Leading up to the Great Recession, from 2006 - 2008, my husband and I lived in a cheap downtown Lansing apartment. While we don't miss the apartment itself, we do have some fond memories of our time there. Yet looking back from where I sit now (a cheap house in an affordable, diverse, beautiful, and comfortable suburb), I realize that living in a low-income apartment can be a much more healthy, safe, and dignified experience in a community that cares more about its poorest residents. By "cares" I'm not talking about feelings so much as actions and physical realities. I mean municipal-level design, planning, and implementation of social services that raise the tide and lift all the boats. In a more humanely run community, people of humble means don't have to choose between laughing or crying at all the drama in their own lives and their neighbors' lives created by untreated mental health and substance abuse struggles and lack of access to basic needs.
There is actually a higher rate of childhood poverty in our current township than there is in the city of Lansing, but that fact takes many people by surprise because the township invests more resources into caring for its schoolchildren, elderly, and poor, so our lower-income populations aren't as easy to spot. Here, picturesque subsidized housing for low-income families, seniors, and immigrants blends in with middle- and upper-class homes, and despite what you may see in political ads, it's not a nightmare at all. It's wonderful that people from so many walks of life and rich cultural backgrounds get to share the enjoyment of mingling with each other along our pretty streets and natural areas. It's good to raise my daughter in a place where every child at least has a chance to play outside in a wholesome environment and have most of their basic needs met, regardless of the economic status of their parents.
We pay slightly higher taxes than Lansing residents, and it's absolutely worth it. Many of our poor neighbors live in nice-looking, up-to-code structures surrounded by well-maintained parks, wooded trails, and the prettiest library in the land. Our Title 1 school district provides many important services that Lansing children don't receive. This is not to suggest that our township is perfect and that no one here is struggling--that is far from the truth--but it has demonstrated to me that a little bit of extra care does so much for those who need it most--and also contributes to the comfort, safety, and happiness of everyone else who lives in this community together.
Alas, this is America, and our communities are a patchwork of systems ranging from shining examples of civilization to zip codes that might as well be in Afghanistan. Currently about 10% of Michigan's residents live in apartment buildings. Below is a post I wrote about my personal experience in making the best of crummy apartment living between college and settling into a single-family home.
Song of the Apartment
Sing it with me: "This is where we used to live!" I love my house, but I do have fond memories of the old apartment.
When my husband and I first got married, we lived in a small one-bedroom in one of Lansing's crappiest downtown developments. It was shabby chic indeed. We didn't have a TV, but we used to stand in front of the living room window, watching drug deals take place at the pay phone across the street and laughing at the regular characters who passed by. If you live in Lansing, maybe you know some of them. There was Crack Lady, who walked to the liquor store each morning wearing nothing but a large, dirty t-shirt and slippers, who started talking loudly to the shopkeeper while still a block away from the building. There was old J the Bum, who greeted everyone with a cheery, "Hey, Big Dick!" (Except my husband, who would always beat him to it, to which J would respond, "Hey, that's my line!") There was the Far Side Lady, complete with beehive and horn-rimmed glasses, who wore a plastic grocery bag on her giant hairdo when it rained. There was Gonzo Man, who would pace up and down the street smoking cigarettes and walking like Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You didn't want to make eye contact with that guy. There was St. Fran of the Squirrels, a hippie chick in our building who was like the pigeon lady, but with squirrels. The squirrels got so "friendly" that they would run up our legs as we tried to get in the door. My husband would beat them off with a stick. Ah, memories.
And then there was our favorite, the Flaming Nutbag. He would often drive slowly up and down our block, looking intently out the window of his white Pinto with flames painted on the sides. Then he would peel out, circle the block, and drive slowly past again, over and over. At first we thought he was just another john trolling for hookers or maybe a drug dealer. But he never approached or spoke to another person. Mostly he stared into shrubs and trees. Then one day, he parked on the corner opposite ours and got out of the car. He had red hair in a bowl cut, dark sunglasses, a heavy duty mustache, and a black leather biker jacket. Awesome. He took a plastic baggie out of his jacket pocket and stared up into the neighbor's pine tree for a while. Then he furtively placed the baggie at the tree's roots and burned rubber getting away. My husband and I speculated. Was it a bomb? Drugs? The remains of someone's beloved cat? After we waited a long time and the dude didn't come back, curiosity got the better of us, and we ran across the street. And can you guess what was in the baggie?
Yes, the Flaming Nutbag had been feeding squirrels all this time and driving past so he could watch them eat stuff, with an air of panicked secrecy as if it were a filthy fetish or something. He did this again and again, depositing more bags of nuts under trees.
Yessir, bags of nuts.
We thought about hooking him up with St. Fran, but... We didn't want to increase our chances of a Bubonic Plague outbreak in our building before we moved out.
And then there was that time we looked out the window, and a house behind the empty lot across the street was on fire. Whee, that was exciting. The fire was so hot the basement windows exploded. No people died, but I saw a fireman pull out a dead dog. This tragedy was not released in the local news.
Really, truly, honestly, though, living in that apartment had its special charms. There is something tragically beautiful about urban decay and kitschy, out-of-date decor. Apartment living is a nice transition from dorm life, and it can even be a nice permanent housing option. (Maybe not in that particular building I lived in, but generally speaking...)
My favorite thing about the old apartment was that many of our friends also lived in the building. There were constantly rotating "families" of roommates who all knew each other. My husband and I would get dressed up for a fancy date at the opera...
...and then bang on our friend Esperanza's door for the after party. We'd always find friends hanging out over in her wing of the complex.
Her apartment was always warm and dark like a tropical cave, and it smelled like Mexican food. Mmm! I loved her wooden bead curtains and homemade art. It was chaotic, colorful, and cozy.
Personally, I hate the standard white plastic blinds that come with apartments. Putting up curtains (with tension shower rods because we weren't allowed to install real curtain rods) was one of the first things I did in my apartment when I moved in. But Esperanza liked the light control of the blinds, and it worked fine. There was so much color and sparkle in the rooms that it never looked stark.
Another fun thing about living in a cheap apartment was that we could blend in with the colorful characters around us when we went out in goofy costumes or crazy get-ups. We didn't have to care what the neighbors would think!
Yes, my handbag has photo booth stickers on it. WHUT?
In nicer buildings in nicer neighborhoods... like my college pal's apartment in Chicago, apartments can be more serene, permanent homes. Bold colors and big mirrors work great in small spaces. For busy young professionals, apartments or condos can be the perfect combination of affordable and low-maintenance. Home ownership takes a lot of upkeep. Rental units offer the freedom to focus on career building and a social life.
Here's another way to glamorize apartment life: In Europe, almost everyone lives in a small apartment. Another of my college friends, French Fly Girl (pictured above in the red scarf) lives in a tiny flat in this picturesque, crumbly old building in Poitiers, France.
So cheap, and so cute!
France and Italy are good examples of countries where the people have style, even if they don't have money. Did you know that Italy is the poorest nation in Western Europe? I didn't, until I went there for five months. Yikes. In most homes, you can't plug in a TV and a toaster without blowing a fuse, there are no modern appliances such as microwaves and clothes dryers, the toilets only work sometimes, and the elevators are antique death traps. But Rome is the perfect example of tragic beauty in urban decay and kitsch.
This music video by Morgan (from the album Canzoni dell'appartamento, or Songs of the Apartment) portrays a neighborhood that looks very similar to the one I lived in.
The song's title, "Altrove," means "Elsewhere," which is what you're always daydreaming about when you live in a place like this.
Finally, a word to the wise recessionista: You are never too poor to buy renter's insurance. Do it! You never know when the meth lab downstairs will explode and melt your new laptop.
If you'd like to see my thoughts on apartment decorating, see my post on Apartment Decor, Not Dorm Room Style.
Happy apartment living!