Monday, November 07, 2005

A tail of two cities

In this case the cities are Belmont Massachusetts and Littleton Massachusetts. No two places could be more different yet so much the same. Belmont has been, for at least the last century, an affluent bedroom community. The Boston Globe once described Belmont as the most boring town in the Commonwealth. Since Belmont is only 10 minutes from downtown Boston there is no reason for Belmont to offer anything but quiet streets. In colonial times Belmont was a days oxen drive from Boston and home to taverns, roadhouses and prostitutes. With the coming of the railway Belmont became home to Harvard professors and McLeans Hospital for the mentally imbalanced. I moved to Belmont in 1981 because my, then new wife lived there. We stayed for 20 years.

Littleton on the other hand has only recently become a bedroom community for affluent and semi-affluent professionals. Up through the early 1980’s Littleton was a “rural industrial” town. That meant that there were horses, apple orchards and a factory to process those apples: Verifine (which just became a part of Kraft foods). People who don’t know any better still think of Littleton as horse country. This vision of Littleton has been reinforced by the horse riding habits of the wife of our current governor who lives in Belmont but keeps a horse in Littleton. We moved to Littleton in February 2002.

I never particularly liked living in Belmont. For 20 years it was repeatedly made clear to me that I was an outsider and not up to the social standards of the locals. Excuses me? A geography lesson is needed to understand how one is judged in Belmont. Ones social status is based mostly on what school district you live in and how big your house is. Put simply “Butler” is bad; “Winbrook” is good with the other two schools falling on the better side of the socially acceptable line. We lived in the “Butler” school district for the first 10 years we were there and in “Winbrook” the second half.

Our social status was made clear one hot August afternoon at the town pool. The Belmont town pool is the oldest municipal swimming pool in the country so unless you have your own pool it is socially acceptable to have a town pool pass. It’s also socially acceptable to have a picnic on the lawn while your kids swim. We were sitting on the lawn, picnic blanket extended with lots of gourmet goodies. My wife, Susan, loves to cook and gourmet presentation is a must, a result of way to many hours reading Martha Stewart. The spread Sue created must have made us look affluent because a somewhat overdressed woman made a point of coming over to us to strike up a conversation with Sue. I listened in on the mostly banal conversation about children, expensive supermarkets and designer clothing. The chatter abruptly ended with the woman wheeling around and walking away. I asked Sue what happened. The conversation came around to what school our kids went to. It was “Butler.” With that the woman, without apology, explanation or even polite termination of conversation stood up and walked away. We were obviously social pariahs. Moving from “Butler” to “Winbrook” didn’t help.

When we lived in the “Butler” area we were part of a vibrant community that included plumbers,carpenters, electricians, junior faculty at all the major colleges as well as an assortment of grad students and professionals early on in their career … like me. To those on “the hill,” whose children were in the “Winbrook” school district, we were nothing but blue-collar trash, workmen and other nuisances needed but not wanted. We were transients, expected to move on to either one of the more permanent blue-collar towns like Waltham that surrounded Belmont or up to one of the junior affluent communities like Arlington. The in Belmont police have the siege mentality of a third world para-military whose function is to protect the few from the many.

The truth is that the most offensive townspeople in Belmont are themselves of working class origin. Belmont is not a Weston or Wellesley. Old money in New England is either Episcopal or Free Thinking Unitarian it’s not Roman Catholic. Belmont is predominantly Roman Catholic. To put this in perspective, I grew up in New Canaan Connecticut where in 1990 the per capita income was in excess of $100.000. The average family of four in New Canaan had an income of over $400,000. By contract Belmont had an average income in 1990 of about $54,000 for a family of four at a time when the average statewide was $38,000. Belmont is affluent but not that affluent. In Belmont the workmen, students and journeyman professionals of the “Butler” school district were helpful, friendly, engaged in their community while the rich up on “the hill” were generally disengaged, occupied and spoke to the community through their proxies (Townie selectmen and nannies). It wasn’t until we moved to Littleton that we made friends on “the hill” in Belmont. Living in Littleton is no threat to their social order so we are now welcome. Strange world.  I think we are even envied a little.

Littleton is just the opposite. Affluent professionals are a recent arrival and the town is still dominated by Yankee ex-farmers turned hourly workmen. Around 1980 Digital Equipment Corporation came to town and built lots of factories that employed both laborers and professionals. This attracted the first wave of affluence. DEC died, twice, first around 1990 and again and for good around 2000. With the rise of DEC there was an influx of programmers, electrical engineers, MBA’s and other Big Business oriented professionals. The farmers turned carpenters, plumbers, and electricians of Littleton built those houses on land expropriated from century old ancestral apple orchards. They got comfortable.  When DEC died the first time many of those Big Business professionals left. Those that stayed were a minority, mostly independent professionals, doctors, lawyers, people like that. It’s hard to have an attitude when there aren’t enough people “like you” to have tops and bottoms.

I’m not a townie and I’m not a “workman” so that makes me a professional in the eyes of the solid Yankees of Littleton. Unlike Belmont I can say, with out equivocation, that I am universally treated with friendly respect. When we first moved to Littleton people walking or jogging by would wave and say hello. After Belmont this was a bit unnerving. One warm Saturday afternoon after the third or fourth “hi” from a passing jogger my daughter Kitty was completely unraveled and ready to pummel the next jogger that said anything friendly. Of course, the following winter she flagged down a young townie with a snowplow and got him to plow our driveway for a plate of cookies and a (bogus it turned out) telephone number. Even our dog, “Ruff,” got into the act. He would growl and chase any jogger that talked to him. This prompted a visit from the police who said he had bit someone. In Belmont with the Gestapo mentality of the police such a visit would presage an immediate putdown of the offending culprit. This thought sent Kitty into a complete panic but the policeman was calming and polite and said that he was just checking on the status of the dogs’ rabies shots. Out here in the country (far suburbs really) Rabies is taken very seriously. Ruff sticks to the back yard now and only rarely barks at runners or rabbits. The police in Littleton are part of the community, here to help. The image I once had as a kid of the friendly policeman is still true here.

I was driving home one day when I came across a fallen tree blocking the road. A police car was stopped with his lights flashing to warn people in both directions that there was danger. It doesn’t matter if it is Belmont or Littleton or Podunk Iowa, police do not get out of their cars to move trees. That task is reserved exclusively for highway department crews. I think it must be some union rule or friendly agreement between unions that prohibit policemen from moving obstructions even if the task is trivial.

I got out of my car and dragged the tree out of the way. The policeman (who must have been 20 years younger than I am) was more than slightly embarrassed but thanked me profusely. Since that time he waves to me every time he sees me and now just about all the police wave to me when driving past. Strange things happen when you sail past the age of 50.

Littleton is in the middle of another building boom. I live on a corner. There are 5 houses going up on the 12 acres behind me and 3 houses going up next to the “town forest” across the street and down the road, which is really a swamp donated to the town because it was unbuildable and no one wanted to pay taxes on it. This is becoming common. If you own 20 acres and want to build 3 houses but only 7 acres are buildable then donate the rest to the town. What the rich do out here is donate all the forestland around their multi-million-dollar estate to a nonprofit with the caveat that the land be forever wild and that the public isn’t invited. Convenient isn’t it.

In Belmont if I needed a plumber I called one of my neighbors. He’d charge me what I thought was reasonable and we’d chat for a half hour. If I needed an electrician, well his brother-in-law was free after dinner. I never had a good reason to call anyone on “the hill.” In Littleton things have been reversed. I’m not sure what most of my neighbors do. I think most of them are retired from the first wave of affluence. Down the street is a collection of very affluent carpenters, electricians and plumbers, “General Contractors.” They are all to busy with the 30-house subdivision they are building on Grandpa’s apple orchard to come fix the rotten plumbing in my basement. When I can find a plumber willing to come over they charge $75 an hour and rarely finish the job. I’ve now gone through 2 plumbers and an electrician yet the problems I hired them to fix persist.

If it was the snots on “the hill” in Belmont that most offended me it is the Yankee ex-farmers in Littleton I’d like to strangle. All in all I prefer Littleton to Belmont and if we weren’t so far out of town (about 35 miles) I’d call my old neighbors in Belmont for help with my plumbing, wiring and carpentry needs.

Stepping back I can see what is going to happen, its already begun. Those ex-farmers who were happy to mow lawns in high school and wield a hammer in support of their neighbors in their youths now look upon any non-townie as fair game. I am fare game to be ripped off as much as possible because when this bubble bursts (and of course it will) they truly believe that we will all pack up and leave. Boston is growing and Littleton is becoming the same kind of suburb that New Canaan was to New York. Some of the ex-farmers will get rich as service providers to the equally rich but most will not. Having sold their heritage they will move on like so many other aimless, rootless Americans. They will become just like me.

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