Holmes on homes

There is a really excellent Sherlock Holmes quote that, for the life of me, I cannot seem to find reference to1. Although the quotation itself is not as famous as some of the other Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quotations, it is quite practical and I find I use it with great frequency. The general gist of it is that when you come across an object — a place or a thing — look at it not for what it currently is, but at how it was used in the past and how it might be used in the future.

As a detective, the minute signs of previous usage are important. A little scuff-mark here and a little lack of dust there can tell a rich story. A little bit of mud that can only be found in a specific region can similarly tell a great fictional story. The same principle can be applied to more modern situations. You are effectively talking about forensics. It might be something as high tech as blood splatter patterns or residual magnetic signatures on a hard disk that you thought was erased. It might be something as low tech as wear marks on a keypad next to a locked door. (That is, if you see four of the ten keys are excessively worn then you know, a priori, which numbers are in the combination and only have 24 of the possible 9999 permutations to try.)

What an object may currently be used for is so obvious it will be left out of the discussion.

What an object may be used for in the future encompasses some hacker2 ethic. The question is no longer “what is this?” It becomes “how can I use this in a creative and useful way?” A paperclip may just be a paperclip to a banker or accountant, but in the hands of MacGyver, it can disable the reactor meltdown. A couple of old rusted bikes might be garage-sale material to some, but to someone with a welding rig, they can combine into a tall-bike, or maybe something less derivative and even more interesting and creative. Don’t look at what something is, but at how you can use it.

Although I cannot give the exact wording of the quote, its spirit lives with me always. It is a fundamental lens through which I view the world.

With this frame of reference, I often walk around the neighborhood. Or rather, I often walk around the neighborhood and this is my particular frame of reference as I do so — whether or not it is intentional. You see, I live in Portland, just a touch south of Powell. It is technically inner-Southeast; although when I lived in close-in-SE, my definition of inner-SE extended no further than 39th (ahem, or Caesar Chavez), I have heard more official boundaries of inner SE being either Tabor or 82nd. Since I am within both bounds, I would still say I am in inner-SE, regardless of how Brian-of-two-years-ago would define things. My particular neighborhood is an odd collection of new and old. While homes north of Powell seem to be fairly consistent in age and style (as well as fairly expensive; Powell is like the ±$500K dividing line, depending on which direction you cross), homes south of Powell seem strangely mixed.

Applying the Sherlock Holmes methodology to the area makes the situation a bit more clear. With minor exceptions here and there, every other house is nearly turn-of-the-century old and they are interspersed with extremely new dwellings. For instance, our place (101 years old) is sandwiched between a 3-plex from the early 60s and a boxy apartment from the late 60s. Old house, new house, old house, condos, old house, apartments, old house, modern house, old house, small bungalow house, old house, and so on. This leads me to believe that, at some point in the past, the lot sizes around here were 100×100 instead of the standard Portland 50×100. I would guess that the lots were halved in the 50s and/or 60s and new housing was created.

As for the future? It’s hard to say. While the older houses are standing strong, some of the newer dwelling are starting to crumble in places. In theory, the area is going to be revitalized in the next few years. Millions in urban renewal money is going to spiff up Foster Rd. A streetcar is going to be extended into the area (possibly replacing the Hawthorne bus line). There is obviously going to be a certain amount of gentrification, but who can tell how that will affect the crumbling things? Will fancy expensive condos replace cheap deteriorating apartments? It is really difficult to say right now without a few more data points.

So go into your day. Look around you. Look at the world. Examine things. Really look at them. What were they used for in the past? What might they be used for in the future? In what interesting or unusual way can you use them in the not-too-distant future?


1 Holy carp! The first sentence of this blog post ends in a preposition! Actually, it’s not so bad now.

2 Of course, I mean the classical definition of hacker — someone who can do interesting, elegant, and beautiful things with technology, repurposing it and pushing it to its limits — as opposed to the media definition of an evil person who breaks things.

Posted in: Dear Diary Portland Quotes

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