And Now, British Novelist Rachel Cusk Accidentally Nails The New Philadelphia Real Estate Market In One Deft Swoop
That the Philadelphia real estate market has been utterly bananas for well over a decade now is not news; indeed, the unholy and odd bedfellows of tax abatements, a middle class millennial population uptick and not least a new generation of restaurateurs have been remaking the city in their own respective images almost faster than anyone can chronicle it. But one person who has managed to is British novelist Rachel Cusk, whose Outline trilogy is now in paperback. I can’t speak highly enough of these books, but one thing that can be remarked upon is the casual way in which Cusk nails dead to rights some of the largest issues of our time. She’ll articulate something briskly but with a depth of understanding that’s cold-water shocking, and then move on. In this passage below from Transit (the second novel of the trilogy), for instance, she illustrates that what is a problem in London right now is also a problem in Philly right now and quite possibly, cities of the western world in general:
It was this same friend — a writer — who had advised me, back in the spring, that if I was moving to London with limited funds, it was better to buy a bad house in a good street than a good house somewhere bad. Only the very lucky and the very unlucky, he said, get an unmixed fate: the rest of us have to choose. The estate agent had been surprised that I adhered to this piece of wisdom, if wisdom it was. In his experience, he said, creative people valued the advantages of light and space over those of location. They tended to look for the potential in things, where most people sought the safety of conformity, of what had already been realized to the maximum, properties whose allure was merely the sum of exhausted possibilities, to which nothing further could be added. The irony, he said, was that such people, while afraid of being original, were also obsessed with originality. His clients went into ecstasies over the merest hint of a period feature: well, move out of the centre a little and you could have those in abundance for a fraction of the cost. It was a mystery to him, he said, why people continued to buy in over-inflated parts of the city when there were bargains to be had in up-and-coming areas. He supposed at the heart of it was their lack of imagination. Currently we were at the top of the market, he said: this situation, far from discouraging buyers, seemed actually to inflame them. He was witnessing scenes of outright pandemonium on a daily basis, his office stampeded with people elbowing one another aside to pay too much for too little as though their lives depended on it. He had conducted viewings where fights had broken out, presided over bidding wars of unprecedented aggression, had even been offered bribes for preferential treatment; all, he said, for properties that, looked at in the cold light of day, were unexceptional. What was striking was the genuine desperation of these people, once they were in the throes of desire: they would phone him hourly for updates, or call in at the office for no reason; they begged, and sometimes even wept; they were angry one minute and penitent the next, often regaling him with long confessions concerning their personal circumstances. He would have pitied them, were it not for the fact that they invariably erased the drama from their minds the instant it was over and the purchase completed, shedding not only the memory of their own conduct but also of the people who had had to put up with it. He had clients who shared the most gruesome intimacies with him one week and then walked past him in the street the next without the slightest sign of recognition; he had seen couples who had sunk to the depths before his eyes, now going obliviously about their business in the neighborhood. Only in the very completeness of their oblivion did he sometimes detect a hint of shame.
New Philadelphia, you are seen.