Used Houses and Urban Pioneers

Maybe the old neighborhood isn’t so bad, after all

Kirk’s house in Albuquerque.

Kirk’s house in Galveston.

When my wife and I and our two-month-old son arrived in Las Vegas in July 1999, we were greeted by brutal heat, a history-making flash flood and a real-estate agent named Jody.

We met Jody in the now-demolished Chili’s on the corner of Sahara and Decatur. An epic 13-day cross-country drive from upstate New York with our pets and a colicky infant had left us dazed and confused, and a steady diet of hot coffee hadn’t helped. We sat at the table clinging to our iced teas for dear life, dreaming of a cool and pleasant nest, and looking to Jody for answers.

She looked across the table, sized us up, and asked:

“Are you looking for a new home, or would you be willing to consider a used house?”

My wife and I stared at each other, perplexed. What, we wondered silently, was a “used house?” Neither of us had ever heard the term.

Jody kindly explained that a used house was a previously occupied home, “like a used car that someone else already drove for a while.” Most people who move here, we learned, are looking to buy new. Very few people considered “used houses,” she informed us.

Nothing about my new town struck me as more odd than the phrase “used houses.” What did it say about this place that the residents had invented a special definition of home not used anywhere else in America?

I was born in Williamsburg, Va., where historic means colonists, Native Americans and pre-revolutionary splendor. Later, we lived in Colorado, in a 1920s Tudor. For high school, it was down to Galveston, Texas, where we settled into an 1881 house that was once owned by a ship captain; the place had been built with exquisite maritime craftsmanship out of Cyprus timbers from now-extinct old-growth forests. Our neighbors across the street had lived in their home since before my grandparents were born. (These houses were built to last: My whole block of ship-like homes survived the great 1900 storm that remains the worst natural disaster in American history.) After graduation, I went back to Colorado, where I lived in a series of old structures, from an 1870s cabin in Steamboat Springs to a 1910 late-Victorian “Denver Square.” Then I went to New Mexico and bought a 1941 pueblo-style bungalow, just over 700 square feet. We reveled in the newness of that place. It had “modern” electrical features and plumbing that seemed downright space-age to me.

We told Jody our story on that hot summer day in 1999. She turned out to be a Las Vegas native who knew plenty about “used houses.” Jody was happy to meet the rare clients willing to look at “historic” 1950s and ’60s neighborhoods. We settled on McNeil, a swath of 600 ranch houses off West Charleston Boulevard, about two miles from the Strip. The neighborhood was built in the 1950s and ’60s on an old-fashioned grid with wide streets and big trees. We found a 1961 house with a pool and bought it.  It is the newest house I’ve ever lived in.

People like me who happily live in “used houses” in older neighborhoods are often described as “urban pioneers.” The trend is old but took off in the 1950s when urban Bohemians blazed the trail for the much more numerous countercultural types who resettled and gentrified cities like New York and Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s. It is easy to forget that in the 1960s upscale neighborhoods like New York’s Upper West Side or Denver’s ultra-hip “LoDo” were decaying and dangerous urban wastelands. Restoring a brownstone in the New York “ghetto” or moving into a loft in a LoDo warehouse was madness to most middle-class homeowners who were abandoning cities for clean and safe suburbs. If back-to-the-land hippies were considered pot-smoking weirdos, then forward-to-the-ghetto hippies were simply beyond comprehension for many Americans.

The story of urban decline and suburban growth is familiar; the success of urban pioneers is less well known. Gentrification often seems to happen overnight, with former “ghettos” spontaneously morphing into hip enclaves for young professionals. But by the time a newly gentrified neighborhood becomes hip, urban pioneers have been hard at work for decades restoring old building stock, replanting gardens and parks and supporting local businesses. Alliances with diverse groups of residents have been forged; a sense of pride in the place has been reestablished. Urban pioneers of the 1960s also understood revitalization of buildings and neighborhoods as part of environmentalism: It was as important to recycle and reuse old buildings as it was to save forests and natural wonders. 

Over the past three years, we’ve all learned the dangers of living completely in the future, denigrating the old as “used” and defining progress exclusively as growth.  Every important city and town in America learned decades ago that old was not necessarily bad, and that older houses and places, no matter how rough, can be resurrected as vital communities and new centers of economic development.  Like many cities devastated by the real-estate crash, Las Vegas now has as much vacant blight in the suburbs as at the core. There are thousands of “used houses” for sale all over the Valley. And many people would be happy to have a stable home, used or not.

For cities, older neighborhoods are like the growth rings of a tree. They start small in the center and become larger and newer as you move out from the core. No tree can live with core rot for long. No city can survive if it fails to resettle its center. Likewise, sustainability is not just about wind and solar power. Retrofitting and reusing housing stock will be as important as the flashier elements of the green economy. So, Backward Ho, urban pioneers! Lead us to the fabled land of short commutes, walking, adaptive reuse and a sense of history grounded in place. Living in the future was not as fun as we thought. It’s time to take a look at the past to see what it has to offer.