Novels about small houses in small towns can feel cramped. But in Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, the locals fight to keep things that way in their property battle with a builder who puts up McMansions. Set in the suburban Maryland town of Willard Park, the story depicts a married couple’s struggle with their defunct sex life, middle school kids and their awkward, back-stabbing drama, a pot-head attorney whose marriage is in trouble, and numerous sketches of other denizens. White Elephant has a long, slow start, but once it gets going, it bolts straight to the end...
White Elephant is a gentrification story which focuses on suburbs and small towns. This tale will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner suburb and woken up one morning to the shock of McMansions going up nearby. Suddenly all the talk is of assessments, property values, equity, and second mortgages. The new houses tower over neighbors. Or, if a block of expensive townhouses has been installed, suddenly the local school is too small. It’s not as pernicious as urban gentrification, booting out locals to make way for wealthy hipsters and their $10 latte watering holes, but it’s a menacing cousin. Costly houses and townhouses open the door for luxury apartments, and once those appear, all the old affordable ones raise their rents. A person working full-time on minimum wage can hardly afford a one-bedroom apartment in any American city, and this is the next step, as the blight of gentrification seeps out into formerly cheap suburbs.
I believe that McMansions can upset residents’ conceptions of their neighborhood or community. There are plenty of cases in the last 10-20 years that suggest some believe McMansions, whether in new subdivisions or as teardowns, ruin locations they like.
On the other hand, the description above of how all this works seems a bit odd to me. A few questions:
- How many inner suburbs become home to many teardown McMansions? Inner suburbs can be wealthy, working-class to poor, or somewhere in-between.
- My guess is that McMansions and more expensive housing do not just pop up in a community: there are precipitating qualities of the community that lead developers and local officials to think that the more expensive housing would take off. In other words, wealthier communities beget more housing for wealthier residents.
- Cheap suburbs, if just going by cost of housing, can be located throughout a metropolitan region. If gentrification is simply more expensive redevelopment, it could happen in many places throughout a region.
- Why is this gentrifiation not as pernicious if new development makes it harder for locals to stay? It may be happening in a suburban area but not all suburbs are that well-off.
- Is there a small-town suburban life worth defending? Decades of suburban critiques suggested suburbanites and their communities have all sorts of deficiencies. Are suburbs now to be saved from McMansions?
The McMansion is a monster to invoke in today’s fictional tales as its size and lack of good taste relegate it to at least shady, if not menacing, status.