The Houses are Trees
My friend Regan argued years ago that the only difference between a new subdivision and an old subdivision is trees. Older neighborhoods seem nicer because they have older trees that gently shade the streets in the summertime and add a sense of place to the series of boxes people make into homes.
I have a new argument. The houses are trees.
We live in what is, ostensibly, 'the burbs.' Sure, it's a hundred plus year old house in a neighborhood that was a small town outside of Portland back in the 1800s. Yes, we live on the same block as a pub and there's a machine shop around the corner, but that's only because we're on the edge of the plat of houses on their smallish lots with their tree-lined streets.
Sellwood is definitely the burbs with old trees and old houses. But this is where I posit my argument -- just as the trees age, die and have to be replaced, so do the houses. Where there was a monoculture of nearly identical houses 100 years ago, there's a forest of different species of houses today.
Mixed in with the little, 800 square foot boxes on their garden lots (houses that probably housed a family of 8 when they were new), you find the 4,000+ square foot houses that reach to the extent of the lots, with deep foundations digging into the earth like the roots of some massive plant.
You can walk down the streets of Sellwood and see decades of architectural styles -- the old farm houses that were here before this was the 'burbs, the tidy little houses of the early part of the century (many of which aren't as tidy as they once were), the Craftsman houses that sprung up in Portland in the teens and 20s, the steeple roofs of the 30s, the Ricky and Lucy houses of the 50's, the ranch houses of the 60s, the horrible apartments of the 70s, 80's pressboard siding, 90's snout houses…
And an odd return to the Craftsman style houses that started in the 2000s. Only you can tell by looking at them that they aren't the same species as the original Craftsman style. They don't have basements, instead they have clean foundations that show their closer relation to the snout-houses, even if they occupy the same ecological niche and have the basic characteristics of the original.
You often see an old house that has new branches -- sometimes graceful additions that blend into the original architecture, sometimes odd lumps that look like some kind of parasitical growth. I often quote the Johnny Cash song One Piece at a Time where he built a car with parts smuggled from the auto plant over decades…
People will ask, 'What year is your house?'
'It's a 1910, 1912, 1935, 1947…' Our house has slowly grown new spaces and had some internal surgery done with its bump-outs, vinyl windows, pex tubing, and an en suite in the master bedroom that would have been the stuff of science fiction to the original owners. Looking at it from the outside it's like a tree that got cross pollinated along the way -- it doesn't look bad, it just doesn't fit anything in the nature hiker's Guide to American House Species.
But as some houses rot away to be replaced with others, as some grow and change over the years, as tastes in colors and styles change but some of the houses don't, it becomes clear that the difference between a new 'burb and an old one isn't just new trees vs. old trees. It's the lifecycle of the forest of houses that makes it mature and feel… alive.