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From Poor to Cool in 500 Square Feet

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Dubach, La., was named "Dogtrot Capital of the World," and how cool is that? Very cool in the "small house" obsession embraced by urban hipsters. A dogtrot house is typically a modest home in which the cooking and living sections are divided by a breezeway (the dogtrot). Another Southern invention is the "shotgun house," a narrow rectangle whose handful of rooms line in a row. Elvis was born in one.

How the poor fit their families into these tiny spaces has become the stuff of wonder for the urban young seeking to do likewise in expensive cities -- but with considerably fewer people and more polished style. This month's Dwell magazine, the hipster bible, shows how these clever people can turn a two-room third-floor walkup into a stylish and low-maintenance place. The "Small World" issue features houses that are 235 square feet, 900 square feet and 2,000 square feet (that's cheating, IMHO).

This is not impossible, as pre-McMansion suburbia showed. The original Levittown house built after World War II was 750 square feet. My cousins lived in one, and they felt like kings. Three-kid families were the neighborhood norm.

What makes small living spaces cool -- in addition to their historic environs -- is the thinking that's involved, the sort of thinking you need heavy black-rim glasses for. You have to "curate," a favorite hipster word. That is, you pick the one or five things you really want to keep and get rid of the rest. This can be a brutal task.

Minimalism is an attractive ethic in moderation. (Bare concrete walls don't do much for me.) But it remains a my dream. The iPad, though I love it, hasn't replaced my affection for books. Where do you put the books in 500 square feet? You don't. You store them in your parents' basement or a rented storage unit -- a minimalist cop-out, but one I understand.

To be a purist, you've got to let go of your childhood dolls, comic books and art projects. In a big house, these items can sit unmolested in a closet gathering dust. Would taking photos of them -- digital, natch -- provide memory enough of the armless Barbie doll?

The photos of these imaginative and perfectly arranged homes/apartments show young couples intently reading a screen or even a book. You want to yell at them: "Bravo, but don't put down the book! That would ruin everything."

Once the thinking is done, though, you can ponder higher things, like writing a symphony, inventing a new app or what's for supper. That's because the stuff you got rid of doesn't have to be moved around, polished or updated. And money is time. You save hours not shopping for more stuff. The smaller spaces cost less to buy, heat and electrify. Fixing one leaky toilet is cheaper than fixing four. All this adds up to less time spent in unpleasant day jobs trying to pay for consumption. Less of the material also creates less distraction. There's a reason why holy men choose small, bare rooms for meditation.

I'd like to be more like them, but I can't be them. What would I do with my ancestors' Victrola? I supposed I could roll it near the kitchen and put a butcher block on top. Thank goodness I played the flute and not piano.

Anyhow, check out the modernist dogtrot house in Ramseur, N.C., celebrated in traditionalist "Southern Living" and "Dwell" alike. Occupied by two psych professors from Duke and based on the world famous 550-square-foot Zachary House in Zachary, La., it is located on 200 gorgeous rural acres. Now how cool is that.


See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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