Last year I decided to engage in the truest, purest act of banal suffering: I bought a house.
Buying a house isn’t one action; it’s a series of actions: frantically scraping together every penny you have, talking to strangers (real estate agents and lenders), fighting with plumbers, and filling out paperwork. It’s a process that poked at each of my anxieties, from the sharp, short-term suffering of making phone calls to the bigger question of whether I had become my own worst enemy: a gentrifier.
Until the age of 25, I wouldn’t call for a pizza. Middle school sleepovers or high school study parties went snackless until one of my less-fearful friends or exhausted parents would begrudgingly pick up the phone to ring for a medium with extra mushrooms. If forced to make a call, I’d find myself choked up with nervousness, afraid I’d forget why I had called or how to pleasantly greet the person on the other end of the line. Every call I make, to this day, begins with shaking hands and deep-breathing techniques. Every call ends with the internal question: Did I hang up too fast?
Nobody tells you that when you buy a house, you spend a lot of time on the phone. And you’re not just chatting. You’re calling strangers to talk about how much money you have, if that smell is something dead or “just how the house smells,” or if someone could come to look at the roof for less than a million extra dollars. The first home my partner and I made an offer on, a quaint worker’s cottage that leaned slightly to the right, required multiple calls to structural engineers to discuss whether the whole place would eventually fall down on us one winter night while we slept. The news wasn’t great, and we backed out on our offer. But the worst part of that experience? It took five phone calls to reach that conclusion.
My anxiety about speaking with strangers over the phone isn’t rooted in the phone, necessarily. It’s about politeness and appearances, the feeling that if the faceless helper on the other end cannot see the smile on my face, they might think I was rude or coarse. Did I greet them appropriately? Did I sound cheerful or nonchalant enough? Since women have been trained to be pleasing to as many people as possible, am I giving in to some sexist idea that I must be relentlessly charming? Perhaps. Does this all cause me to become awkward on the phone? Absolutely.
In all, I made 36 calls to buy the house that I bought in June. Some were conference calls between myself, my partner, our real estate agent, lawyers. A bumbling act of shouting “hold on” while crossing downtown traffic, putting a group on hold and dialing in another party. I often hung up and said “I SUCK” aloud. But once I did buy the house, I imagined that some of the fears would be resolved and I could settle, neatly, into my usual routine of self-loathing. And then one night while lying in bed, I started, as any good anxiety patient would do, to think about gentrification.
I never thought I’d buy a house. Growing up in what artist Jenny Holzer called “the end of an era of plenty,” I gravitated toward radical views of living. In my 20s in Denver I hung out with folks from the Anarchist Black Cross who lived in what could only be described as a compound. They were fun. We made zines. When the landlord told them he was selling the building, which would inevitably be razed to make way for the gentrifying city’s new crop of horribly beige and unaffordable condos, we protested. Most of those folks have long since left Denver, myself included. But some things just stick; you become a true believer. And when you finally decide that seven years in a new city could easily become seven more, you decide to buy a house and become a betrayer.
Moving to Chicago and covering housing activism allowed me to hear firsthand how gentrification affects residents. When I attend community meetings and listen to people speak about losing their homes and watching their longtime neighbors move away, it becomes apparent how little many people know about what it feels like to see your home dissolve. As a result, I wanted to write about and advocate for affordable housing.
But deciding to buy a home—a home I could afford—meant looking at houses in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested because they are occupied by people of color. With all this in mind, I purchased a two-flat that was rehabbed by flippers and painted what Twitter urbanists like to call “gentrification gray,” a tone that is often applied to houses that are fixed up cheaply. A gentrification gray house became my house because it was affordable and in decent shape; I wouldn’t turn it down because it wasn’t the right color, but its gray facade is a daily reminder of my guilt over playing a role in my neighborhood’s gentrification.
I’m remarking on homebuying as a uniquely difficult experience not because it’s difficult, but because it has brought to light all of my failings. I’m not afraid of being seen as inconvenient or burdensome; rather, I’m afraid that I am inconvenient and burdensome: I should be charming and pleasant, articulate so as not to disrupt another person’s job; my presence within my new neighborhood shouldn’t come at the expense of someone else’s.
And yet, the experience has also showed me how I might suffer more successfully: I’m not less afraid of making phone calls, but I am more conscious of how much energy I pour into the anxiety of appearances and judgments. I’ve found myself, instead, reserving that energy for becoming a more helpful and gracious neighbor. Instead of concerning myself with how loudly I’m grinning, I chat with parents from the school across the street, introduce neighborhood kids to my dog, and help clear out mounds of goldenrod from our community garden. Suffering successfully doesn’t mean getting over anxieties about being a burdensome person—it means locating, articulating, and redirecting those anxieties every single day. Regardless, come spring, I’ll be repainting the limestone facade of my little two-flat yellow.
Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and writer focusing on livable built environments, equitable design, and architecture criticism. With an academic background in art history, she explores intersections between visual art, architecture, infrastructure, and political narratives. She received her master’s degree in new arts journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014, and her bylines can be found in Metropolis, Chicago Reader, American Craft Magazine, Chicago Magazine, Artsy, and on Curbed Chicago, among other publications.