Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Triple-deckers in peril

As if we needed more bad news from Recession World, The New York Times reported the other day that three-deckers have been disproportionately impacted by foreclosures, and are thus somewhat in a state of peril.

Having spent the first seven years of my life in one, and my Worcester childhood in the midst of them, I meet this news unhappily. One thing to hear that slapped up, pressboard and glue suburban sprawl houses are being abandoned by over-mortgaged yahoos. Another to hear that the steady, stalwart and decidedly unglamorous triple decker is in the throes. Say it ain't so....

For anyone who's not familiar with the real New England, and has somehow come to believe that New England = Freedom Trail, Concord Bridge, Deerfield Academy, Route 6A on the Cape, Fenway Park, Newport Mansions, Mount Washington, Killington, and L.L. Bean, a triple-decker is a straight up wooden house with three flats piled one on top of the other. This picture, lifted from The New York Times (thanks, Gray Lady!) is a pretty good example of one.

The color here is quite authentic. Most deckers were gray, brown, green, pale yellow, or white. What's not captured is the often open-air backstairs, which were the usual mode of entrance and exit - front entry for special occasions only. Front stairs smelled of floor polish; back stairs - if they were open, always felt kind of rickety and splintery. If they were enclosed, they smelled of faintly sour milk, cabbage, and garbage wrapped in newspaper and tied with string (which was how garbage was handled before the coming of the Hefty Bag.

The decker that I lived in - owned and operated by my doughty Grandmother Rogers - was a variation on a theme. (My grandmother called it a 2 1/2 family house - whatever a 1/2 family is.) Unlike most deckers, which were flat-roofed, the third floor at Nanny's was under a slanted roof, so all of the rooms were odd shaped and had major sections along the external walls where you couldn't stand up straight. Cozy!

We lived on the slant-roofed third floor until I was six months old, when we did a switcheroo with the tenants on the second floor, the Deignans, who I'm sure got their rent dropped to move on up to the less desirable third floor. They didn't stay all that long before the exited the building entirely, and I mostly remember the third floor as being unoccupied. Occasionally we got to run around in it. (Oddly, the Deignans were not just tenants of long-standing, but Mr. and Mrs. and one of their sons are buried in a cemetery plot right in front of that shared by my parents, grandmother, and Uncle Charlie.)

Deckers were built in New England cities in the late 1800's through early 1900's as the next step up housing from tenements. Many housed multiple generations or branches of the same family and/or young couples starting out. Pretty much everyone I knew growing up had logged some time in a decker, or at least had relatives who still lived in one. New England's broad shouldered, ethnic, industrial cities are full of triple deckers, a more familiar feature of our landscape than any picture postcard lighthouse or rose-covered Cape cottage, that's for sure.

But these days, their foreclosure rates are way out of whack, and some are being abandoned, or razed.

That's due to the boom years, during which absentee investors bought them up, rented them out, and walked away when the demand started to fall - or when the deckers started to fall apart (which can happen to even the most solidly built decker after years of neglect).

The foreclosure rates reported in The Times indicate that while three-deckers make up 14% of Boston's housing stock, they account for 21 percent of foreclosed property. In neighboring Lynn, they're 9 percent of the stock, and 22 percent of the foreclosures.  In New Bedford, 16 percent of the housing stock are three deckers - but 32 percent of the foreclosures. Triple-decker prices have plummeted to a far greater extent than single-family houses or condos.

In Worcester, 60 percent of vacant, bank-owned dwellings with multiple code violations, are three-families, as are 21 of the city’s 27 condemned buildings.

Poor old Worcester!

I hope that Nanny's decker isn't one of the foreclosed or, god-forbid, the condemned. I don't think it is, as I drive by it a couple of times a year on my way to and from the cemetery. While Nanny's house was on a side street, it was right off of Main Street/Route 9, and up on a hill behind the gas station on the corner, so you can get a straight shot of it without having to turn into Winchester Ave.

Nanny's decker has changed over the years. No longer dark brown with pale yellow and dark green trim - a classic decker combo - it's now unrelieved white. Plus they've walled in the second floor porch (called, in Worcester-ese, a "piazza"), that was our summer family room.

The deckers on Main Street seem, the ones I walked by every day going to and from school, are pretty much the same. The one that housed Vic the Blind Barber's shop still has a store in it, as does the one where Teddy the Tailor's shop and dry cleaners was. The set-back one that sells headstones (models in the front yard) is still there, still selling headstones.

I haven't driven up Winchester Ave in years, but I assume that the deckers of my childhood are still standing.

I loved going to the pale cream one where multiple generations of the Anderson-Johnson families lived. (Protestants! But very kindly ones who were very nice to us beggary Catholic kids. Mrs. Anderson gave us nickels and Milky Ways when we scrounged by, and let us listen to the conch shell she kept on her front porch - the one where she "hid" her extra house key.

Gravel-voiced, chain smoking Gladys "Chubby" Smith lived in a decker next to my friend Elaine's stand-alone house. Chubby was always good for some candy, although I don't remember either Chubby or her equally obese cat Sylvester ever making it out of the overstuffed arm chairs in her living room.

The big gray decker next to my friend Susan's had a slightly more less permanent (sometimes even raffish) element living in it - absentee landlord problem, I believe.

There seemed to be a steady stream of young marrieds, with new babies, living there.

For a while, it was Bea, George and their baby who were in residence.

Bea, with her flaming red hair, and George, with his pack of cigarettes rolled up in his undershirt sleeve, were probably not all that much older than we were - kids who "had to get married" at 16 or 17, while our girl gang at the time ranged in age from 9 to 12.

Anyway, Bea generally invited us in to hang out in her kitchen - kitchens are always the prime hang-out room in deckers - while her baby slept and she sat smoking, waiting for George to get home from his job at the gas station. I can't remember what we talked about, but Bea was good for a bit of while-away-the-long-summer hours when we were bored with Monopoly or playing on the swing set at Hadwen Park.

For a long while, the decker where Bea lived also housed the Fortier family - rough, loud-mouthed boys named Peanuts, Butchy, and Irving, and their sad, nose-running little sister Pearl. Mr. Fortier had a motorcycle, which he apparently couldn't afford to keep on the road. He stored it on the back porch, and most nights sat on it for a few minutes, gunning the motor and, I guess, imagining that the wind was in his hair and he was headin' down the highway, not headin' back into his flat to contend with Peanuts, Butchy, and Irving.

Living in a triple-decker, or at least within spitting distance of one, is almost as important to the cultural experience here as despising the Yankees and skipping work on St. Patrick's Day. Dennis Lehane, who grew up amid three-deckers in Dorchester, a tough neighborhood of Boston, gave them prominent roles in “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and his other noirish novels about the city.

“There’s a sublime beauty about them,” Mr. Lehane said. ...“When I see a three-decker, I immediately feel home,” he said. “Whereas if I see a Dallas or a Houston — that flat, suburban, here’s-another-McMansion look — I find that really depressing.”

I'm with Dennis Lehane here. I'll be truly bummed if the three-deckers go out of business.


John said...

They don't just have a certain beauty, they're economically useful - a way for someone to become a homeowner while renting out the other units to make the mortgage. A worst case scenario - they could become small condo units where three owners share expenses. It would be a shame for them to go.

And no offense to Mr. Lehane, but he doesn't know Texas. The equivalent in Dallas or Houston to the triple decker is the bungalow, not the McMansion. While New Englanders were achieving home ownership in triple deckers, Houstonians and Dallasites did so in the early 20th century in modest bungalows (often under 1000 square feet) and often including a rear apartment in a separate structure at the back of the lot to provide some rental income - or some space for the mother in law. They're more spread out, because land was more available, but they are not McMansions, they are part of our history, and they are sturdy and beautiful and people here have fought hard to keep them from being neglected and/or bulldozed.

Maureen Rogers said...

John - You are right point out that Mr. Lehane likely doesn't know Texas. I, on the other hand, may not know Texas particularly well, either, but I am certainly aware of the charming early 20th century bungalows, as I have a very good friend in the process of buying one.

The real point is that every region has "signature" housing stock in its older areas: Chicago has all those wonderful brick bungalows; Baltimore has its row houses; New Orleans has its shotguns. And every place has some ration of uncharming sprawl-ville. There just tends to be more of it in those areas where there has been greater growth of late - as in the Southwest. The only people I know who actually live in a McMansion does, in fact, live outside of Dallas. And the folks I know you live in the most fabulous, to-die-for modern home live in Dallas proper. It's never all good or all bad.