Heat came from the small brown box in the back left corner of the living room. The cooling: that evaporative cooler in the window. On cold nights we sometimes used both sleeping bags and blankets. Summers were the worst, though, because the original dirt roof was still up there — with a tin roof constructed over it years later. Heat was trapped between the tin and the dirt, and when it rained water leaked through seams in the tin and onto the dirt. Which then became moldy.
One new year’s eve my husband was too sick to go out, so neighbors and I briefly brought the party to him. We all thought he was delirious when he insisted that there was a squirrel in the bedroom. As I discovered the next day, there was a squirrel. It came up through one of the gaps in the rotting wood floors. But at least the bedroom had a floor. One of the rooms in the south half of the house was dirt.
Of course, the widow who sold the house to my husband lived in those conditions, too. As did her elderly tenant — who rented the side with the dirt floor. The widow sold and moved in with a sister nearby. The tenant stayed, and continued her nightly habit of sweeping dirt from one side of the back yard to the other. That ended when someone attacked her in the dark. She was hospitalized and then moved by social workers to a nursing home.
How the house came to be in such a sorry state, I do not know. The previous owner saved enough on his pay as a bootblack to build it and to add on over the years. What changed? Did he fall on hard times and then leave his widow too poor to care for the house? Did red-lining prevent them from borrowing money to fix it up?
Nearly 40 years later the house has full plumbing, a furnace, air conditioner — even a garden fountain and a roof terrace. Has it been gentrified? What was the alternative?
Today’s barrio still has plenty of derelict buildings — many of them vacant. A big difference from 40 years ago is that most of them are owned by people who are financially well off and have never lived in the neighborhood. They bought cheap years ago or inherited the property. I can think of at least three who are so negligent that their buildings are in danger of collapse. I am sad about that.