A narrative of one piece of residential property in New York City’s East Village, combined with an idiosyncratic account of the city’s growth and a meditation about what makes a house a home.
In January 2002, freelance writer Greider (The Big Fix: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Rips Off American Consumers, 2003) received an unsettling call. Her Manhattan home on 7th St. between Avenues C and D that she inhabited with her husband and two young children was in danger of collapsing because of structural problems. They had purchased the property about a decade earlier, unaware of its rotting infrastructure. The family moved out quickly into temporary quarters, uncertain whether to rebuild at the same location after the demolition, to move somewhere else in NYC or to leave the city altogether. As Greider fretted, she also decided to learn about the piece of land, the house built upon it, the builders, the generations of inhabitants, the rest of the block, the larger neighborhood, the borough of Manhattan and NYC as a whole. Eventually, the author deepened her inquiries, researching the evolution of private property and home-building. The resulting narrative is a mixed bag. The author incorporates elements of investigative journalism, genealogy, archaeology, sociology, philosophy, geography and engineering (the list of disciplines could continue), and the mix of writing styles is nearly as numerous. The poetic mixes with the didactic, and Greider writes alternately in a highly evolved third-person narrative and first-person accounts that occasionally turn maudlin. The author and her husband overcame depression as their temporary rootlessness stretched out over the years, and they had to counter litigation alleging their failure to maintain the house adequately. Greider countered the depression by examining the worlds of the previous residents over a couple of centuries, documenting their day-to-day lives when the research material allowed, speculating about them when the research failed to provide concrete answers.
The author tries to do too much with one plot of urban land, but she succeeds at much of what she covers.