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By Melinda Welsh

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This essay was published on 05.06.04.

Home improvement

Rebuilding Together Day in Sacramento made it possible to believe things could just keep getting better


Let me start by confessing the pitiable fact that I have no skills—none—when it comes to home improvement. I’ve never laid a tile, built a fence or fixed a leaky faucet. When invited to participate in last weekend’s Rebuilding Together Day in Sacramento—one that had 1,000 volunteers doing top-to-bottom renovations on 23 low-income homes—I secretly knew I was worthless to the cause.

I signed up anyway. Asked to bring tools—stuff like hammers, ladders and wrenches—my husband surprised us both by finding a small saw buried deep in our garage. “How long have we owned that?” I asked. “Forever,” he said. The price tag was still on the blade.

We showed up with our friends on Santa Cruz Way in Oak Park at 8:15 a.m. on the last Saturday of April and—wow—people were already swarming everywhere around the small home that had been assigned our extreme makeover. People wearing T-shirts branded with the “Rebuilding Together” logo encircled the house in a productive fervor. (Disclosure: SN&R’s Building Unity project organized volunteers like us to join as part of a broader coalition effort to help revitalize Oak Park.) Workers were on the roof patching holes, in the house fixing the plumbing and in the backyard building a fence. The serious talent pool—made up of electricians, construction workers and plumbers—had important tasks laid out for it. Unskilled types like me were put to work scraping paint and painting prime white on the outside of the home. “We’re not going for the Taj Mahal here,” one project leader told us. “Just make everything white.”

I set to task, paint roller in hand, and immediately got that Oprah-style, feel-good-charity high that comes when you do something positive, even if it’s miniscule, for somebody who needs it. But I couldn’t ignore another feeling, too: the weird one I’d had walking up the block in this impoverished, mostly minority neighborhood with its failing structures, gated windows and barking dogs. Some of the other homes looked to be in as much disrepair as the one our mostly white crew of volunteers was busy renovating. What did the neighbors think of us? Surely they were pleased that the elderly woman down the block was getting her home fixed up. But some of them shook their heads or shrugged when they saw us on their block. One neighbor got angry because he couldn’t get his car out of his own driveway because of all the extra cars and the commotion. From behind a black steel gate, one Hmong family stared at us like we were from another planet.

I was thinking about this later when I noticed a fellow next to me using spackle to patch up holes and cracks in the doors before our crew painted over them. He surprised me by pointing out one particular finger-sized crater. “Bullet hole,” he told me.

He spackled. I painted. In a moment, the hole was gone. But it stayed there in my mind. A gun blasting in the night, a bullet exploding through a door … the simple fact of it was fundamentally outside the world where most of us on the extreme-makeover team lived.

I decided I’d better chat with Henrietta Dominguez, 67, who had either the guts or the guardianship to sit outside in a white plastic chair all day long as volunteers painted and patched and repaired her small home, nestled beneath a huge old oak tree. Dominguez was 18 when her father first bought the home and moved there with her. She dropped out of school to care for him as he ailed, and, later, she raised two daughters in the home, pretty much on her own.

At first, the neighborhood was filled with homeowners like her, she said. But over the decades, many of them moved out. They sold—often to landlords who wanted the properties for low-income rentals. Large swaths of Oak Park began falling to drugs, crime and prostitution. “There used to be drug dealing on the corners there and there … and there,” said Dominguez, pointing to the homes nearby and down the street.

“We even had drug dealers living next door,” she said. One time, her neighbors (who since have moved out) got into a gunfight. Bullets whizzed throughout her neighborhood and entered her property with lethal potential, even as her grandson, 11 at the time, slept inside. I asked Dominguez if one of the bullets from this shootout had come through the door I’d just painted over, and she told me yes, that had been her bedroom door.

Dominguez talked to me about her home, too. The basement was always flooding, she said. The plumbing was bad, but there was no money to fix it. The electrical work was dangerous. Paint on the inside and outside of the house had faded to peels, and the front lawn had been given over long ago to the weeds, though a few rose bushes still bloomed. Three winters ago, the heater “got clogged up” and “turned the walls black,” almost setting fire to the house. Since that time, Dominguez had taken to using the top burners on the stove to keep the house warm, even as she slept.

All that had changed by the end of the day that Saturday. The heating system had been replaced, the electrical wiring throughout the house was new, the plumbing was fixed, and an air conditioner was added. Also, the kitchen and bathrooms had been completely gutted and renovated, including the addition of new appliances. Everything got a fresh coat of paint.

But it’s not just her home that’s changed. Things have been improving all over Oak Park, Gonzalez told me. Her daughter Yolanda Alvarez said the progress has much to do with increased police patrols these past years. Also, people have started buying homes in Oak Park again and actually living in them, said Alvarez. Meanwhile, nonprofit charities have been building and refurbishing homes with a passion. City government has gotten involved, and private developers are using subsidies to buy up abandoned lots so as to build housing. Former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who grew up in Oak Park, has brought much optimism and energy to the scene with his St. Hope redevelopment project.

“It’s almost a new neighborhood,” said Dominguez. “There’s always something happening here in Oak Park.”

When I asked Dominguez what it was like to watch dozens of strangers teeming all over her home, she said it seemed familiar, like something she’d seen before. “It feels like one of those extreme-makeover TV shows,” she laughed.

And it did look like one of those. Americans are mad about makeovers, especially of the body and the home. TV is full of such stuff these days, from Extreme Makeover to The Swan to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and it’s easy to understand why. In these times when flash often dominates over substance, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of speedy, radical transformations. We all love the fantasy that longtime problems can be solved in an instant.

But life doesn’t usually work that way.

Some say makeovers are ultimately worthless because they usually only concern appearance, what’s on the surface. And, certainly, it doesn’t take much life experience or historical smarts to know that it’s deep-down, long-term, systemic change that really counts. Maybe that’s what made me feel a little weird when I first walked up the block in Oak Park and when I painted over that bullet hole in the door. It was probably what some of the neighbors were thinking, too, as they watched us volunteers—skilled or not—in our crisp, white, volunteer T-shirts that Saturday morning.

Still, for Gonzalez, the makeover means no more flooding basement, improved security and a heater to keep her warm next winter. And that’s real. That’s substantive.

They say the battle to reclaim Oak Park will be fought block by block, and that seems true. With every home renovation comes a slightly improved neighborhood. And what comes after that? Maybe things just keep getting better.