Chimneys and Bus Routes

This is an article I wrote for my monthly column that goes into a few neighborhood newsletters

Prior to the eleventh century, European lords and ladies would sit side by side with their servants and retainers during the cold winter months. Though the distinction between ruler and ruled would have been clear, any observer would have seen the two sets of people warming themselves and eating around the same fire. The primary reason for this closeness was a technological one; separate chimneys had not yet been invented and the only place for warmth were single great halls with holes in the roof.

Sometime in the eleventh century, castle builders began utilizing an innovative new design that allowed for chimneys to be built into walls. This facilitated the warming of individual rooms, thereby negating the need for great halls. The unintended consequence, of course, was that the social gap widened between masters and servants. One group warmed themselves and ate in one place, the other group in a separate place (Barbara Tuchman, “A Distant Mirror,” 11).

Something not so different is happening in our area. New housing developments are springing up everywhere. These new developments come with their billboards advertising home prices. You’ve seen them – “From the $450s,” “$250 and up,” “Starting at  $300.” That means that everybody else knows how they stack up against you just by judging where you live. Plus, we are always trying to get into that new subdivision or into that bigger house. Why? Because we want our own chimneys. We want to be separated as far as possible from those below us on the economic ladder.

It seems, though, that the world is pulling us closer again. The Houston Metro system has plans for altering bus routes to and from Spring. Community Impact News reported that many citizens are concerned about the impacts the Metro system may have on the area. In other words, many people are worried about the type of people who ride buses being so close to where we live. The chimneys are being ripped out and the great hall is coming back. There is a fear that the social gap is shrinking.

I do not want to make a value statement on what is happening. Rather, I’m just observing that we cannot run from people below us on the economic ladder forever. Home values will depreciate. Bus routes will be created. The poor will be among us. Faced with this reality, we have two options. We can keep running away, living increasingly separated lives from our society. Or we can acknowledge that our value as human beings is not fixed on price.

Your worth as a person is not tied to whether you live in a gated community or not, whether you ride the bus or drive an SUV, or by any other human invention. You have worth as a human being because you are a human being. The invention of the chimney is just one image of how humans are always trying to separate ourselves. Separation is a fool’s errand, because the world will always bring us back together again.


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