Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
Little Boxes, by Malvina Reynolds
Well, we all know that song. And we all have an idea what ticky-tacky is. It’s the bland lack of imagination the writer saw when she looked at the little boxes. The song has enjoyed some currency, picked up by Pete Seger, and lately by Walk Off the Earth, who live in Burlington close by me. (A tiny suburb in which people enjoy the tidy life of suburbia, the same one the song berates.)
Except that on my walk this morning through Oakville I noted that the little boxes were not so little. The little boxes have mostly been razed, a few more disappearing every year. The streets are dotted instead with rather big boxes. Large and unapologetic. There are usually a few premium cars stationed in the driveway like BMW’s and Jaguars. Nothing screams “GO AWAY” more than a huge box with all the toys. The people sitting inside have their own insulated little world, and they It don’t really need you in it, at all.
I am of the generation of the little boxes, born in 1960 at the tail end of the baby boom. Tiny boxes were the fodder of the baby boom. After the war, people couldn’t wait to come home and get along with life, get married, have kids, and tick off all the boxes of as normal a life as possible. The houses, a lot of them still line my street. They are one and a half story houses, sometimes called war houses because for those who bought them, it was all they could afford, but it did not diminish their dreams of their own tiny dynasties. Tidy neighbourhoods, mowed lawns, and barbecues with the neighbours. The writer of the song thought them to be smug and unimaginative.
When I think back to the tiny boxes, I think about the people who lived in them. Remarkably, I knew them. I also knew a LOT of them. Going through entires streets of neighbourhoods, I could name who lived there, who their kids were, and some germaine details that might define them as a family. If you asked me the same looking up and down my own street now, I might come up with a blank. I don’t know who lives in the tiny boxes and I don’t know who lives in the big boxes either. I just see the orange construction fences and the bulldozers lined up to obliterate those offensive little houses still left.
Everything comes full circle in life. Most often, we come to reassess the things we have scoffed at. It’s part of growing up. People think their parents are dumb. They often think them hypocritical, and trapped in tiny boxes of their own making. Those kids go off to university and learn all about the bigger ideas out there. People like Pete Seger thought communism was a great idea for example. He maybe didn’t live long enough to see it go off the rails. I wonder if in old age he would still be swearing by Mao’s red book, or whether he might come to see some virtue in those tiny boxes and the people in them.
The inhabitants of those tiny houses may never have been to university but they knew something that we apparently have forgotten. In their visions of utopia, they included room for the everyday that is accessible to the common man, and they were foolish enough to think highly of it. They thought a lot about tiny virtues like politeness, how to comport themselves in public, how to raise up kids, and how to be frugal, to salt a little away on the side for a rainy day.
When I look at the big houses now, I wonder if those inside practise the same virtues. They would likely sneer at me for wondering. They are for now, buffered from the weight of opinion and there is no doubt lots to enjoy alone in those big houses. Still, I can remember the quaintness of knowing all our neighbours well, how our parents would pool together on Victoria Day so all the neighbourhood kids could enjoy a bigger display of fireworks, how they would get together for tea and catch up on each others’ worlds. There was a generosity of spirit out there, and an old world kind of wisdom that may be easily brushed off by those big-house-dwellers dotting our street now.
The world is forward looking. It tends more to decry the past and march on like it knows better. I often wonder how it would be, on a street lined with little houses, and what it would be like to know all those people up close. Maybe they wouldn’t be as bad as the song suggests.