House on the Hill or the Shack in the Shade? Bungalows Depart from Suburbs with the Middle Class

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Probably midway through junior high was when I finally put some kind of tie between the size of a house and the income-level of the dad who pulled up in the driveway at dinnertime.  I didn’t notice that one pal’s father was an executive at Ford and the other guy’s dad fixed transmissions (way cooler, by the way).  The most awesome dads coached little league or took us to Tiger games; the coolest moms were den-mothers for the cub scouts or didn’t mind us screaming “Marco Polo” for eleven straight hours in their above-ground pool.

My hometown street.

Clawson, Michigan remains a small town with hundreds of ranches on the 1960s “newer” north end of town and the bungalows and frame houses from the twenties when you cross Main street nearly one mile away.  24 years ago, I moved a full two miles away to Royal Oak an older cousin to Clawson with a cemetery that boasts the remains of a veteran of the Revolutionary War–it was a streetcar or train-ride three miles north of the Detroit border and its residents commuted to the river and back each morning for work–or drove their Fords, Chevrolets and Chryslers to various assembly plants.

I was hired as Royal Oak high school teacher in the fall of 1987 and a year later the long-promised I-696/I-75 was completed–with its own Death Star-like trench.  By the middle of my second year, the sleepy town known for its hair-salons, hardware stores and laundromats became a “destination” and the corner of Fourth and Main became a hangout for Ann Arbor residents looking for some variety.  My students started getting great jobs in the growing number of trendy restaurants and bars–replacing Lim’s Palace and The Sign of the Beef Carver for a significant night on the town.

Grocery store turned microbrewery and restaurant. Photo by Andrew Jameson (Wikimedia Commons)

The hive of bungalows forming the heart of Royal Oak became attractive rentals as young families found themselves able to sell their little places for a crazy profit and move north to the higher numbered mile roads and SAT-scores of Troy, Rochester, even previously unobtainable Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills for the light blue-collars of Royal Oak.

I wanted to live in the town where I taught, but we newlyweds in 1993 feared we were being hustled into buying an 800 square foot two-bedroom for the ridiculously inflated price of $83,900 then feeling brilliant selling it five years later for $125 K–until the buyer sold it 18 months later for another twenty-five grand.  That was Royal Oak–and it remains solid, recovering more quickly than most Detroit suburbs after the 2008 collapse.

But something had changed and a stroll down any Royal Oak or Clawson street seems to be mirroring America all too acutely.  The comfortable 1950s yards and homes of assembly line workers, teachers, nurses, auto mechanics, waitresses (even our Clawson librarian Mr. Scott around the corner)  began to vanish–replaced by mega-homes.

Patrice and I were sad to see the razing of our first home–a beautiful brick and stone 1921 oddball on a half-acre of land…

-to make room for two giants valued at over $400K each.

One year before the recession, our tiny house became these two places.

At least on a super-deep 280 foot lot the size 15 foot in a size 8 slipper seemed slightly less startling.

But if you walk down the Birmingham street past our family ice cream place since the Nixon administration, you’ll see a different picture–like a visiting NFL player squeezing himself into a first-grade chair.

I posted a photo two days ago on Facebook of a familiar bit of progress and desolation–as a small home’s former lot was suddenly a crater–as if from a stray meteorite.

And from its ashes will rise a stately home of many bathrooms and very little lawn to cut.  The starting price is likely to be $500,000 as I compared the site to Tremors or the end of Poltergeist , many friends noted that there is no way many current Royal Oak residents could afford to move back into their own neighborhoods.

A few folks added that, while sad, it was progress of sorts–a larger tax-base and an involved new base of young parents anxious to take advantage of the easy commute to a vibrant Detroit–even with new streetcars starting May 1st.  I hope so, while my own experience has been that many folks in these big homes may very well send their kids to public schools, the odds are also great that the disposable income of young money-earners might instead choose the many private schools nearby.

In the wake of the election, even left-wing prognosticators such as Michael Moore pegged Trump’s surprise victory as no surprise at all–it was the scream of frustration from the shrinking middle class getting fed up with Washington impotence, their stagnant incomes and their general inability to get ahead.

In short, they were trapped and certainly couldn’t move into the new place next door with a front porch big enough to land a personal jet–and they also couldn’t sell their home and hope to relocate within 30 minutes of their friends and family in town–unless they rented.

On dog walks, we see these giants being built and wonder, like the chauffeurs looking into the backyard at the Corleone wedding, what the heck these young couples do for a living and more importantly, why didn’t we pick that major.

In America there remain two houses where once stood five.  If you’re not in the big house, you’re in the shadows in the shack next door–powerless in a power outage to do much more than listen to the neighbor’s generator and pray they’ll let you plug in your fridge for a few hours.

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About Kevin Walsh

Kevin began in 2013 as an experiment that was as simple as "What's a blog?" and ended up becoming a forum for fellow writers. He's been a high school teacher for 28 years and worked as an administrator and instructor in colleges for 10 years since then. Contact him at: He is also the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His high school media production text, "Video Direct," has been used in 40 states--and he occasionally still sells a few. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two kids Aidan and Abby who have all graciously allowed him to write about them on occasion.

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