WE ARE TALKING ABOUT HOMES: A Great University Against Its Neighbors by Lynn Sharon Schwartz

WE ARE TALKING ABOUT HOMES: A Great University Against Its Neighbors

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The first work of non-fiction by the author of Acquainted With the Night and Disturbances in the Field is a compelling blend of social observations and legal machinations. After a fire damaged much of a Columbia: owned apartment building, the university wanted to rebuild it as dormitory housing. Some of the tenants--including the author--had lived there more than 20 years. The book narrates the bitter two-year fight in and out of court that finally recovered their homes. Resonant details establish the setting, displaying the novelist's gift for capturing life's nuances. Her reminiscences of babysitters and pick-up sticks and ""talking about Proust and James and such"" are both arch and affecting. The early chapters are also a spare but thoughtful exploration of urban neighbors' reserved interdependence. Once the fire has forced the tenants out of their homes and Columbia's bureaucracy grinds into gear, however, the book gains momentum but loses some of its charm. The fact-filled journalism drowns the novelist's gentle ironies. The obsession with the perversities of urban real-estate dealing becomes a dirge. As one of the tenants says towards the end: ""By the time you're ready to get it back, you feel like saying, 'you can keep your goddamned apartment. . .'"" It is easy to share this exhausted, cynical frustration at the chess game of counter-offers, loopholes, and city politics. Even with the ironic view and condensation of the issues, the legal battles make daunting reading and the conclusion feels more like a temporary setback for the megalith than a real victory for the little guys. The story . might have been even better as a novel. The same characters could have inhabited a Kalkan satire of urban politics, but all the carefully non-libelous five W's get in the way. The methods of fiction are now common in journalism, but the sensibility of this narrator is unusually soulful. Wry or sentimental, her observations shine throughout the occasionally dreary ordeal that ends in a bittersweet triumph.

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 1985
Publisher: Harper & Row