DEERFIELD, IL—Like generations of teenagers before him, 16-year-old Eric Jankowski has pulled up stakes to seek a future in a distant land of opportunity and independence. Bravely facing the difficulties of a harsh new world, he placed his meager possessions on his back and made a journey of 70 feet in search of a better life downstairs.
"Life's gonna be so much better down here," Jankowski said, his eyes gleaming as he placed a backpack on the unfinished basement's concrete floor Monday. "There's totally enough room to set up some old couches so me and my friends can hang out. Plus, Dad says maybe I can put an air-hockey table down there if I promise to keep the noise down."
A sophomore at Edna Dane Memorial High School, Jankowski requested permission to move to a little-used storage room in his family's basement last month. After an excruciating three-week wait, his parents granted him emigration rights.
"I have no idea why Eric wants to live down there in that dark basement, but fine," Jankowski's mother Ellen said. "All I can say is that he'd better understand that there's not going to be any funny business. I told him, 'This house has rules. I don't care what floor you're on.'"
In spite of such warnings, Jankowski is looking forward to the freedoms the basement offers, such as the ability to play his stereo loud and stay up late.
"This room is totally gonna kick ass once I get it set up," Jankowski said. "I got a line on a great set of speakers. Once I start making more money at Popeye's, I can save up to get a bigger TV. As for the walls, I'm getting rid of all my old posters and starting fresh from square one."
Determined as he is, Jankowski faces many difficulties. The basement bathroom has no working shower, so he will have to install one himself with the help of his friend, Rob Gaer. Carpet remnants will need to be collected. Cordless drills must be borrowed from an unwilling and suspicious father. Additionally, Jankowski will have to brave the elements during the harsh winter months, when temperatures in the basement dip as low as 50 degrees, necessitating the use of a space heater.
According to Jankowski, the move offers the opportunity to escape an oppressive regime.
"Mom and Dad watch everything I do," Jankowski said. "But now, I'll be able to hear them coming down the stairs. And, if I'm slick about it, I'll be able to sneak out the basement window and, like, party."
Across the country, millions of suburban teens have sought better lives in the subterranean realm, a topic Dr. Grant Tompkins explores in Where The Floor Is Paved With Cement: An Adolescent's Quest For His Underground Domain, an account of his own teenage post-war journey downstairs.
"Downstairs migration surged in the '50s, with the proliferation of suburbs," Tompkins said. "Teens were excited by the taste of freedom that the economic prosperity of post-WWII America brought, and they wanted more. The conflict between the freewheeling beatniks and their strict forebears was reaching a boiling point. This, combined with large territories of virgin basement acreage, created conditions leading to a mass exodus of teens into the rough-hewn land below."
Though some would-be pioneers were told "absolutely not, young man," a great many made the journey down the stairs.
"For these trailblazers, the path was strewn with obstacles," Tompkins said. "Early suburban basements were dingy, drafty places filled with cobwebs and firewood. Many had only rudimentary, crumbling stairs. Nevertheless, the basement offered opportunities children of the Great Depression thought possible only in their dreams."
Gus Kleinbold, 89, was one such Depression-era teen.
"When I was a boy, fat chance I would have my own basement room," Kleinbold said. "We slept five to a bed! When the war began, forget it. Not like the young people today, with their carpeted basements and X-Boxes."
By the '70s, the room downstairs was a cherished part of the American youth experience, Tompkins said.
"Some of them were squeezed out of the basement by baby-boomer parents claiming the territory for rec rooms. These teens were often forced to seek out new lives in the roof space of their homes, as dramatized in the Brady Bunch episode where Greg sets up a room in the attic," Tompkins said. "But for the most part, teens continued to settle in the basement—a land of peace and undisturbed independence far below the war-torn lands of family strife and authoritarianism above."
In the '90s, teens began to populate their parents' basements even after graduation. Indeed, with easy access to pornography via the Internet and a depressed job market creating strong cultural and economic incentives to stay, some have inhabited their parents' basements well into their 30s.
The way is still not easy for the population Tompkins calls the "downwardly mobile," but teens like Jankowski continue to be lured by the chance to pursue happiness on their own terms, combined with the opportunity to dream big.
"This room is gonna rule," Jankowski said, hauling a cinderblock downstairs to serve as the cornerstone of a shelf. "The chicks are gonna go crazy for it, too. I bet I'll totally get a girlfriend this year."