Boom! Boom! Boom!
by Ellis Parker Butler
For the first time in my life I am sitting right in the middle of a real estate boom, where a big wad of unearned increment is liable to come hurtling along any minute and make me a wealthy and respected citizen, and it certainly does feel funny. I am like a man sitting in the middle of a thunderstorm with Jove trying to use up a train-load of brand-new thunderbolts in ten minutes and the lightning hitting everything in the neighborhood and liable to hit me next. At the latest announcement the boom had hit the property on the other side of the street I live on, and was sitting with its feet in the gutter trying to decide whether to come across the street or go somewhere else and give me only a raucous laugh.
It is a strange feeling that agitates the man who has been trembling for sixteen years for fear he will lose the dear old place through foreclosure of the mortgage when, all of a sudden, he begins to be afraid that some one will offer him so much money for the place that to refuse it would mark him as a candidate for the insane asylum.
All my life I have lived where the hot, coppery odor of expanding and bursting booms has drifted into my nostrils, but this is the first time a full-blown boom has sat down on my front porch and snorted like big money. In my youth I lived where the gasping of the great Kansas City boom was constantly in my ears as it swelled like a balloon tire and then gently squashed as the air went out of it, and I saw the covered wagons go through our little Iowa town labeled "Kansas or Bust" and come back labeled "Kansas and Busted." I swelled with pride as I read that Des Moines had now so nobly enlarged her city limits that she was -- in territory -- the largest city in the world, practically overlapping Omaha, Nebraska, on one side and crowding Philadelphia on the other, and I heard the whoosh as that boom punctured.
I worked for the man who went over to Chicago to invest in boom property there and hit the site on such a rainy day that the water was ankle deep as far as the eye could reach, so that he came home with his money in his pocket, and learned, within a year, that some man with web feet or a better idea of Chicago real estate had made a million dollars or so by buying that same square-footage of dampness.
My entire young life was colored by news of booms puffing up and booms oozing away, but my home town never boomed. My knowledge of booms was entirely academic, and here I am now in the very middle of one, and I hardly know how to act. At the present moment I am sitting quietly with my face turned toward the boom, not making faces at it, but willing to have it sock me in the eye if it feels so inclined. I am trying to make my countenance indicate that it will be a cruel moment when I have to part with the place where I have spent so many happy years and where my twins and son were born, but in my heart I know that if I am offered a good price I will merely ask about a thousand dollars additional on account of each twin and the same on account of the son, and not fret much over the thought that an apartment building will soon stand where the dear old home now is, or that the cockroach and the water-bug will soon be frisking about where tender memories now cling. I am not the man to stand in the way of progress when it pays cash. I will even step to one side if progress comes along with a good first mortgage bearing six per cent interest from date.
The history of a boom is invariably the same -- "And he awoke the next morning and found that prices were booming." I do not believe any man was ever able to predict when a boom would begin or when it would end. The boom almost invariably catches everybody in town asleep; it arrives, as the above quotation suggests, during the night, like the circus. The people go to bed wondering if tomorrow will be a good day for painting the fence, and in the morning the place is full of realtors' tents and high prices per front foot and six-story apartment-houses with elevators. I know a group of bankers in a town not seven million miles from Flushing -- where my boom is now booming -- who declined to lend a widow money to buy a piece of property because they felt that it was their duty to protect her against her own folly. Her realtor declined to sell her the property because he did not want her to ruin herself so soon after her husband's death. The other day that foolish woman, who went ahead and bought the property anyway, cleaned up a hundred thousand dollars or so on it. An institution that was co-heir in certain pieces of real estate a few years ago insisted that the estate be settled so that it could cash in on its portion. It practically told the concern renting its part of the property that it could buy or get out. The concern bought for about $60,000; it was offered $275,000 yesterday for this piece it was forced to buy.
Our boom here in the Borough of Queens, and in Flushing in particular, came in the night, like all booms. The truth is that booms are almost never home-grown. Almost invariably it is the outsider who makes the boom. It is the native son who is surprised.
A town may have a Main Street. For years and years property on the Main Street changes hands very little now and then a building shifts from one owner to another and the front-foot value gets to be fairly well ground into every one's knowledge. The price for a good corner may be $500 a front foot; for other property $400 a front foot. If a corner sells for $525 a foot, it is talked about. Some one remembers when that corner could have been bought for $300 a foot. This goes on for years, and the town gets to believing that $500 a front foot is a good honest price, and plenty. There are eighteen vacant stores on Main Street.
Presently a subway is projected, and some dealer in the big city near by hears this and thinks it will make the town grow; he comes out and rents a store and starts in business. Work is begun on the subway, and more wide-awake dealers come to town to get established before it is too late. Then a dealer comes who discovers there are no more vacant stores. A few weeks later the local paper prints the news that eight pieces of real estate on Main Street have changed hands recently at prices from $800 to $1,000 per front foot. It is discovered that these were bought by Wills & Minch, by Rothstein, Hurder & Co., by the Rexto Realty Co. -- names never heard of in the town before this. The outsiders are coming in. The outsiders are the boom makers.
The next thing is the news that the piece of property Wills & Minch bought at $1,000 a foot has been sold by them to the Ororo Corporation for $2,000 a front foot, and while the natives are still telling one another that somebody is going to get awfully burned the report comes -- and is verified -- that the Ororo Corporation has sold the plot to J. Blame Gimmick for $3,000 a foot.
Some of this Main Street property in Flushing has changed hands at $6,000 a foot, I understand; if not, it will tomorrow.
At the same time vacant lots between dwellings are being bought and houses are being erected on them; plots are being bought farther out and houses go up by hundreds. While the town people are saying that the town is being seriously overbuilt and that there will be an awful slump some day more houses go up -- three hundred in this direction, three hundred in that direction. Acreage jumps in value; the piece that was held at $1,000 an acre five years ago sells for $4,000 an acre, and is resold at $8,000. Huge apartment houses grow into being overnight. The old white elephant of a mansion on the corner of Billis Street and Venus Avenue that has been the despair of the two maiden daughters of old Neddy Hoaks, who left them nothing else, and might as well have left them his curse, is amazingly invaded by a hundred workmen, not to make the repairs the girls have always hoped to be able to make, but to rip out woodwork, throw down walls, and destroy everything. A two-million-dollar apartment building is going up on the site, and the girls have received $125,000 for the property they tried so hard to sell for $20,000. The apartment builders chuckle. They got a bargain; a piece of ground of the same size on the opposite corner is now being held at $200,000.
The initial cause of a boom like our boom is the inevitable growth of the great city -- the birth rate and the incoming thousands. This means that the city must build or authorize subways to outlying districts. The natives of a town appreciate that the subway means something, and its apparent value is "discounted" almost at once. Long before the subway is a fact property is advanced in the zone the natives believe will be affected by it -- some few blocks in any direction. The local citizens say, in effect: "Our property was worth so "much without the subway; add a subway, and it will be worth so much more." But they still think in the town values; the men who come in from outside think in city terms. It means nothing to them that a Main Street corner has been advanced to $800 a foot from the $500 it was worth before the subway was thought of, or that the corner could once have been bought for $100 a foot. They think: "When Flushing is as built up as the Bronx or Harlem, this corner will be worth $20,000 a front foot. If I buy it for $6,000 and put up a temporary taxpayer, I can carry it ten years without cost, and then sell at for big money."
As I have said, a boom is not homemade; it is caused by the coming of outsiders who bring with them thoughts of values as they are in places where bigger money has been customarily paid. It is much as if a large number of New Yorkers who have grown accustomed to paying 60 cents a dozen for sweet corn went to Columbia County, where sweet corn may sell for 15 cents a dozen; the price for sweet corn is apt to jump to 40 cents. It is a boom in sweet corn, and everybody is happy too. The New Yorker saves 20 cents on every dozen, the farmer gets 25 cents a dozen more than he did, and -- oh, boy! -- how good that corn is!
A boom, until it grows beyond all reason, is usually due to the sudden awakening of a large number of people to the thereto unconsidered value of a section or of a town. I am now sitting like a toad under a leaf waiting for a large number of people to suddenly awake to the hitherto unconsidered value of a piece of property at 242 State Street, to which I hold the title deed. I am spending my time reading Marcus Aurelius and the other philosophers in order to strengthen myself against the time when I will regret having sold for ten times what I paid for the house and lot instead of waiting until I could get twenty times what I paid. No matter what I get, I will be sorry I took it, but I am ready to begin being sorry at the earliest possible moment. I am sitting up until two o'clock every morning waiting for some one to come along and break my heart.
Some of the results of a boom are amusing. I know a man who owned a house and lot here for which, I believe, he paid $14,000. When the town began to grow, more eating-places were needed and the house next to his was turned into an eating-place; it annoyed him considerably -- it meant odors of food all day and rows of automobiles parked in front of his house at meal times. He felt that it would be almost impossible to live in his house much longer -- so along came the boom, and he had to sacrifice the place for $87,500. At last reports he was bearing up well under this adversity.
The boom has resulted in Flushing having a blacksmith shop occupying a site on Main Street worth between $5,000 and $6,000 a front foot. I cannot give, offhand, the width of the shop, but it is probably fifteen or twenty feet, so a horse -- if anybody can find a horse these days -- can be shod in a shop valued at from $75,000 to $120,000, not counting the building. These are yesterday's figures; tomorrow they will be higher.
An interesting feature of the boom is the constant change of ownership it brings about. When I was on my vacation this summer, a man stopped to see us; he told us he had bought a lot with an old house on it as a speculation. When I got back from my vacation shortly after that, he had sold it and pocketed his profit. He made about $5,000 real money. This is like hopping onto an apple cart while it is in motion, taking a pocketful of apples, and hopping off again. Hundreds are doing this in our town -- taking a short joy-ride on a piece of property and then jumping off with a bunch of money and jumping on another plot for another short ride up the price hill.
I was told last night that one of our golf clubs had been offered a million dollars for its course. Golf at $55,555.55 per hole is not to be sneezed at, old man's game or not.
Another peculiar thing about our boom is that quite a few of our old-timers who have a little -- or much -- money are letting our own boom go right ahead while they are doing their speculating in Florida. It rather suggests the man who had acres of diamonds in his own back yard but who went elsewhere to dig.
There was never a more satisfactory time for a boom to hit our town than the present, with building materials worth much money, new or second-hand. Back in the cheap-material days a boom here would have been a "vacant lot" boom, because the presence of a building would have been a distinct detriment, having to be torn down at a considerable cost. Today the building, even if it must be destroyed, is worth money if it has any good timber in it at all. It is worth at least the cost of demolition. The buyer who is eager to pay boom prices in order to erect an apartment building does not care much whether there is a house on the property or not. In our boom sections of town the land values have advanced so rapidly and so far that even a good house is hardly taken into consideration when price is considered. When a man has a lot he thought was worth $5,000, and. has built a $20,000 house on it, and a similar plot next door sells for $50,000 vacant, he is apt to throw in the house quite carelessly when he is offered $50,000. This sort of boom makes it possible for the workmen of a new buyer to begin tearing down a brand-new house while the workmen of the old owner are still putting shingles on the roof.
When property is booming at a jolly rate, the building that is "adequate" improvement for the land today becomes "inadequate" tomorrow. I know of a building on our Main Street that has stores on the street floor and two stories of offices above that. Several years ago one of the business tenants on the street floor made a lease with the owner by the terms of which his rent was to increase in proportion to the increase of the appraised value of the property. His rent was reasonable in the beginning, but now the time has come to renew it. His business could probably afford a rental of $200 per month at the outside, but under his lease he might now be made to pay $6,000 a year, which is $500 per month. This is because the building is "inadequate" improvement for the land at its present value. There are only two stories above the merchant, and his share of what that slice of the land should bring the owner is out of all proportion; there should be a ten-story building there now, with perhaps fifty other tenants sharing the cost of the "adequate" return to the owner. But the boom came so suddenly no one knows just what to do about it.
You can take my own case as an example. One of my favorite amusements for the last sixteen years has been having the leak in the roof of the bedroom over the kitchen repaired. In every way this has been one of the most satisfactory leaks in my experience. In one of the houses my folks rented out in Iowa there was a fairly good leak -- when rain fell the water came down through that leak in a stream, creating a delightful sound as the water fell into the tin dishpan we always placed under it, and it was pleasant to lie in bed and go to sleep listening to the rain upon, through, and beneath the roof, but this leak of mine has given me much greater satisfaction.
My leak here develops as a large damp spot on the ceiling paper, slightly brunette in coloring. It lurks over against the outside wall adjacent to the chimney, and I first observed it just after I moved in. When I bought the house a few months later, I had a tinner come up and make a complete investigation, which he did, his report being that the tin roof had been there for fifty years or so, and was now ready to be rolled up and laid away with suitable obsequies while a new and virile tin roof replaced it.
I told him to get out his snickersnee and his solder boiler and go ahead and replace, and he did so. He peeled enough tin from the roof to make the back yard look like northern France just after a devilish bit of strafe business, and he hammered and soldered tin for days, each clank of metal making my checkbook quiver with fear and distress, and then he said it would be O. K. if I paid at the end of the month, and he vent away.
I had the bedroom ceiling repapered; but that night there was a heavy dew, and all the dew on the roof came through into the ceiling at exactly the spot where the leak had always been. Since then I have had tinners on the roof almost constantly. It has got to a point where if I don't have two or three tinners messing around on the roof the neighbors send in and ask who is sick.
The customary procedure is for two tinners, with a childish but intelligent-looking helper, to climb out of the third-floor window onto the roof and hold a consultation. They bend down and scratch six or eight of the seams with the points of their pocketknives.
"You see this, Ben?" one says to the other, mysteriously. "About it, ain't it?"
"Yeah! And look at here, Joe -- just look at here," the other says.
Then they nod wisely and say they will come back day after tomorrow; and they do come back. Later on I get the bill -- itemized. It usually arrives from three to five days after the next rain and comes in at the front door, but meanwhile the rain has come in through the roof in the same old way and place with undiminished eagerness. So I pay the bill and send for a different batch of tinners. They climb out onto the roof and scratch at six or eight seams with the points of their pocketknives.
"You see this, Pete?" one says to the other, mysteriously. "About it, ain't it?"
The trouble now is that I don't know whether to give that roof its regular monthly once-for-all mending as usual or not. It is extremely upsetting. If the great Flushing boom would get up from the curb across the street and take a few steps in my direction, I would know what to do -- I would sit tight a couple of days, and then sell the old shack, leak and all, to the highest bidder and -- probably -- move out to some desert where there is no rain and where a tissue-paper roof is adequate and all that is needed.
But when a boom sits dangling its feet in the gutter just across the street a man can't tell whether its next move will be to come over and make an honest man happy or go in the other direction and enrich more of those vacant-lot fellows who haven't cleaned the snow from their walks in the last, twenty-five years and who are now becoming bloated plutocrats overnight.
Until further notice I reserve my opinion of booms. They maybe the splendid outcome of a civilization that is ever looking onward and upward, or they may be miserably uneconomic abortions. I can't say until I see whether this one comes to my side of State Street or bends its feet southward and goes in the opposite direction from me. Then I'll know.