ON-LINE EDITION ONLY: Good fences make for bad neighborhoods

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my family knew our neighbors on both sides of us. I grew up in an older urban neighborhood where the houses were so close you could almost touch them when standing in between. An elderly woman, Mrs. Maxwell, lived on one side. She stands out in my mind for her blue and pink hyacinths and her infinite patience in returning the ball we seemed to constantly hit into her yard. On the other side were the Carlsons, a kindly older couple who became my adopted grandparents because my own grandparents lived so far away. I got to know them from playing in the back yard and talking with them when they came outside. Working in their garden while I was on the swing set might lead to a conversation about the curiosity of daffodils or bumblebees. If I was lucky, Grandmother Carlson would see me playing in the back yard and invite me over for a cookie or to keep her company while she sewed.

Most back yards were separated by 4′ tall wire fences. They were see-through and easily leaned over. Occasionally, a wealthy neighbor might install a wooden picket fence, but they were still never more than 4′ tall. The purpose of the fence in those days seemed to be merely to define boundaries. The fence told us where to plant our flower beds, but it didn’t prevent us from passing the time with our neighbors or exchanging the latest local or family news. We could see over the fences, notice when our neighbors were out working and visit with them, offer to help them on whatever project they were engaged in, or get into a conversation that might lead to trading flower bulbs or tomatoes. Some back yards weren’t even separated by fences. A row of scattered honeysuckle bushes or a berm was often enough to distinguish property boundaries. Everyone knew how far over to plant their gardens, but these vegetative boundaries were porous enough to easily allow kids to pass through for a game of chase or adults to borrow a ladder or for a quick chat.

In the 1980s, I started to notice a disturbing trend: the 6′ tall wooden fence. These urban barricades were the new status symbol. First appearing in wealthy neighborhoods, the fences sent a definite message: Stay away and leave me alone. No longer was it possible to exchange a casual greeting when both neighbors were working in their yards at the same time. Interaction had to be intentional or planned, and took the extra effort that some people weren’t willing or weren’t confident enough to make. At first, only wealthy people could afford these expensive fences, and let’s face it, many wealthy folks’ houses were so far from their neighbors’ houses that they had to go out of their way to pass the time with them anyway. But as the 1990s stock market and real estate boom produced expendable incomes, the 6′ tall wooden fence became more and more common. Sensationalized media stories of children kidnapped while playing in their front yards prompted parents to keep children hidden in back yards away from roving eyes. Our society became more mobile; people were less likely to stay in one spot and make an emotional and social investment in their neighborhoods. Tall fences became a convenient way to avoid the extra effort it would take to form relationships. Folks also started working longer hours, coming home more tired with less energy to invest in their communities. A tall fence ensured treasured privacy and tranquility.

These days, the 6′ fence seems the norm rather than the exception. I moved into a house in the Bay Area a few years ago, eager to start a garden and get to know my new neighbors. While the front yard has a short picket fence, the back yard has- you guessed it- the 6′ tall impenetrable wall. My next door neighbor, Doug, is a carpenter with a workshop in his back yard. He and his wife are perfectly pleasant, and we have occasionally exchanged greetings when we happen to see one another out front. Doug and I often work in our back yards at the same time. I can hear him whistling or listening to music while I prune or weed, but we are separated by a wooden barrier. Were the fence low enough that we could see one another, I would naturally call out, exchange a greeting, and engage him in conversation. But I don’t. The tall fence means I would have to stand on a stool or bench to see him over the fence, and it feels silly to teeter to see someone I barely know in order to exchange a casual greeting. On the other side of my house is the sidewalk. When I am in my yard, I sometimes hear people passing just a few feet away. They are so close that I can hear their dogs’ tags jingle as they walk. But they might as well be on another street for all the communication we have with one another. The wooden wall of separation is narrow but very real, for what am I going to do, hollar out from behind the wooden fence, “Hello there! How are you today? Having a nice walk?” It’s just not going to happen.

Before I moved to the Bay Area, I bought a house in my hometown. The back yard had a 4’tall fence on one side and a 6′ tall fence on the other. Guess which neighbors I got to know better? Two families lived on the short-fence side in the years I lived there, and I knew both of them ten times better than the older gentleman and his family on the tall-fence side whose faces I could never see. The payoff from my relationship with the short-fence neighbors was help moving a chest freezer out of my house- offered over the fence when my neighbor was out working at the same time; help cutting up a fallen limb- again, offered over the fence; and the occasional but treasured conversations with their children, who were lovely and worth knowing, and with whom I wouldn’t have had a relationship had there been a 6′ wooden barrier there.

The old saying goes, good fences make good neighbors, but I take issue with that. Perhaps when fences were shorter and served as more of a symbolic gesture of privacy and boundary they made good neighbors, but you have to KNOW your neighbors in order to call them “good”. The 6′ tall wooden fence has become a symbol of the state of too many of our neighborhoods and communities: cold, impersonal, and isolated. In an age when too many people suffer from loneliness and isolation in their lives, when too many kids are barricaded inside instead of outside playing with other kids, when we can’t even turn to our next door neighbors for help because we haven’t bothered to learn their names, the 6′ tall fence is an impediment to building the type of community that will transport us to a better quality of life.