There’s No Place Like Home?

Posted by WiredSisters on May 20th, 2014 filed in Daily Life, Economics, Feminism, Guest Blogger, Marriage, Work

Well, maybe not. The Atlantic website has a new article advocating the end of the home-neighborhood school, and relocating schools as much as possible near workplaces (see: The author says it would make life easier for parents and kids, and make schools more diverse. It’s an attractive argument. For working parents, it cuts probably about 50% off commuting time (or eliminates the issues connected with school buses) and reduces considerably the problems associated with child care. Presumably the workplace-neighborhood schools could also develop their own before-and-after-school programs. Parental participation in school activities and meetings would be easier to arrange. It would even make life a bit easier for underpaid teachers, who might have less trouble finding side jobs (the author doesn’t mention this, but it’s worth considering.)

Certainly residential neighborhoods are a lot more racially and economically segregated than most business and industrial localities and workplaces. Most of us work side by side with people from all kinds of backgrounds and never even notice it. But the ethnic and economic composition of schools directly reflects that of residential neighborhoods, which are still unofficially but intentionally segregated, at least economically, and often ethnically as well. Okay, the Wired household lives in Chicago, which is one of the most segregated cities in the country. We do live in one of its few more-or-less integrated neighborhoods (because Mr. Wired insisted on it as a matter of principle.) But I still see a much more varied population around my downtown office than at home, most of the time.

But would this be the first slice of the salami? We read fairly often about dormitories attached to Asian factories. We tend to see them as a serious index of privation. The First World had similar arrangements during its early industrial period, though they were usually privately operated by people other than the factory owners—boarding house owners and charitable organizations, generally. We see the point of such arrangements as providing for workers who were not paid enough to afford to rent their own apartments, much less buy houses. When construction and rehab workers in post-Katrina New Orleans were hired from out of state, they were generally housed in dormitories because there just wasn’t anyplace else for them to live. Every now and then we read news stories about restaurants busted for hiring undocumented workers and providing sleeping space for them in the basement or a nearby building. Is the wave of the future residential buildings side-by-side with, or even incorporated into, large business and industrial facilities? Are we on the way to abolishing residential neighborhoods altogether?

Until very recently, no realtor worthy of the name would consider marketing residential property next door to a major business or industry. The separation between the two was the whole point of zoning, city planning, and the real estate market until about twenty years ago. The worker was entitled to get away from the workplace to a neo-Jeffersonian pseudo-farmstead for at least a few hours a day, and her children were entitled to be reared and educated in such a place.

Jefferson, of course, worked at home, a lot. (When he was president, like all US presidents before or since, he “lived over the store,” as Bush Junior once described it.) Daily commuting hadn’t even been invented at the time, so he certainly had no idea how much of a burden it would become for the average working person. A lot of lawyers and politicians had to travel from home to the seat of government or the court, and stay in an inn or boardinghouse for days or weeks at a time. (One of my great-greats was a congressman from northern New England, whose will made rather generous provisions for his landlady and her daughter in DC “who were very kind to me when I resided in their house.” Our family has had a good deal of amusement speculating on the nature of this kindness.) But that was quite different from today’s daily commute which, on the average, lasts 25 minutes each way at last report (in large cities, it can last between 45 minutes and two hours. And none of these calculations include the extra time involved in getting the worker’s children to school.) Are we in the process of deciding that the separation of home from workplace is a luxury most of us can no longer afford, or even a burden we are no longer willing to bear?

Perhaps employers find that prospect especially alluring. No more employees coming in late because the car (or the train, or the bus) broke down or got stuck in traffic. No more employees having to leave an hour early for a PTA meeting or a Little League game.

The author of the Atlantic article bases much of her argument on the fact that there just aren’t any more stay-at-home mothers, around whom residential neighborhoods were originally planned. Which is sort of true and sort of not. Yes, there are a lot more two-worker families, and one-worker single-parent families, than there used to be. But there are also a lot of no-earner families. If housing was a fringe benefit of the job, does the laid-off worker also immediately become homeless? If living near the workplace was a voluntary private arrangement, would it be nearly as attractive to an unemployed worker?

The answer to the first question is: often. Some analysts of homelessness characterize current live-in jobs as being a possible path out of homelessness, but also sometimes a path into homelessness. Regular viewers of Downtown Abbey may also have noticed the occasional plot twists that result from the inability of servants who have children to reside with them. A dear friend of mine was raised in an orphanage in the UK for precisely that reason. He wasn’t an orphan (and neither were a lot of the other kids in the same institution); his mother simply couldn’t keep him with her in the house where she was a servant.

The answer to the second question is less clear. It may be a lot easier to find another job if you live next door to another workplace. But if large workplaces are far apart, finding a new job would be more likely to require a residential move, with consequent hardhips for the family.

Currently, the much-analyzed revival of urban downtowns is stalled at the pre-parental stage. Young people may gladly move into apartments down the street from their offices, singly or in unmarried or married couples, and enjoy the access to culture, education, and recreation. But once they have to find schooling for their children (an issue that now arises three or four years earlier than it used to, because school starts at age three rather than six or seven), they’re off to the suburbs, or at least to pseudo-suburban neighborhoods far from downtown. Remove the school problem from the equation, and downtown becomes liveable all the way through life. This phenomenon requires watching.

Jane Grey



2 Responses to “There’s No Place Like Home?”

  1. Kai Jones Says:

    Another good reason for schools near homes is playmates and homework help available evenings and weekends.

  2. Sappho Says:

    I ran across one of my ancestors, living as a young man in one of those boarding houses near work, back when the rubber business was big in New Haven, CT, in the 19th century.