Contain Yourself!

When it comes to housing, can thinking outside the box mean living inside a box?

Shipping containers are Legos writ large, and what sharp kids can make of them the dull children just don't get. It takes as much vision to see them stacked into a neighborhood without necessarily being the exclusive home to the underemployed or the local meth lab as it does to break the containers out of the shipping yard in the first place. "Some people could look at them and think they're worth nothing . . . [or] they could think of [the Quik House] as a piece of art and worth 20 times as much," Kalkin says, referencing the building kit's five-figure price tag. Or shipping container homes can become just another housing choice for the city or suburbs, fitting into the average downtown block in a way that a brace of log cabins, an adobe condo, or an underground sod house could never manage.

Cargo-container homes don't work against the cycles of distribution and waste that mark late capitalism. Neither sheer moral pressure ("Live simply in this yurt so that others may live well in their condos") nor technocratic insistence ("OK, this dome will be mathematically perfect") has managed to convince America's mayors to raze their cities and just start over from scratch for the benefit of either real estate developers or eggheaded visionaries. Container homes, on the other hand, complement the inevitable booms and busts of globalization; they're a creative construction made from the leavings of Schumpeterian creative destruction.

The future is easy to picture. Pass over the Manhattan Bridge, peer over the edge at what's left of Brooklyn's active waterfront, and you can see it. Shipping containers, stacked and laid down long rows, already looking like the skyline of a small riverside hamlet. You can't get down there, but I did. The International Longshoremen's Association used to have a clinic in Red Hook, and my father had a job as a crane mechanic at the nearby Red Hook Container Terminal. After dentist or optometrist appointments, there wasn't anything else to do but wait around the crane shop or walk down the imaginary streets of Container City until he got off work and took me home. The funny part is that the Port Authority is looking into ending shipping (and the local jobs) and transforming the terminal into . . . wait for it . . . waterfront housing.

Holding pattern at the Brooklyn Navy Yard
photo: Willie Davis
Holding pattern at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Nick Mamatas is the author of the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, out next month from Night Shade Books.

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