A decade after its publication, “Real Estate Porn” by Mary Sojourner remains a super relevant critical analysis of the commodification of language and our relationship with place.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week I had a chance to work with author Mary Sojourner on an upcoming story for BETA Magazine.

As we talked about the setting, there was this irony in that where the characters traveled (a sandstone canyon near Flagstaff) no longer existed.

Like so much of the West and the rest of the US, it had been turned into suburban development.

I remember being like 8 and living in “Willow Point.” The houses were a mix of “contemporary” / “ranch” and “Cape Cod” architecture on large lots with native pines and hardwoods. It was built in the late seventies. Along with other large interconnected subdivisions (“Indian Hills,” “Jackson’s Creek”), Willow Point was part of the first wave of developments that were named and somewhat architecturally branded. They had clubhouses and swimming pools and signs as you drove in.

Before this, the only other neighborhoods around Marietta Georgia were just streets still platted like city blocks. These were built in the 60s during the “white flight” out of Atlanta.

If the original white-flight houses were sort of pre-wave (suburbs but not really subdivisions) and Willow Point / other neighborhoods were the first wave, this was the second wave. The houses were bigger. They were styled “European.”

When I was 13 we moved into a new subdivision called “Riversound.”

If the original white-flight houses were sort of pre-wave (suburbs but not really subdivisions) and Willow Point / other neighborhoods were the first wave, this was the second wave. The houses were bigger. They were styled “European.” They had stucco facades, mansard roofs, and faux keystones / corner quoins. The lots were smaller than the first wave, with fewer native trees and more landscaping.

As would become classic second wave style, the entrance had a median, thick walls, and a short section of brick inlay in the pavement. It was designed to look / feel impressive when entering in a vehicle.

Over the next several years, hundreds more subdivisions were built across Marietta. The third wave evolved with significantly smaller (“postage stamp”) lots. Most if not all of the native vegetation would be cleared, replaced with landscaping, and, for the first time, in-ground sprinkler systems. The naturally hilly and riparian contours of the Chattahoochee Piedmont were excavated and re-engineered so that the homesites now sat on totally artificial landforms.

This modification of the land itself, combined with the homogeneity of building materials / styles / tract-housing construction methods, gave these new waves of development a “looks-like-the-whole-subdivision-was-just-dropped-here-from-outer-space” appearance, regardless of whether the houses themselves were the “more affordable” “cluster homes,” or full-on fucking McMansions.

This modification of the land itself, combined with the homogeneity of building materials / styles / tract-housing construction methods, gave these new waves of development a “looks-like-the-whole-subdivision-was-just-dropped-here-from-outer-space” appearance, regardless of whether the houses themselves were the “more affordable” “cluster homes,” or full-on fucking McMansions.

Around this time I remember seeing signs advertising new subdivisions everywhere. They would always have the subdivision name in large font, and then underneath would be a “descriptive” / suggestive phrase attempting to communicate exclusivity / beauty / quality. They always ended in a price range. An example reconstructed from memory:

Gentry Walk

East Cobb’s newest development, Custom homes from the mid 500s.

Everything–the prices, the houses, the number of subdivisions, the number of people–seemed to be supersizing as I went off to college and the years afterward. Later, visiting my parents where they retired in Florida, I saw the next wave, basically taking all of the above and putting a gate around it, calling it a gated community.

Anyway, this is more or less what I thought of when Mary Sojourner told me the place in her story no longer existed. Then she told me about this piece she’d written about it. Commodification in writing, commodified views of place seem to be a kind of default setting for so many of us who grew up in homes that had no connection to anything that was there before.

This story was originally published in her book Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest ( U. of Nevada Press, 2000), which is still in print. Get it.

David Miller

Real Estate Porn

by Mary Sojourner

This isn’t real estate we’re talking about. This is the body of the beloved. How can we not take a stand?”

—Terry Tempest-Williams

People, 7/15/96

I’m not making this up. I wish I were, the glossy brochure that arrived in the mail today, complete with shots of the San Francisco Peaks, snow-dusted, of course; kitschy south-west interiors loaded with Katsina dolls and bogus artifacts; what might be Chaco Canyon masonry; and a close-up of the heart-wood of a downed Ponderosa. The development lies on what was once Museum of Northern Arizona land and is rumored to be a result of the MNA’s finances hitting shaky times—in part, one might conjecture, due to the museum’s potential benefactors using their wealth to acquire ten thousand square foot trophy homes and exorbitant golf club memberships rather than support cultural resources in their mountain play-pen. Witness the financial failure of our local Center for the Arts and the delicate balance between ruin and survival maintained by many of our local arts organizations.

Here is part of the text of this real estate pitch:

Does your life journey road map point to (blah blah blah buzzword) Springs…? It Does! If you want to live in a boldly original new community where the earth and the mountains and the art of indigenous peoples will pour into you so you can live what you believe while immersed in nature to feel the awe and beauty of wild flowers, coyotes, elk, mountains, Ponderosa pine, and you help mold and craft a new house of wood and stone where you will join a mythical but real community made from the dreams and desires of all those others living on a homesite amidst 43 acres of forest in the heart of museum country where hearts and souls can fall in love with life again in a bigger, newer way as you climb across new vistas…where you will walk with us into history by living the legacy of those who came before.

I repeat, I am not making this up. I don’t really need to deconstruct this smarm, point out that development infrastructure kills wildflowers, or elk are an over-abundant species due to predator annihilation, who will eat your indigenous plantings, or that coyote is not a cute little gal with up-turned snout and red bandana, but a verminous snarly true daughter of the wild who will gobble Boopsie, your Yorkie, in a high desert heartbeat. No, the realtor’s unfortunately deathless prose speaks for itself…and speaks…and speaks…and speaks…

Perhaps more restrained, but nonetheless telling, is an ad for Flagstaff’s only gated community’s new expansion. The corporation decided to gouge a second golf course gated development into a rare intermittent wetland valley one mile from their existing golf course fortress, built during the late 1980’s. Here’s their paeon to the new destruction: Thousands of years of nature—on mountain peaks rising above pine trees thick with clear skies and sunlight.

Huh?

A decade of golf so rich in view and challenges it is rated number one in Arizona. A decade of families…(over 75 % of the second and third homes lie unoccupied for six-nine months of the year and a tiny percentage are occupied by families bigger than Mom and Pop Got-rocks Retirees)…creating traditions that will be relived and retold for years to come. And now, the natural unfolding of the next generation. More of the same remarkable things that made the first generation what it is: Forest Meadows. Wonderfully and incomparably Forest Meadows.

Please. Who writes this? More crucially who reads it and is beguiled? Much as I am critical of the rich, I never equated wealth with ignorance and illiteracy. Until now. Now, wonderfully and incomparably tasteless. Wonderfully and incomparably dumb.

Your own Hohokam petroglyphs in a desert canyon paradise. And the really exciting part, all of this with private security force.

It would be nothing but tragically funny if it weren’t for the brutal fact that 1000+ moderately high-priced houses are not selling in our town and the half million dollar homesites—that’s homesites, not homes—are. And, the pornographers that create, rather destroy these developments, have an eye for the most beautiful, wet and wild locations. Wetland by wetland, arroyo by arroyo, habitat by habitat, desert bighorn by desert bighorn, we are losing the best of the best. All for huge profit, all so that rich clueless buyers can own a bizarre mix of the “wild” and the blandly secure: Your own Hohokam petroglyphs in a desert canyon paradise. And the really exciting part, all of this with private security force. (For a gated community outside Tucson.)

I consider the definition of pornography: words and images used to sell the body, and remember Terry Tempest-Williams’ words…”this is not real estate. This is the body of the beloved.”

I invite any of you intrigued by real estate porn to let your road journey life map take you back to the nest you have contributed to fouling. And, I am available at an exorbitant fee (ninety per cent of which will go to grass roots land trusts) for ethical writing in-service workshops for public relations firms.

Community Connection

Mary Sojourner’s blog.

Questions:

What’s the most ridiculous, culturally-appropriating, commodified, or otherwise just “unbelievably soul-dead” name / description / experience with a subdivision you’ve ever found?

How is the the way you speak / write a reflection of where you grew up?

Please let us know in the comments.

What did you think of this article?
Meh
Good
Awesome