• • •
The Monmouth building was built in 1932 as a nine-unit apartment building on East 116th Street near then-fashionable Luke Easter Park. Deborah Harris bought the faux-gothic pile in an outrageous bargain that was also an outrageous fortune, and she bragged about it both ways.
Being a landlady was in her blood. Her mother, Elena Harris, had owned two up-down duplexes in East Cleveland. One had been her grandmother’s home but by the time Deborah was born they only visited to sign leases or deliver eviction notices.
Her grandmother’s neighbourhood starved and withered from never enough money or never enough time, and the grand houses sagged with decay. Deborah vowed to make something that could feed itself, that could withstand all the privations mankind could manufacture.
The first thing she did with her small business loan was replace Monmouth’s aging roof with molded “slate” solar panels. She cleared the dumbwaiter shaft—which had sat unused save for the ground floor, where it held snow shovels—to create a water filtration tower. She provided the large balconies, soaked in sunlight, with plant beds.
With her vision and careful planning, Deborah harnessed water and sun and soil. All she needed were some tenants to live in her sustainable house made of stone and hope.
• • •
Meanwhile, the Big Bad Development Company gobbled up buildings all over Ohio, tearing them down to build luxury condominiums that looked pretty on the outside but were all particle board and aluminum struts on the inside, designed to fall down within ten years so people would be forced to buy another one.
• • •
Thi Pham wasn’t looking to buy a big house, but a coworker was having trouble unloading her place out in North Royalton, and the deal was too good to pass up. It was a nondescript McMansion in a neighbourhood of McMansions, but this one had been cut into four rental units. The centre unit, containing the grand foyer and living room, was more than enough space for Thi and her plants, and the income from the rental units would help pay the mortgage.
The foyer had an enormous skylight, making the shaft-like room almost a greenhouse. The stairs ended at a blank wall now that the second floor had been made into its own apartment. Thi would festoon the steps with plants, and they would grow until tendrils hung like a waterfall over the ostentatious faux-marble panelling.
Thi had studied forestry and botany in college, but she worked with government agencies, helping new immigrants settle in Cleveland, so she heard about every new program. She applied for a grant to turn the two-storey wall in her foyer into a green wall.
Then her first month’s rent money vanished into her tenants’ electric bill.
Thi used use part of the green-wall money to install a wind turbine to take some of the load off. She would have a few months of cash-strapped struggle, but if she kept nurturing it, soon her big house of vinyl and ambition would be running itself.
• • •
Big Bad Development Company stalked the suburbs, sniffing out homeowners’ associations and business-minded local politicians that could help it ravage properties. Sleepy, affluent suburbs eagerly welcomed the Big Bad Company and rushed to shower it in affection and new zoning regulations.
• • •
Gentle Rain Higgins was born into the Hessler House cooperative, though she’d left to pursue a business degree that got her called “sellout” for years. Being house manager was always more work and less gratitude, but the photos in the front lobby of cops dragging people out of the building served as a constant reminder of a noble past, and what happened when you broke housing codes.
Hessler House had been a privately owned cooperative since the Sixties, cobbled together between two houses that had been cut into apartments and then joined together. Some walls were pressboard, some fibreboard, some straw. Some you didn’t want to think about too closely, but they were all in good repair. There was a waiting list to move in, and few ever left once they settled, so Gentle had to do some creative thinking to make room while staying up to code.
Hessler was nothing if not creative. The grey water system began in the Eighties, using rain to supplement the toilets. When the city couldn’t ban the collector as an eyesore, they up and banned rain barrels of all kinds. That was OK. The fire escape on the back of the building, well, it suddenly had new, fat columns made of PVC. Funny, that. You had to climb on the roof to see the gutter lines, hand-painted brown with woodgrain-mimicking swirls, feeding into the columns. Invisible from the ground. During storms, however, you could hear the musical waterfalls inside.
Hessler House was as organic as the tomatoes grown in the window boxes, and Gentle never saw herself living anywhere other than this house made of brick, straw, wood, garbage, and solidarity.
• • •
The three little arcologies prospered. Deborah’s stone Monmouth filled with residents, especially the front “garden” units. Deborah’s books were balanced and her water recycler tower worked a charm.
Thi was so impressed with the success of her windmill that she added a leach field and organic wastewater recycling to her vinyl McMansion. Her cash flow would be precarious, but projected to improve.
To alleviate the waiting list, Hessler House acquired the house next door. Finances would be tight, but they had a strong volunteer group to renovate the place. The first symbolic connection was an arbour over the alley between them. With the neighbour’s cars gone, the alley became the new home of the chicken coop. The residents strung lights overhead and played music to celebrate on a warm summer night.
• • •
Big Bad Development scanned the area for new houses to gobble up. It saw the three little arcologies, and liked what it saw.
First it approached the house made of stone.
• • •
“You can’t revoke the permit—the work’s been done!” Deborah had taken the whole day and been routed through a half-dozen offices before arriving at the zoning commission responsible for shutting down her water recycling project.
“The sustainable building act only covers new construction,” the tired woman behind the desk said. “I’m sorry, but what we’re encouraging others to do is illegal for you.”
“Why in heaven’s name is it illegal? Is it safety? Materials? I have reports—”
“I don’t make the rules.” She gestured helplessly over the mess on her desk.
Deborah recognized herself in this woman, and pulled her frustration inside. “I’m upset at the situation, not you. What are my options?”
As she hoped, the woman relaxed. “If it were up to me, we’d ignore it, but someone filed an anonymous complaint. You need to tear it out or cover it up, and soon, before an inspector drops by.”
“I was just inspected for the improvement loan. Why would they come back?”
“Because of that complaint.” The woman exhaled slowly through her nose. “There are things I’d actually like to get done, but this is what the county checks on. If we get a complaint, we have to respond.”
Deborah left the zoning office ready to start a fistfight.
Which meant she had to stand still a good long time when she got home and found the county inspector already there, pasting a notice on her door that her license to rent units had been revoked.
• • •
Then the Big Bad Development Company came for the house of vinyl.
• • •
Thi sat in her foyer, under her prized green wall, patchy with tiny tender buds. The scent of green and the gentle trickle of her new fountain gave the room the sense of a peaceful grotto. She focused on that as the real estate agent refused to leave.
Thi repeated herself. Calmly. “But it’s not for sale.”
“Did you know your property taxes are set to triple? There’s a new law about multifamily dwellings in the area.” She laid out papers with delight, like new costs and fees were appetizers. “I hope you don’t mind, but we did a teeny credit check and given your current state of indebtedness, here’s how much you’re expected to lose in the first year.” She held out a pen. “Just sign, and it won’t be your problem anymore!”
It looked grim, but Thi had never walked away from an investment in her young life. “You’re offering less than I paid!”
“Just sign,” the woman said, her professional smile straining at the edges.
Thi folded her arms. “I need to show these to my lawyer first.”
The woman gathered up all her papers. “No need. Have your lawyer call us directly. Here’s my card.”
The next day, Thi got a call that her garbage service was cancelled—the city already considered her property sold and uninhabited. The electricity would be cut off at the end of the month.
Thi wondered whom she could have pissed off.
• • •
The Big Bad executives licked their lips at the reports on Thi and Deborah’s properties, but most of all they wanted to gobble up the house cobbled together of every sort of thing.
• • •
Gentle was repairing a railing on the fire escape when she was approached by a man in a suede jacket and last year’s most popular haircut. “I’ve been trying to contact the owner of this building,” he said. “No one will admit to it! Can you believe that? Who is Hessler House, LLC, anyway?”
“We all are.” Something about him made Gentle want to say as little as possible. “It’s a collective. Every resident is also the owner.”
He smiled hungrily. “Could you provide me with a list of contact names?”
“We don’t give out that information. At all.” Gentle picked up her tools, leaving the repair undone. “Goodbye.”
He stuck his arm in the door after her. “You’re obviously some form of superintendent …”
She turned to block his entry with her body. “The house manager is in charge of repairs and maintenance. Do you want to talk to the head of the outreach committee? Or our business manager?”
He huffed. “My client wants to buy this property. Who do I talk to?”
“No one. This building is never going to be for sale.”
He took a step back, nodding as if accepting a challenge. He touched one of the water-retention posts. “Interesting column you have here.”
“It’s decorative.” Gentle spoke too quickly.
He knocked on the plastic. The sound was undeniably the sound of a water-full drum. “Hm. Is this an approved material for structural elements in Cuyahoga County?”
“Get off our property or we’ll call the police.”
He tucked a business card between a support and the column. “Get your commies together and consider calling me. It’d be a shame if the building had to be evacuated because it was condemned.”
• • •
The three little buildings each felt alone in the face of a massive, mysterious enemy, but they were already linked. Deborah searched her green-architecture enthusiasts group for other owners of older properties in Cleveland, and found Hessler House quickly. Thi searched for property owners in the Cleveland area who had sued against arbitrary rule changes and won, and also found Hessler House.
Which was why, as Gentle sat down with her business manager to learn all she could about this wolfish developer, her phone buzzed with two incoming calls from names she did not recognize.
Because being named “Gentle Rain” made her particularly fond of people whose names were also unusual, and she did not know enough Vietnamese people to know that “Thi” was a common first name, she answered Thi’s call first.
Thi stumbled over her words. “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m looking for help and advice.”
“Hessler House has an online toolkit to help you start your own collective,” Gentle said, and would have hung up if it weren’t for the next question.
“Have you heard of a real-estate firm called Big Bad Development?”
Gentle had, minutes ago, found references to just that company. She felt a frisson, as if about to turn the page on a murder mystery. She needed to slow herself down. “Can you hold for a second?” Gentle held up a finger to her business manager, a human-rights lawyer named Prudence Lee, and picked up the other call.
Deborah charged into her words forcefully. “My name is Deborah Harris. We both own older buildings with wastewater reclamation systems. Someone is trying to tell me that’s not allowed when I know it is! I think they’re trying to strong-arm me out of business. There’s this Big Bad Development Company asking to buy me out, and they sure showed up fast. I need to know what I can do, and I think you can help.”
Gentle set her phone down and set it to speaker, and conferenced the two calls. “Ladies, I think we should all meet,” she said, “How quickly can you get to Hessler Street?”
• • •
Big Bad Company did not know the three little buildings were united. It didn’t need to. It was a corporation. The machinations against the three little buildings were not so much orchestrated as churned out, a script calling other scripts. File this, require that, demand the other thing.
Mercilessly, the filings and demands pushed against the poor little arcologies, enlisting the electric company, the sewer company, the police. The outer-ring suburbs had decades of clever little rules that were designed to get rid of neighbours if you didn’t like how they trimmed their hedges or the colour of their children.
Thi had to dismantle the green wall. The sections leaned against the porch railings of one of Deborah’s units and Thi touched each plant, as though apologizing to it. “All the work I put into that house, and they just took it.”
Watching her made Deborah nervous. “You’re welcome to stay, until we both get kicked out. I can’t collect rent. I don’t know what I’m going to do when the taxes come due.”
“We’ll figure something out.” Thi didn’t sound sure. She stepped back, her arms at her sides. “We just have to keep them alive.”
Deborah wasn’t sure she meant the plants. She went into the front room of the apartment, where Gentle frowned fiercely at her laptop. “Any ideas? Because right now, I’m looking at maybe two months I can keep going, then I’ll have to declare bankruptcy and lose the building. Do you have room for all these plants in Hessler House?”
Gentle said, “I’m thinking about my business-school days. Corporations rely on quarterly reports to see if their schemes are working, and managers are motivated to make it seem like they are, even when they aren’t.”
“What good does that do us?” Thi came in with an orchid clutched to her chest.
Deborah frowned. “She means they’re slow to react.”
Gentle said, “We need to hit them hard and fast, before they know it’s coming.”
Thi gestured around the empty apartment. “With what?”
Deborah sat down next to Gentle and got out her phone. “Let’s find out together.”
They worked late into the night and all weekend, splitting coffee and pizzas. They learned the correct official to reverse a decision and which judge had lost a home to the redevelopment of his block.
Big Bad Company hardly noticed, but that was OK.
You see, this isn’t the story about one building surviving because it was strongest. It’s the story of how they joined together to all be strong, regardless of what they were made of.
Deborah used Hessler House’s legal precedents in her battle to keep her water recycler. Thi used Deborah’s contacts to fight the multifamily-rules changes and reverse her eviction. Gentle used Thi’s contacts to get Hessler’s water collection system labelled an art installation.
Big Bad Company attacked in new ways, but the three little arcologies struggled along, almost but not quite winning, alive in a tie.
And then Thi met Cam, who lived in the next suburb over and had run into shocking trouble with her solar roof installation, and Deborah met George, who was trying to renovate a series of row houses, and George introduced them all to Wallace, who turned out to know someone Gentle knew, and on and on until the three little arcologies grew into one big community.
Now that there were many hands to lighten the load, they started filing injunctions against Big Bad’s properties, and calling in tips to homeowners’ associations, and being Big Bad right back.
Big Bad Company noticed, as predicted, only when it was too late. Its middle managers blamed each other and worked to show each other how their part of the corporation was just fine, actually, which was a big help.
And so, after many years, two weddings, and a hundred potlucks, the three little buildings gobbled up the wolfish development company, and they all lived sustainably ever after.
Copyright © 2021 Marie Vibbert.
Feature image credit: Depositphotos