House: A Memoir, by Michael Ruhlman. Viking, 243 pages, $24.95
4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land, by Daniel Wolff. Bloomsbury, 278 pages, $24.95
In July of 2001, author Michael Ruhlman ( The Soul of a Chef, Walk on Water) and his wife, photographer Donna Turner-Ruhlman, entered a large, century-old house on a quiet, curling street of soaring trees and equally dignified old houses in Mr. Ruhlman’s native city of Cleveland, Ohio, and found themselves possessed by “full-blown houselust.” They wanted it: Not the three-story, arts-and-crafts-inflected structure as they first saw it-dilapidated, attached to a “telephone book” of code violations-but as they imagined it once was and could be again; improved, even, with modern changes and additions. As Mr. Ruhlman recollects in House: A Memoir, his lovely, small narrative built of linked essays, the couple’s fantasies of what the house could be induced them to lay out sums well beyond their means to purchase and rehabilitate it. They savored the craftsman’s details, the Edwardian solidity, the zigzagging staircase and the countrylike setting within the city of Cleveland-a neighborhood that, as Mr. Ruhlman discovered in the course of considerable research, was one of America’s first suburbs.
As anyone who has ever made substantial changes to an older house could have predicted, the Ruhlmans and their two small children got much more than they bargained for, both in terms of the daily exasperations of dealing with the contractors and in terms of cash outlay for the work, which far exceeded the original estimates. The project also put considerable stress on their marriage-already a delicately negotiated arrangement, with Ms. Turner-Ruhlman having given up her vocation to raise the children and create a home in which her husband could pursue his own full-time career as a writer according to his personal requirements of an exacting routine and quiet surroundings. (While the renovation was in progress, in fact, he worked in his father’s house, a short drive away. His wife supervised the workmen, looked after the younger child when the elder was in school, and also painted all the rooms.)
The Ruhlmans’ story ends on a boisterously happy note; however, their renovation adventures are not the real subject of the book. On his website (www.ruhlman.com), the author explains that House was begun as a novel and then converted into a memoir: It’s a report that looks beyond the events it chronicles and, in its chapter-long essays, attempts to analyze-or at least recognize-a group of interrelated issues that have implications for America as a whole. What was the original promise of the suburb when it was invented as the 19th century drew to a close? How does a suburb differ in its effect on the city from the more recently developed “exurbs” or “edge cities”? Can the open-road, light-out-for-the-territory reinvention of self-so much a part of the American character-ever be reconciled with the larger human need for a sense of security, reliable community and rooted family rhythms? And if it can’t, what are the implications for the quality of life we bequeath to the future?
Along with these ponderings come hints of resignation with options foreclosed, hints of nostalgia for unreflective happiness. Mr. Ruhlman is a seasoned writer, with a journalistic expertise honed over numerous books of reporting. In House, he plumbs what he calls his “sycamore heart … a deep, spiritual contentedness, a sense of immortality”-and yet he manages to keep us guessing as to whether that “contentedness” will be shared by the people he loves. The last scene is pure Frank Capra, though so carefully worded that within the ending are seeds of another, less exuberant beginning.
Cleveland, where the Ruhlmans have committed their resources and their emotional capital, has been in the news recently as “the poorest city in the country,” based on the results of the 2000 United States Census, which determined that just over 31 percent of the city’s population falls below the poverty line (owing largely to jobs lost in the steel industry and manufacturing). A close runner-up, though, is Asbury Park, N.J., where the census shows that a fraction less than 30 percent of families live below poverty line, with a little more than 21 percent of households earning under $10,000 yearly.
The vast majority of those households, as Daniel Wolff explains in his page-turning yet also fastidiously documented 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land, are African-American, and they’ve endured the broken promises of the whites in power ever since 1870, when the New York Methodist brush manufacturer James A. Bradley took his “colored man,” the former slave John Baker, to a wooded part of the Jersey Shore, near Red Bank, to investigate some parcels of beachfront that Bradley had purchased back in New York, sight unseen. Bradley later described this trip as “our Robinson Crusoe life,” and in the course of it he enjoyed a revelation: He could combine commercial real-estate development with religious devotion by building a strictly regulated vacation spot where members of the church might convene in the salutary sea air. (The city would be named for Francis Asbury, a well-known 18th-century Methodist preacher.)
After some resistance, Baker also reported that “delight has come into my soul,” and from there to the emergence of Asbury Park superstar Bruce Springsteen 100 years later, the story of the city has essentially been the story of how Baker’s people were consistently excluded from partaking of the best that Methodism had to offer while being exploited as servants in the very Bradley establishments that excluded them. By 1924-Asbury Park’s heyday as a watering hole for middle-class whites-it was also a favorite spot for proselytizing and the odd lynching of Negroes by the Ku Klux Klan: As Mr. Wolff reminds us, at that time New Jersey was the home of some 60,000 Klansmen, “more than Alabama, or Louisiana, and just behind the state of Georgia.” Thanks to spectacular corruption as well-among elected officials, real-estate developers and, it seems, every other small businessman on the boardwalk-the town began to slide into deterioration during the 1930’s. Riots in the 1970’s sealed the doom of much of its real estate, and although it’s still trying to reinvent itself as a leisure destination, Mr. Wolff isn’t optimistic.
The one thing that the city fathers never tried-investing in the West Side, where most of the black population has always lived-is still untried. Baker is still being left to care for the horses after the long trip while Bradley goes off to a hotel for lunch.
Daniel Wolff is known as a chronicler of popular culture, with music a specialty ( You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke). 4th of July-whose chapters are ingeniously organized around celebrations of the national holiday during the times of Bradley, of Asbury resident Stephen Crane, of the Klan’s mighty years, and of other watershed events-tenderly intertwines a summary history of American popular music, black and white, with the history of racism in the city, a braiding that gives strength to the recurrent suggestion that the story of Asbury Park-now significant to most Americans because it’s the backstory of Bruce Springsteen’s songs-is also the story of America in a larger sense.
Mindy Aloff, whose book reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Forward and The Threepenny Review, teaches a course in the personal essay to freshmen at Barnard College.