And sometimes in Swedish

Sometimes, in writing, something really cool happens. Was lucky enough to be asked by Arkitektur magazine to write something about the row house, by far the most iconic and common place for people to live in Baltimore, where I live. I had a lot of fun writing this essay (caveat: I’m not an architect or an urban planner or anything like that, just a regular person who lives in a row house), and here’s how it appeared, in print, and in Swedish (English version below).


Baltimore: Row House and Me

Seth Sawyers

I am not an architect nor an urban historian and so I don’t know why exactly the row house, of all the kinds of houses, is so common in my city. The row house exists elsewhere, too, just down the road in Washington, D.C., and up the road in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, but if you were dropped almost anywhere in Baltimore and if you were to squint your eyes, you’d see a long bank of red brick, second-floor windows peeping at you like eyeballs, and twelve or eighteen ground-floor doors like uneven teeth. If you’re in a lucky part of town, those houses have flags out front, flowers, kids playing on the sidewalk. If you’re in an unlucky part, at least some of those windows and doors are covered by battered plywood warped by the sun and rain, warped from neglect. Baltimore, as even the most optimistic among us recognize and despite its strange charm, has its problems.

But before I get into what I actually know about, let’s turn to the row house, then, as a unit for human dwelling. I know enough to know that it originated as cheap, efficient housing in Europe and especially industrial England, that it came about in such numbers over there and here in America because of the intersection of big forces such as money and industry and geography and labor. It doesn’t take an expert to see that row houses are good at making the most out of two things: area and brick walls. Essentially, they are stacked tight and they share support structures. I assume row houses were cheaper than the alternatives. Beyond that, I don’t know the details about the history of the row house, is what I’m saying. I do know they exist, in great numbers.

And what else I know is that, without doubt, almost everyone I know lives in one.

* * * * *

I was 20 the first time I stepped inside a proper Baltimore row house. I grew up in a small mountain town far away from any big city, and had seen row houses only on the nightly news, only on TV. The family in the 1980s show 227 lived in a Washington, D.C. row house. The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family lived in a very, very high-end row house in New York. I was aware of them, vaguely. Then, one afternoon in college, my roommate got an invitation to go downtown. He had a car. I tagged along.

As we walked up to the door, I thought what everyone thinks when they first see a row house, which is: that’s a very narrow house, and it’s connected to the house on either side of it and the houses just keep going, in either direction. How do these people live here, in these houses stacked like books on a shelf? And then we were inside and I thought the second thing that everyone thinks, which is that this house is much, much bigger on the inside than I thought it would be.

This was 1998. My roommate’s friends were playing Risk, the board game, a world-domination contest in which you either slowly overtake your enemies or else they slowly overtake you. It is a game that takes hours and hours to play. I played for a while but then I got bored, and so I lost, more or less on purpose. I wanted to look around.

The people who lived there, older than my roommate and me, probably 24 or 25, were impossibly cool. I have a clear memory of the walls, softly wavy from age and gently shadowed in the yellow lamplight, on which hung framed posters from rock shows, the fact that you could frame rock show posters and hang them entirely novel to me at the time, and very cool. There was the long front room and a kind of middle room, a dining room, both lined with the stuff belonging to a certain kind of person I admired back then and probably still do. It was all bookshelves, guitars, records, paintings, drawings, ironic tourist souvenirs, all kinds of surprising specially chosen delightful weirdness. Their kitchen was comfortable, everything selected and not merely acquired. Above all, there was the sense of relaxed urban coolness, a sophistication cradled by all of these long, long rooms. That first row house made an impression on me, which has never really gone away.

Of course, not everyone who lives in a row house is cool, or has the luxury of thinking about being cool, or has coolness on their minds at all. Perhaps my experience was the exception, and not the rule. Of course, not every row house is even lived in. Many are, still, despite the Great American Urban Renaissance, boarded up, rotting, signs on the outside saying: if an animal becomes trapped inside this abandoned row house, please call this phone number.

* * * * *

Terminology is important. I don’t know the exact definition but I will say that row houses are, simply, homes in which each house shares a wall on either side with another house, unless your home is on the end of the row, in which case you share just one wall. Row houses are not duplexes, in which exactly two houses share one wall. Row houses are not standalone, or “single-family,” if you’re a realtor, which share no walls, and which are as common in Baltimore as flamingos (actual ones, not plastic). And they are not townhouses, which are row houses except that they are fancier, or else are in the suburbs and want to seem fancier than they really are. I don’t know anyone who calls a row house a townhouse.

Row houses are, most of the time, simple things, boxy, and as such are the places in which we, my friends, my neighbors, breathe. They really are everywhere. Visit Baltimore and you’ll notice them. Stay for a week and they’ll lose their novelty. Live here, and you’ll cease to see them altogether. I like to think of row houses as tortillas. If you see a tortilla, you know you’re in Mexico, or at least in a Mexican restaurant. If you see a row house, you know where you are. A tortilla is made of corn and is what you eat. A row house is made of brick and, in Baltimore, is where you live.

* * * * *

We bought a row house. We live in one. We moved in the day that some parts of Baltimore exploded because of the way police had mistreated a young black man, but really the explosion happened because of many, many other things that boil down to one thing, which is that many poor black Americans do not have the same chance at what most of my friends and I take for granted.

We like our house. It is not a large house, but rather it is big enough for the two of us, for a dog, some books, some bikes, more than enough food to eat. It is a place of laughter, of baseball games on the radio, of music, painting, writing. Two good friends live a block away, in a three-story row house with an added-on kitchen that used to get very cold before they insulated it. Friends live in all kinds of row houses in Hampden, Charles Village, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, Fells Point, Butchers Hill, Belair-Edison, Canton, Federal Hill, Reservoir Hill, Ridgely’s Delight. They are by no means uniform. Some have front porches. Some have rooftop decks. Many are covered in a kind of stucco called Formstone, which is concrete shaped and colored to look like actual stone. Some have vestibules in front where you can keep dry if it is raining. Some have tiny front yards. Some are four stories high. Some, if you know where to look, contain valuable art, rugs, jewels, animal heads on the walls, old and rare books, elaborate dinner parties, people with last names you might recognize from commercial goods you might, to this day, buy.

How about another kind of list, a more personal one? Over the course of the past fifteen years, I have gotten very drunk on cheap red wine and watched The Royal Tenenbaums in a row house as my friends made fun of me for my purple-stained lips. I have wrestled dogs in row houses. I have thrown up in them. I have passed a kidney stone in a row house. I have fallen in love. I have watched as a black man with a weird name got elected president. I have tapped my fingers on at least five different computers’ keyboards. I have been to one hundred million parties in which it was hot, at which everyone was drinking cold cans of National Bohemian beer (sometimes the beer was warm) and at which boys tried to get girls to notice them and the other way around, too. I have read some books. I have watched too much TV. I have shouted in row houses. I have cried in them, bled, sweat, shed, napped, shaved, paced in them. I have lived nearly half a life in them.

* * * * *

But I’m no special thing, because so have many others. And here’s what a whole city living its life in row houses looks like: windows in the front and the back, but not on the side. Arguments from the side, yes, but only if they’re especially loud. Sex from the side, sure, but only if it’s especially really very loud. Old R&B from one neighbor, indie rock from the other. A barking dog from one neighbor, soy-ginger-marinated smoke from the other. Cigarettes from one neighbor, iPad video-game bells and whirs from the other. No gunshots, I hope.

* * * * *

And there’s one other thing you might think were you to look at a block of row houses, an obvious thought, maybe, which is: man, they’re just so close together. That’s true. It is impossible for row houses to be any closer together. No sky between them, no dirt, no grass, just the stuff that grows from the cracks in the sidewalks. We’re in here tight.

But how’s this: when we moved in two Aprils ago, that day that Baltimore’s long-forgotten exploded, our neighbors said hello. Prisha is a pediatric nurse and her boyfriend, Ryan, is a chef. We’ve become friends. In their kitchen, they make dinner for us sometimes. Sometimes they come over and we, poorly, make dinner for them. Over the little fence out back, we trade beers or hot peppers or herbs or, you know, gossip about the dickhead a few doors down who refuses to park his 1985 Monte Carlo like a grown-up. It’s just life, life, and more life, is what I’m saying, in these simple boxy houses that are all connected to each other, and some days I think that’s all there is, and thank god for that, this life lived between two sets of windows and two long walls, this regular glass, this regular brick.