The plan had been to buy a house in Maine when we retired. Yet as months of Covid and Trump piled up, I thought less about retirement and more about where to run. My husband and I were still tied to New York by our jobs, but remote work gave us some freedom. I found the house in August of 2020, six months into the pandemic, and we closed on the last day of September, six weeks out from an election that seemed, at the time, as if it might solve many of our problems.
The mid-coast town we chose felt right, right away. A working harbor keeps it cheaper than the posher town nearby; ferry terminals and factories line the waterfront. Close to Main Street, grand Italianate mansions built with limestone, granite, and shipbuilding money are interspersed with squat, symmetrical Cape Cod cottages, their longevity commemorated on small plaques usually placed next to the front door: 1832, 1850, 1886. Many of the houses, recently restored, are painted rich, bright colors instead of quiet Wyeth grays and whites, and solar panels shine on their roofs. The message they sent, as I walked the streets, was that old structures could work in new ways.
Compared to those glowing restorations, our 1897 farmhouse looks shabby and plain. The previous owners stripped almost all the folk detail, tore off the front porch, and replaced the clapboards with aluminum siding the color of Swiss cheese. Had we extended our search farther out into the country, we could have bought something in better shape, but I wanted to walk to the water. I also worried that, the more rural we got, the more Trump signs we’d see. Even though I didn’t know anyone in town, the campaign signs planted in almost every yard served as red and blue closed-captioning for our potential neighbors. I was probably naïve—I was naïve—but every blue sign made me feel safer.
There were so many signs that summer. Love Wins. Hate Has No Home Here. Others set forth simple statements: In This House We Believe,followed by sentences that, since 2016, had somehow become controversial enough to require signage. On one hand, it was reassuring to see them; on the other, I missed living in a world in which Science Is Real went (mostly) without saying. If the statements on left-leaning lawns seemed obvious, the proclamations on the grass of Trump voters were increasingly unhinged: Guns Keep America Great; Arrest Hillary and Hunter; No Mask for ME. The signs were not in conversation, or even opposition, but spoke completely different languages, even when the people posting them lived right next door to each other—not that I saw many people. The summer streets were eerily silent, so the signs spoke in the absence of the people who posted them, as if the houses themselves had taken a stand and the humans were beside the point.
The signs were not in conversation, or even opposition, but spoke completely different languages.
If I’d had any experience buying a house, I probably would have paid more attention to property taxes and less to political signage. But my adult children are queer, and we have many friends who are queer, transgender, and nonwhite. I wanted them to feel as at home in that town as I did, walking the streets, holding hands, sharing a blanket at the beach. All those rainbow hearts and Biden signs suggested that my concerns about prejudice stemmed from my own biased, big-city assumptions about small-town life.
And then I found out about Butterfly Field.
Butterfly Field was the name given, apparently after the fact, to a stretch of meadow two blocks to our west. I know this not because anyone told me, but because of the sudden explosion of signs that fall that screamed “Save Butterfly Field!” in bright caps on a blue and green Monet-meets-Maine background. What Butterfly Field needed to be saved from, I did not know. A Target? McMansions? Whatever it was, I assumed I was on board. Or I was on board until I took a walk with our dog on an October morning, just days before the election. (Joey is a friendly lab mix, and if I try to maintain clear red/blue social boundaries, he trots happily across the aisle, grinning like an idiot.) A car pulled up next to us.
“Do you live here?” the white-haired driver asked.
“We just bought the house on the corner,” I told them, smiling.
“Oh. I thought you might be one of those Habitat for Humanity people.”
“No,” I replied, and they drove off, leaving me wondering if I had just lied. While I did not work for Habitat for Humanity, I definitely support habitations for humans, so on principle, yes, I was probably “with” Habitat for Humanity. It didn’t hit me until later that, if I wasn’t cis, straight, and white—if, for instance, I was one of my children—their question about where I lived might have felt like a threat. Instead, proud of my new house and eager to belong, I’d responded Joey-style and grinned at them like an idiot.
Back at home, Google revealed why Butterfly Field needed to be “saved.” Habitat for Humanity had purchased the property to build an affordable housing development, and even though staffing shortages had forced even successful local businesses to curtail their hours or close outright, many residents were determined to stop the construction. Maine Facebook groups were full of individuals and families desperate to live where the jobs were, but unable to afford the very few rental units available. Yet many of my new neighbors, the same people who had supported Joe Biden and Sara Gideon, apparently preferred butterflies to low-income people who could benefit from living downtown.
Still, many of those neighbors overwhelmed us with their kindness that first year. We found gifts of rhubarb and raspberries, tomato plants, even pretty holiday packages on our porch, and when both my parents died and my daughter was seriously ill, they mowed our lawn, plowed our driveway, and signed for our deliveries. Of the five of us, Joey is by far the most popular, but that’s not surprising. We’re part-time people in a neighborhood of year-round residents. Even worse, we purchased a single-family home in a housing market so tight that people moving to the area with good jobs literally have nowhere to live. While this wasn’t the case when we bought it—the house had languished on the market for months, probably because of an online picture showcasing that Swiss-cheese siding—it is certainly true now.
Half a century ago, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick published an essay called “In Maine.” Hardwick evoked the state through descriptions of its houses, from the poor homes with “horrifying clutter … strewn around the yard … a multitude of rust, breakage, iron, steel, and tin,” to the “fine houses, with their flagpoles jutting out from the second story, as if in a permanent, steely salute.” Like the signs in my neighborhood, the flags seemed to Hardwick “to call attention to the claims of the house, to its white clapboards and black shutters, its fan-shaped glass over the doorway.” The house, she suggests, its “ownership and upkeep,” entitles the people inside to make their “claims” in the public realm.
I wasn’t used to politics that worked this way. Sixty-six percent of New Yorkers don’t own houses, much less lawns, so we announce our beliefs with our bodies. We wear team logos, religious garb, drag, and masks, unless we don’t. When we believe, we show up, at Union Square or City Hall, carrying our signs with us. Weeks before finding our house, I had marched, masked, across Brooklyn and its bridge with friends and family and a million strangers to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and too many others. Up in midcoast Maine, multiple lawn signs claimed that Black Lives Matter, but I saw no Black people at all.
That winter, the election over if not done, we received unsigned letters in our Brooklyn mailbox alerting us to public meetings about Butterfly Field. I tried to figure out who wanted us at those meetings badly enough to look up our New York address. As far as I was concerned, the potential inhabitants of Butterfly Field had more right to their houses than I did. I also knew that, as a summer person “from away,” my views were meaningless to most Mainers—like the woman who argued in a letter to a local newspaper that the proposed development “tears apart the fabric of … Civil War history” by placing affordable housing next to the home of a Union general. Her thinking made about as much sense as “Arrest Hillary and Hunter,” but I got the feeling that, blue signs aside, many of my neighbors agreed.
“A sense of continuity oppresses just as much as it reassures,” Hardwick observes. I think my neighbors would have campaigned just as vigorously against McMansions, but no one needs McMansions, while affordable housing is almost impossible to come by. (In the state capital, Augusta,only eleven percent of Mainers who qualified for affordable housing actually received it.) Jerusalem Demsas, who has written extensively on housing for The Atlantic, puts it bluntly: “Deference to community input is a big part of why the U.S. is suffering from a nearly 3.8-million-home shortage.” When it comes to housing, she argues, “making it easier for people to lodge their disagreements doesn’t change the distribution of power; it only amplifies the voices of people who already have it.” In this country, both housing and policing privilege the security of people who are already safer and more sheltered than almost anyone else in the world. My parents were those people, as are my husband and I; my children and their friends, however, are not.
My daughter’s best friend is a Black trans femme named Flora. Flora lived with us for several months during the pandemic, and they stay with us occasionally during college vacations. At 5’11’’, with a personal style that combines Bushwick rave with Maria from The Sound of Music, Flora is hard to miss, whether they are herding goats into Riverside Park or walking down the street in a small town in Maine. If you’re an asshole in a pickup truck plastered with Second Amendment slogans and you feel like shouting slurs, Flora is especially visible, because while there are plenty of Pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs in Maine, the only person who looks like Flora is Flora. Hate may have no home here, but it doesn’t need one. Unlike Flora, hate can always find somewhere safe to stay.
Both housing and policing privilege the security of people who are already safer and more sheltered than almost anyone else in the world.
“I am skeptical of everything in America just now, wary of roots and character,” Hardwick mused, “Everything in our lives seems subject to revision.” Yet the Maine she presents on the page seems immune to that upheaval, a stasis Hardwick finds both comforting and unnerving. I wonder what she would make of the Revolutionary War Museum one town over, where a “Blue Lives Matter” flag flies proudly next to the banners for state and nation. Such revision demands an almost spectacular feat of forgetting, a persistently willful act which necessarily acknowledges that the “roots and character” of “fine houses” are not facts, but agreed-upon fictions, like the stock market, or property values. At some point, stasis requires more revision than progress.
It has been two years since I first saw the signs. Now, every morning at 7 a.m., the sounds of construction flow down the hill from Butterfly Field. The whine and clank of metal, the drone of engines, the relentless beeping of trucks in reverse are noises I associate with city life and would prefer not to hear up here. Still, they are the signs of work being done, progress being made, something being built that someone actually needs.
A few days ago, on an early morning drive to take a houseguest to the train, I saw a small gathering at the entrance to what is now called “Butterfly Field: A Caring Community of Affordable Housing.” All of them were older, white-haired women, and they had brought a new sign with them and shoved it in the ground. Bigger than the others, it seemed to be a painting of a large housecat, except with wilder eyes, on the original blue-green background. The yellow text underneath read in all caps: “This was my home!” I almost drove off the road.
On my way back, I slowed the car, still not believing what I’d seen, that anyone could deploy the word “home” to oppose houses for people who need them. They saw me and beamed; I am a white woman in a Subaru station wagon, and they presumed I was one of them. I glared, but I did not stop to correct them, to make my case. When it comes right down to it, I don’t have to; the houses are getting built without my help. Still, in New York, where I own nothing, I have put my body on the line against police with tanks and guns. Why couldn’t I face down a few old ladies with paintbrushes, in a town where I am granted power by systems I don’t believe in?
Maybe that’s it: I don’t believe. I don’t believe that owning a house should give me more say than someone who needs one. I don’t believe that signs are enough, because the claims of the house are empty without the actions of the people in them. I don’t believe that any of us are safe, really, from the disasters to come; I do believe that those of us with space to spare should share it. When the new residents of Butterfly Field arrive, I will be there to greet them, to tell them “You are welcome here,” and try to make it true.
Our house stands empty for most of the winter. We fly no flags and post no signs: for one, we don’t vote in Maine (although if we wanted to make a difference, we should), and for another, I worry about leaving the house to make its claims in our absence, unprotected. A few months ago, I got an email from a man who worked in the town office. When I called back, he explained, apologetically, that someone had lodged a complaint about our grass being too long. “One of your neighbors,” he told me, but he would not say who.
Beth Boyle Machlan is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn. She's working on a book of essays about real estate, identity, and desire. Her essays have appeared on Avidly, River Teeth, Guernica, The Rumpus, The Awl, and the New York Times. She yells about writing, teaching, her pets, and hockey at @bethmachlan.