policy rises up to inflame pride, greed, guilt, and every other unenlightened emotion you can think of.

    "Experience the guilt," she counseled her fellow refugees—but still "fight for your price."

    Once in receipt of their insurance settlements, most residents stopped participating in the Phoenix neighborhood associations. Some householders who had been leaders in their insurance groups cut their own backroom deals, agreeing not to reveal the terms of their settlement to anyone else in their own group. As the checks began to roll in, the neighborhood associations collapsed, and the residents turned their attention toward rebuilding what they had lost.


On the slopes untouched by the fire, the Berkeley and Oakland hills look the way they did generations ago: pleasant homes, many in the Arts and Crafts style that defined progressive architecture in the early years of the century, situated amid informal gardens, framed by sycamores and eucalyptuses grown grand with age, on winding streets that encourage the sense of neighborliness.

    That landscape didn't come about by lucky accident. It was the realization of a philosophy about how houses, and entire neighborhoods, should be designed—a philosophy clearly set forth in a slim volume, published in 1904 and titled The Simple Home, by a young Berkeley poet named Charles Keeler, who propounded what was for the time and place a radically different vision of home, a "simpler, a truer, a more vital art expression." During the early decades of the century, this craftsman's ethos emerged in the designs of a new generation of Berkeley architects, among them Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan.

    Eight weeks after the fire of 1991, the residents of the hills, with the assistance of local architects, published their own book, Community Voices, that laid out their "sense of the larger landscape." By and large the new plans matched Keeler's old metaphysical blueprint. Although the citizens suggested modest improvements—sidewalks in some neighborhoods, more attractive street lighting in others—they placed their emphasis on restoring, in spirit if not in specifics, what had been consumed in the fire.

    What wasn't wanted had a specific name: Blackhawk. In that gated community twenty miles to the east, beyond the hills, homes, which cost an average of $600,000, run upwards of four thousand square feet. Their architecture tends toward the ersatz, and they are arranged with an eye to golf-course proximity rather than the natural patterns of the landscape. Blackhawk looks like all the Brobdingnags rising across America, where new houses keep getting bigger and contemporary means kitsch.

    In keeping with their reputation as exemplars of the nation's better self, the Berkeley refugees meant to prove themselves more visionary than the philistines of Blackhawk. Local architects hoped aloud that the onetime homeowners would do for a new generation as Maybeck and Morgan had done in the aftermath of a 1923 inferno, making a poetic correlation in time and space. Their circumstances provided them with a chance seldom available in a country where individually designed homes have become a rarity for middle-class families. Even for the well-to-do, building a new house usually comes down to a matter of choosing one of three or four standardized models in a real estate developer's catalogue. But the princely sums of insurance money that were paid out placed good architecture within reach of people who weren't Fortune 500 CEOs. "Here was an educated crowd," Berkeley architect Thaddeus Kusmierski told me as we walked through the generously proportioned rooms of his new home, adapted from the plans of his Maybeck-designed house that had been incinerated. "Here were people with taste as well as money."

    Shortly after the fire, Christopher Alexander, a Berkeley architect and planner whose influential book A Pattern Language offers prescriptions for timeless houses and entire cities alike, took up Charles Keeler's turn-of-the-century campaign for simple homes in soul-nurturing neighborhoods. The Berkeley hills had been "an organic and precious thing," Alexander pointed out in a lengthy radio interview on KPFA-FM in Berkeley. While those "lovely and informal places" had been leveled, the streets themselves, the stairway paths that climbed the hills, the foundations of houses—the vital patterns—all remained intact.

    "The idea at every point," Alexander said, "is to make a thing that has life by adding to and elaborating on its structure." The right course of action was to design new homes to fit the footprints of the old.

Yet even as Alexander offered his counsel, homeowners were straying off the path of spiritual enlightenment. After the fire, four residents in ten decided not to return, and many who came back did so because they believed that they had to rebuild in order to get the biggest possible insurance settlement. They weren't the kind of clients that architects refer to as "new home people," the ones who keep notebooks filled with sketches of their fantasy houses and file folders stuffed with articles from Metropolitan Home. They were "old home people," who knew little about architecture and were in no mood to learn. Even though they were nostalgic about the houses they'd lost, the very fact of suffering and loss led them to want—to believe that they were entitled to—more than they'd had. Their specifications, often based on casual conversations with friends or quick perusals of architectural magazines, tended to reflect the thoughtless hodge-podge that goes by the label "contemporary": Gropius married to Colonial, Palladian windows affixed to medieval turrets.

    Hundreds of architects and as many contractors have labored to remake the hillsides since the conflagration, and the result is a muddle. Lacking the kind of shared aesthetic derived from a common culture, unaware of what had gone into the design of the built landscape of the hillsides, many residents equated "better" with bigger and fancier, and their new homes feature four and five bathrooms, three- and four-car garages, double front doors that belong in an expense-account restaurant. The people who built smaller houses, respectful of the historic scale of the neighborhood, found themselves with what appear to be the cabanas of the monster houses that literally overshadow them.

    Some architects treated the damaged landscape as a blank page on which to doodle eccentric fantasies. None went about this task more exuberantly than Ace Architects, a local firm that for one fire-zone client radically reconceived a Bernard Maybeck chapel, supplying the original design with acid-washed copper fish scales on its sides and a balcony modeled after a basketball hoop. For another client, a jazz musician, the firm provided a residence painted in Day-Glo colors, with a megachimney that mimics the curved bell of a mammoth saxophone and twin star towers shaped like trumpets tooting at the sky.

    Ace Architects reserved the most daring of its plans—"a house that was really about the fire!"—for David Roth, a young attorney with a professed fondness for new ideas and a handsome insurance settlement, part of which had gone to purchasing a level lot with a fine view. Ace partner David Weingarten recognized him as the perfect client for his own incendiary vision.

    And what a vision! The shell of a concrete barbecue would remain, "like Grecian ruins," Weingarten told me when I visited his bizarre office building, dubbed the Leviathan, near the Oakland waterfront. The house itself would be made up of three separate buildings, each embodying a different moment in post-fire history: a tower made of copper, which would eventually blacken to take on a charred appearance and thus recall the period immediately after the inferno, when chimneys stood out from the landscape; a rectangle clad in plywood left deliberately rough to symbolize the process of rebuilding; and a stuccoed structure facing the street, looking more or less like a traditional home, though with Pegasus-like wings. Surely such a residence was destined for the pages of Architectural Design.

    The work of construction, however, forced artistic compromise. The old barbecue, Weingarten's "Grecian ruins," had to be removed when a neighbor's contractor backed into it with a tractor. The three parts of the house were physically joined, collapsing the conceptual stages of post-fire history. The plywood box looks less like an unfinished construction than an ordinary wooden rectangle. While the copper tower remains, it's by no means unique: towers are everywhere in the burn zone, the new design cliché. As seen from the street, the most distinctive feature of David Roth's residence are those wings. It's no longer a house with a story line but one that looks ready to fly away.

    Just a few lots down the street from Roth's house in Oakland, Stanley Saitowitz, the architect responsible for Michael Lesser's submarine-run-aground, produced a long narrow building and dressed it in aluminum squares of silver and gray. Some neighbors call it the Air Stream, and it does resemble those vintage 1950s trailers. To others it's a sardine tin whose lid, a roof that swoops skyward, has come partway off. Around the corner sits a massive steel structure that looks like a Silicon Valley semiconductor plant.

    Such buildings would stick out almost anywhere. They're especially noticeable in a neighborhood where most of the residents, older people who have lived there for years, opted to build versions, albeit somewhat bigger, of the pleasant homes they'd occupied before the fire. When an Air Stream house and a winged tower—house suddenly appear, it's as if strangers had crashed their garden party and upset all the furniture.

    David Roth wanted his new neighbors to like his house. He showed them the model, hoping they'd be reassured, but its strange shapes only made them angrier. The old residents wanted things to be as they had been, with a Swiss-style chalet, circa 1910, reconstructed on the site, not a pyrotechnical folly.

    "Never has anyone been quite so rude to me in all my life," said Roth, shaking his head at the memory as we walked through his still-unfinished house. Considering that he makes his living as a lawyer, that's saying a great deal.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Community Theater 3
Our Towns
Chapter 1 Ironies in the Fire: After the Berkeley-Oakland Conflagration, a Man-made Nightmare 25
Chapter 2 Talk, Not Guns, in a San Francisco Neighborhood 47
Chapter 3 A Suburb at Odds: The Epic Battle of Mount Laurel 60
Chapter 4 Houses Divided: A Gay Man, His Teenage Neighbor, and a Murder 107
Chapter 5 What School Choice Really Means: Fact and PR in East Harlem 133
Chapter 6 Good Schools in Bad Times: Reading, Writing--and Hustling for Support--in LA 160
Chapter 7 Tales from the Bright Side: The Surprising Success of America's Biggest Community College 174
Chapter 8 Uncommon Decency: Pacific Bell Responds to AIDS 193
Chapter 9 The Politics of Needle Exchange: Why What's Banned in Boston Is "Best Practice" in Seattle 226
Chapter 10 Look Back in Anger: Hemophilia Activism and the Politics of Medical Disaster 248
Chapter 11 A Boy's Life: Deadly Sexual Secrets in a Southern Town 267
Chapter 12 No Angels, No Demons: Shelby Steele Refuses to See Things in Black and White 287
Chapter 13 The Many Masks of Richard Rodriguez 307
Epilogue: Fault Lines 331
Acknowledgments 335
Index 339
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2001

    Quality Stories, Low Unity

    Kirp assembles a collection of enthralling, attention-grabbing stories but does not achieve a high level of unity through the text. The individual stories are well told and explain the difficulties of achieving 'community' in modern American Society. However, Kirp fails to unite the stories to explain 'America's love-hate relationship with community.' Individualism is attacked in the introduction but praised in the epilogue. The brief literature review in the introductory chapter explains Kirp's base, but Kirp fails to later unite the academic world with his real world stories. I recommend this book to those who have a pessimistic view of American's success in living as 'community.' If you are an optimist, look elsewhere. I recommend the book to those looking for stories on the difficulty of achieving 'community,' but not to readers seeking a solid definition of 'community.'

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