In 2019, Bloomberg Businessweek documented the ongoing trend of homogenization in American housing in an article titled “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same.” The article does a fine job of articulating the material causes of this similarity, namely, that it’s cheap to build one block or brick bottom story and a bunch of cheap crappy wood-and-panel floors on top…but it does little to explain anything beyond these economical reasons. In short, it fails to discuss the actual end-game of contemporary capitalism, to wit: the disposable commodity that is the human being.
My own interest in exploring this issue has been ongoing owing to the five-over-oneification of some of my favorite neighborhoods. You can see new five-over-ones now smothering downtown East Lansing, crowding the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus (where the Freakin’ Frog used to be…) and in and around down town Detroit. Having just today (12 June 2021) about the closure of the venerable Royal Oak Main Art Theater, I am taking a wild guess that that structure will soon be levelled to make room for – you guessed it – more five-over-ones.
Sure, I have no insight beyond my own cynicism here and I could be wrong, but I would hardly be surprised (and certainly would not be pleased) if I weren’t.
What’s the big deal with five-over-ones? What do I care? My problem has been documented by so many others insofar as I in the main share their misgivings with the design: the homogeneity, the cheapness, the fact that both (the homogeneity and cheapness) are usually built on top of the rubble of older, more visually interesting structures. I don’t think any reader is well served by me going on at any great length when so many others have done it so well before. Sufficed to say: I don’t love them and that’s mainly 1) because they are unlovable and 2) because they often replace something dear, whether that’s a venerable old arts institution or just an empty field or splotch of woodland.
But what’s this all got to do with the end goals of capitalism? The five-over-one is just another move in capital’s game: to extract value from you while providing minimal return. This is not in itself an especially controversial idea: minimize cost, maximize profits – that’s capitalism. Anything else, like capitalism’s oft-touted (and oftentimes illusory or completely false) “efficient distribution of resources” is collateral to the capitalist paradigm of generating capital. Capital is generated through profit. Profit is made both by increasing income and decreasing expense. This is why bottled water companies are evil geniuses: they cork up and sell something you essentially get for free. It costs bottling companies next to nothing to sell you your own tap water.
To understand what’s so dreadful about the five-over-one (cheap housing dressed up as luxury and built over previous established community spaces), one must understand their place as a work-consumer unit. You, John Doe / Jane Roe, are expected to work tirelessly, for little money, to consume, but never with problematic accrual. In simpler terms, this means you need to keep buying and never own. Ownership implies completion at some point as opposed to the perpetual razor-and-blade model of consumption.
To put this another way: you are a subscriber to your own life. Property ownership, i.e. a house and a car and a substantial collection of books, CDs, and DVDs, are anathema to capitals end goals. If you own a home, you don’t pay rent (mortgages, more complicated rent, can at least at some point end, but I digress). If you own books, you don’t need a Kindle. If you own music, no Spotify, and so on and so on. Everything rented, nothing owned, and never, ever a still, quiet moment to yourself because you must be kept producing and consuming. You, little caterpillar, must be kept hungry always.
And when you die? No messy estate. No inheritance for your children or grandchildren. In the end: you are washed out with a hose.