Return of the Zombie McMansion, and Other News


On the Shelf

It lives.


  • We thought we’d solved this problem. This time, we hoped, it was gone for good. But it’s back. Drive into the suburbs and you’ll see it, something out of the nightmares you have when you eat a big meal just before bed. Risen from the dead to stoke our deepest fears, it is: the Zombie McMansion. Okay, maybe its foam-filled, non-load-bearing Doric columns are showing their age a bit; maybe a few of the quoins are starting to peel off, and some of the two-dozen dormer windows no longer open. But it still stands, and worse still, young people are still willing to buy it. As Ana Swanson reports, the improved housing market means a return of architectural crimes against humanity: “Today, McMansions are not exactly cool, especially compared with the exposed-brick urban lofts young people today will pay exorbitant prices for. But with the recent recovery of the housing market, they are coming back anyway. As Americans have started building and flipping houses again, they are once again buying McMansions. Since 2009, construction of these homes has steadily trended upward, data from Zillow, a real-estate website, shows. The median home value of McMansions is also rising, at a pace that eclipses the value of the median American home … Many casual onlookers have forecast the death of the suburbs in recent years, especially as younger renters and buyers turn an eye to city centers … Yet younger people who are starting families are still moving to the suburbs for more room, she says. About half of all millennials that purchased a home last year did so in the suburbs, according to Zillow data.”
  • While we’re looking at things that refuse to die, here’s Kyle Chayka on Monocle, that shiny symbol of the global elite—a magazine for the late aughts that persists, somehow, into the late teens: “Over the years, Monocle has become as much a status symbol as reading material. Its editor is one of the world’s foremost lifestyle auteurs, a tastemaker of late capitalism … While Monocle projects confidence in the march of globalization, it barely hints at the growing threats to the world of open borders and free-flowing capital it depicts. The magazine’s globalist chic contrasts sharply with the nationalist movements in the United States and Europe … Monocle views the world as a single, utopian marketplace, linked by digital technology and first-class air travel, bestridden by compelling brands and their executives. Diversity is part of the vision—the magazine’s subjects are from all over the world, and its fashion models come in every skin color—but this diversity is presented, in a vaguely colonialist way, more as a cool look to buy into than a tangible social ideal. Cities and countries are written up as commodities and investment opportunities rather than real places with intractable problems that require more than a subsidy to resolve.”

  • Let’s dwell on this globalism theme for a sec. Topic, a new website with whom The Paris Review has recently collaborated, just launched their first issue, and it features a photo-essay from real-estate hell, where McMansions proliferate even as other homes are boarded up: “Vallejo, California, was not Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake’s first choice when she and her partner were contemplating a move from Athens, Georgia. But for the past year and a half, Drake has been documenting life in her new home, a place on the verge of profound change. Less than a decade ago, the once-industrial North Bay city filed for bankruptcy. Now, as the tech industry has spread its tentacles across the Bay Area, Vallejo is consistently billed as ‘the hottest real-estate market in the country’ by numerous media outlets. It’s an uneasy mix of boarded-up storefronts and glossy renovations, a place whose contradictions speak to national trends of urbanization and gentrification.”
  • You know what they say: you can’t put a price on human life. But what the hell, let’s do it anyway. As Matthew Sedacca writes, government agencies do it all the time—and tobacco companies, too. Guess which one values your life more? “Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration put a price on human life: $9.1 million (in proposing stricter air-pollution regulations) and $7.9 million (in proposing new cigarette-warning labels), respectively … what it calls the ‘value of a statistical life’ … Imagine you and 99,999 people are asked how much you’d be willing to pay to reduce your personal risk of dying in the next year … For a company like Philip Morris, the leading American cigarette and tobacco company, people’s lives end up being worth just over a thousandth of what the FDA’s value is. On average, one person will die for every one million cigarettes smoked. ‘Cigarette companies make about a penny in profit for every cigarette sold, or about $10,000 for every million cigarettes purchased. Since there is one death for every million cigarettes sold (or smoked), a tobacco manufacturer will make about $10,000 for every death caused by their products … The value of a human life to a cigarette manufacturer is therefore about $10,000,’ concluded Robert Proctor, a Stanford historian.”
  • In his debut novel, Golden Hill, Francis Spufford turns to New York in 1746—a fecund setting for a tale of early American morality. Laura Miller writes, “The novel begins with the arrival of Richard Smith, a young man from England, in a city that is still more small town than metropolis. Smith comes bearing a bill of exchange, drawn upon the debt of a local merchant, for the staggering sum of one thousand pounds sterling … He is the cosmopolitan; they are the strapping provincials. Surely, whether he is a wealthy man or an adventurer, he must be superior to these rubes in the arts of corruption … This, of course, turns out to be anything but the truth. A thief steals Smith’s wallet on his first morning, vanishing into a maze of alleyways … After that, a drunken mob, mistaking Smith for a Papist, nearly kills him. Yet even these terrors do not constitute the city’s true heart of darkness. Smith grimly observes that, while Manhattan’s residents talk incessantly of ‘liberty and virtue, virtue and liberty,’ black men and women are led in shackles through its streets.