California dreamin’ now just a dream for most

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Homes now larger, emptier and more expensive than ever

Opinion by Joe Mathews,
Zócalo Public Square

Few houses more dramatically represent California’s transformations than the Long Beach home that my great-grandparents, Raymond and Rebecca Corcoran, paid $8,000 to have built in 1935.

I visited the home in my quest for a more intimate understanding of how California houses, and dreams, age. On my journey, I spent time at six different homes with deep meaning to my large California family.

And I found myself asking:  Do we still own our houses and the dreams they embody? Or do they now own us?

Originally, the Corcoran home at 255 Bennett was a one-story, three-bedroom white colonial in Long Beach’s Belmont Heights section.

Raymond and Rebecca were Southerners (he from Charleston, she from Norfolk) who with their four children went wherever the Navy sent them. But Commander Corcoran retired in 1933, and needed a place he could afford on a Navy pension. Belmont Heights was a middle-class neighborhood mixing stores, churches, homes and apartment. That diversity has made the neighborhood resilient to this day.

When Raymond died unexpectedly in 1950, it wasn’t clear whether Rebecca—Great Gram, we called her—could afford to remain. But she did, by living simply. She never had a TV or a car; she rode her bike to the grocery store, and took the bus to church. When she needed a ride, her wisecracking friend Daisy would drive even though she was legally blind.

In 1981, Great Gram, too frail to keep up the house, sold it. The place would never be the same—literally.

Subsequent owners, seeking more room for their children, undertook renovations that added a second story and a lap pool. Eventually, the small house became a six-bedroom Santa Fe occupying 4,400 square feet of a 6,500 square foot lot.

This larger house (since altered to appear more Spanish than Southwestern) is much more valuable—real estate sites say $2 million. But the upkeep of a bigger place has weighed on a succession of owners. It also became emptier than it was as a much smaller house.

In this, the house is thus characteristic of a California where homes have gotten larger, even as our families have grown smaller.

When I visited today’s owners this fall, Dennis and Jennifer Richey, they were struggling through the end of a difficult renovation to make the place a better fit for the retired couple. The Richeys have the place to themselves, each with a den to which they can retreat to get things done.

As I walked through the home with them, we talked about things that remain from the original home: a bay window, bedrooms and a closet trap door leading to the basement. We were rattling around in the twilight zone between an older California dream and a newer one. Jennifer told me her “woo woo” friends have detected a woman’s presence, the occasional shadow moving through a door.

“But it’s a kind haunting,” she said.

The Richeys are both Southern Californians—she from Glendora, he’s a Long Beach native—and are wistful for the days when homes were less expensive and ownership less taxing. Jennifer now rents the condo she owned before she married Dennis to one daughter, while another daughter, a university math professor, rents a one-bedroom in Seal Beach.

“My children can’t buy a house in California anymore,” she says.

There is talk of a historical designation for the neighborhood, which is still lovely. As I left, the sounds of an aria wafted over the block. The opera singer across the street was giving a lesson.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. This is an excerpt from a longer essay.

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