My great-grandmother ran a boarding house. Widowed, she lived in western PA with a bevy of girls and a few little boys–not a lot of options. So she opened up her house in a mill town and took in boarders. These were inevitably unmarried men who didn’t want to cook or clean. They worked hard on their shifts, came back to shovel the food in, and slept; somewhere along the way they probably stopped in the bar. No visitors, no cursing, no public drunkenness. And she survived, her daughters met young men whose characters she quickly knew, she kept her mortgage healthy.
So when I saw this online headline last night I was interested: “Bring Back the Rooming House?”Author Neil Peirce is a metropolitan specialist, and he’s speaking to the “New Millennials,” young grads whose income can’t keep pace with city apartment costs, but who want to live in cities. He jokes that he’s not talking about “tiny rooms with cast iron beds, a shared bathroom down the hall, and meals ruled over by a stern older woman. Shared meals? Maybe not anymore.” No, he’s talking about high density city spots with smaller dwelling footprints.
Places like Palo Alto, CA’s Tree House Development, meant for those with low incomes–housing in California is so expensive, lots of folks would love this sliding scale 35 unit spot. It only includes two one-bedroom slots; the rest are studios, with prices that range from $371 to $928, depending on income. The best part? The city council passed the project on the condition that the developer provide transit passes to each resident, so that traffic and parking issues would be lessened.
In the same article, architect/city planner Mark Hinshaw, author of True Urbanism, recommended new smaller units of 400-500 sq ft in buildings with grass roofs, situated
over start-up “commercial incubator” first floors–infill building that might require zoning change.
But why not combine some of these ideas with the old-fashioned boarding house? First,
let’s distinguish the boarding house from the flophouse, like the late, unlamented Jay Hotel in Ohio City. Flophouses were often built for seasonal workers or the down and out; they have minimal amenities and are very small. Districts once full of flophouses, like NYC’s Bowery, offered off-the-street protection for those who today might be in shelters. Drunks, prostitutes, drug addicts–flophouses come to mind. The boarding house, on the other hand, creates images of a woman whose hair was
scraped into a bun, allowed no nonsense and ran a tight ship in an environment that flourished through the Great Depression.
How about something that combines modern amenities–high-speed wifi, transit passes, the cool factors of greenness and sustainability–with old-fashioned amenities? That is,
meals made by someone else, clothes washed by someone else, room swept/vacuumed by someone else on a weekly basis. Small rooms and larger common spaces–reminiscent of older models, like dorms, ship staterooms, YMCA rooms or monastic refectories–no, no, not prisons.
A small room needn’t be soulless, as boutique hotels have discovered. New York’s Hudson Hotel, where I stayed four years ago, used to be a YMCA. Its conversion kept very small rooms, but each has its own bath and desk. There’s a refectory set-up in the dining room, interesting nooks for chatting with friends, a library with billiards, a bar, a lovely terrace shared space. What if a young
working person closed at 7, came home, had an included meal, flopped into a bed without worries about washing dishes, going food shopping, doing laundry?
I would have loved this kind of city living. No need for a car, even for food shopping. Places to relax and unwind. Attractive surroundings. Lower costs. Complete freedom to
concentrate on a project, on living. Interestingly enough, this kind of setup is being abandoned by new university dorms, where the tendency is away from shared rooms and shared floor bathrooms to individual bedrooms in a suite set up with a living room. But students want that taste of independence, a feel for what i
t’s like to live like a grown up.
I’d bet many adults would cheerfully chuck that independence for some hired TLC. Some writers are advocating a similar scheme for a kind of fun environment for retirees, and it does have some built-in sociability. Just the thing for the hip boomer who’s tired of cooking and cleaning, and is newly single!
I really like this thought for an urban affordability site. Although the residents would be its main users, perhaps the dining areas or bar could be open to outsiders, for extra income. It could even be a training arena for those in the hospitality arena, or host cooking school internships.
And there are a lot of possibilities to maximize small spaces–high ceilings with sleeping lofts, or even Murphy beds and tables that fold up into the wall. The
New Simplicity. Why not?