Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On the Street Where You Live

Leaving aside the privacy concerns, I'm fascinated by Google street view.

If you're unfamiliar with it, this is the program that Google has, where they send specially equipped vans and cars around... well, eventually every single road in the country, and maybe the world; to take pictures at street level of every address and intersection. They take several photographs every second as they drive down the street, and then digitally stitch them together.

One thing that has surprised me, as the program has grown over the past two years or so; is just exactly what streets have street views available.

For example, only the major cross streets in the neighborhood I currently live in have been photographed; but in the town where I grew up, it seems all the public streets have been.

Here's the house I grew up in... at least more so than any other house, having lived there twice for three years each time (the longest I have ever lived in any single location):

I loved that house... and that street for that matter. We first moved in there when I was seven, a few months after my grandfather bought it.

It's a two family, built in 1908, into the side of a solid granite hill face. I don't quite remember it this way, but Zillow says it's about 4000 square feet total. It had the standard New England high ceilings, wide board oak floors, oak and lead glass interior doors, oak wainscoting and built in cabinets and fixtures, plaster crown moldings and ceiling rosettes around light fixtures... Really what we would think of today as an architectural and design treasure.

It also had this amazing frame work; the most incredibly solidly built house I'd ever seen. The timbers of the house were huge, thick, California redwood. The roof beams and main floor joists were 4"x8" and 4"x10" roughsawn heartwood, and the exterior studs were 2"x6" roughsawn redwood. The foundation was cut into the granite hillside, with granite aggregate solid blocks for the portions not resting on solid rock.

In 1986, hurricane Gloria sent a 4 foot thick several hundred year old oak tree crashing into the side of the house, falling over on to the edge of the roof. The only damage was to the eaves and soffets the tree actually landed on.

The first time we lived there; my mother, brother, and I lived on the bottom floor (technically there was an aboveground basement cut into the hillside so it was really the second floor); and my aunt Helen lived on the top floor with her at the time 3 year old daughter Caitlin (after a nasty divorce).

We moved out when I was in fifth grade, and moved around for a couple years; came back when I was 13, but lived on the top floor this time. Then, my aunt Susan lived downstairs with her husband Carl, who gave me my first long term job at his furniture restoration shop; and my aunt Maureen lived with us.

In theory Maureen lived with use to help my mother take care of us while she ran her business; in reality I did most of the taking care of, because Maureen was an alcoholic and a drug addict (she's been clean for 14 years now, and is a happily married mother of four).

Over the next three years, we remodeled the attic into a full living space with a private entrance on the side of the house you can't see; even my own mini kitchen, and plenty of soundproofing. It had everything but a bathroom.

I moved out when I was 16, to go to college, and then into the Air Force; but my mother and brother lived there 'til I was 19.

I was visiting there on my 19th birthday, when my brother got high, and accidentally burned the top two floors of the house down. I still had most of my stuff up in my apartment, because I hadn't really settled down yet. I lost everything I had left; after having had a car accident the year before, where most of the belongings I had with me (in a 14 foot trailer) were scattered around I-40 in Oklahoma city.

I ended up losing thousands of books, a half dozen guitars, swords, knives, furniture I had built working in my uncles furniture restoration shop... Everything.

Amazingly enough though, those timbers held up. Though the structure was open to the sky, the damage was almost entirely non-structural; and they were able to salvage the house.

My grandfather started rebuilding the place with the insurance money; unfortunately he died later that year. My grandmother finished the rebuilding (and added the circular driveway in front. When I lived there it had been a lawn enclosed by a hedge); and my aunt Maureen, and aunt Allison lived there for a couple years, until she sold the place in I think 2001.

The place hasn't changed much... in fact It hasn't changed much since 1908 when the house was built. The new owners have refreshed the stucco, and changed the paint; but it's still the same house.

Really only the property values have changed. When my grandfather bought it in the early '80s, he paid $170,000 for it. My grandmother sold it in I think 2001 (maybe 2002) for $380,000, and Zillow says it's worth about $600,000 today.

This is in a town where the median home value is $500,000 and the median income is $80,000 a year mind; a $600,000 house is no great shakes in that place. Deval Patrick, the current governor of Massachusetts lives there for example; as does the 5th richest woman in the world. George Bush the elder was born there, a Robert and Teddy Kennedy went to school there (as did John Kerrys kids, James Taylor, T.S. Eliot, and Buckminster Fuller), and John Adams farm was right on the edge of town (the town was founded in 1636).

It was weird growing up poor in such a rich town... but those are other stories for other times.

The houses are the same, the street is still the same really.

You can't see more than a few hundred feet in a straight line in the entire town between the trees and the hills.

A little different from the view down my nearest captured street today (that's about 4 miles to that hill)...


My wife is from here, she doesn't understand why I prefer the former, to the latter. She finds the views, and my descriptions of New England to be stifling.

I just think they'll always feel more like home, than six lane superhighways passing for city streets.