High Cost of Freedom

Photo courtesy of HomeAidIt is a peculiarly American thing to claim that certain facets of human behavior are peculiarly American. We claim a unique pioneer spirit of expansion, though that spirit was pioneered by the Greeks. Cultural wags talk about that peculiarly American need to build up heroes so we might tear them down, though the Greeks were telling stories about that when Hector was a pup, eventually telling a whopper about poor, grown-up, torn-down (and dragged around) Hector. When that little girl fell down a Texas well, George Bush, then vice president of the United States, said the effort to save her was peculiarly American. Jay Leno, then a very funny comedian, agreed that, yes, the Swiss would undoubtedly have let the girl die because rescuing her would not have been cost-efficient.

Which gives us all the more reason to encourage you to rush—RUSH!—down to Fashion Island and see something truly peculiarly American. There, in a courtyard bordered by Restoration Hardware, where they sell $139 corkscrews (“reverse-action leverage, ergonomic design and Teflon-coated screw yield dazzlingly smooth and smile-inducing speed in cork extraction”) are several children's playhouses built with likely more love and creativity than wherever it is you lay your hat: the 80-square-foot “Little Newport School House,” featuring not only open beam ceilings and distressed solid walnut hardwood floors but also computer and DSL connections and recessed rope lighting; the windmill “Moulin Rouge” with hand-painted cancan-girl murals and a raised stage framed by French silk draperies; and the two-story “Pirates Hideaway” that boasts telescopes, toy-laden treasure chests and a five-speaker Sony Home Theater System with DVD player.

What is peculiarly American is not the ostentation—that is peculiarly Donald Trump—but that each of these was recently sold at auction by an organization called HomeAid. HomeAid is the charitable arm of the Building Industry Association of Southern California, and the proceeds of the auction will go to build housing for the homeless. If it seems ironic or grotesquely bizarre that the sale of the 61-square-foot “Small Fry” playhouse with its kitchen sink and running water will benefit a family presently forced to bathe in gas-station restrooms, welcome to America. This is our response to hard times.

After all, in the wake of Sept. 11, we've shown our patriotism by buying stocks and plane tickets. We gave money to celebrity telethons and will soon shell out cash for all-star concert CDs. If you enter Fashion Island through Bloomingdales, you're likely to notice a window with five mannequins dressed in faux-fur-lined denim jackets and leather pants standing at attention before an American flag. Walking through Bloomingdales, you'll likely pass a counter featuring a gaudy $50 American flag pin, with all proceeds going to the American Red Cross.

This is American. And Orange County is more American than most, with lavish benefit events dotting every week of the calendar. (The same can be said of Manhattan and Los Angeles, where, later this month, an event called “Divine Design” will raise money for those living with AIDS and HIV by having people buy fashion and home accessories as well as spa treatments. The flier encourages the public to “Shop in the name of love.”) If the events at times seem cruelly ironic—lavish dinners given to benefit the hungry, a swing dance given this March to benefit the crippling disease of arthritis—it doesn't take away from the good works. It is simply how we work.

HomeAid's work is very laudable: it has built 34 homeless shelters in the county and is presently developing another eight, including the 192-bed Village of Hope in Tustin for homeless families. It will include medical and child-care facilities as well as the 24 apartments of Laura's House II that are designed for victims of domestic violence.

HomeAid members usually donate their goods and services so that two-thirds of the construction cost are normally covered. “That means that usually we're fund-raising for that other 30 percent,” said HomeAid's Delene Garbo.

They've raised more than $14 million over the past 10 years. This year, the playhouses brought in more than $300,000, a greater take than in years past. Consider that before this year, the highest bid paid for a playhouse was $38,000. This year, two playhouses, “Tom Sawyer's River House” (copper chimney, stone countertops, hand-finished Venetian plaster) and “Pirates Hideaway,” each went for $70,000 or more.

“I think it's because of what happened Spet. 11,” Garbo said. “People were feeling very patriotic.”

One gentleman was feeling so much so that he bought two to be shipped to Las Vegas, where one will go to his house “for the grandkids” and the other to his son's.

We encourage you to rush down to Fashion Island because the playhouses will be taken away to their new owners this week, and you're not likely to get a glimpse of anything this peculiarly American again until April 27 at South Coast Plaza Village, when Habitat for Humanity will host its “Day Full of Porsches.”

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