Where is Oliver Stone when you need him?
By Walter Jowers
JUNE 7, 1999: Want to know what's wrong with this country? Attached garages, and their accomplices, the automatic garage door openers. Right behind those twin evils, we've got the backyard decks and the tall fences that hide them.
I know, I know. Y'all were thinking we were okay in "This Great Land" up until kids had to learn duck-and-cover drills to hide from the H-bomb, or the day the first Elvis record came out, or that last Wonder Years episode when we found out that Kevin and Winnie had split up for good.
Nope. The garages, fences, and decks are the root of our troubles. Here's why: They've made it easy for a big chunk of the American middle class to be cloaked like the crew of a Romulan Warbird. And, as you Star Trek followers know, the Romulans are a grouchy and warlike race.
Right now today, a kid could be born in a modern suburb, live his whole life in the same house, and never lay eyes on his neighbors. These days, about all the neighbors see of each other are the cars coming and going.
In a lot of suburbs, your best chance of actually seeing your neighbor would be on a Saturday morning as he bounces along on his triple-bagger lawn tractor. Even then, he probably won't see you if you decide to wave, and he sure as hell can't hear you if you decide to say hello.
It gets worse. When the neighbor guy finishes up with the lawn tractor, and parks it in the garage, where does he go to enjoy a cold beverage? To the deck, in the backyard, behind the fence, which is most likely a stockade fence.
It's queer that Americans willingly go out and buy stockade fences for their backyards. According to my big-ass dictionary, a stockade is either a fence around a fort or a military prison. Why are we paying good money to put ourselves in stockades?
A while back, a neighbor told me he might build a taller backyard fence because his next-door neighbor had just built a backyard deck, and now his neighbor could see down into his yard. I had to wonder: Just what is it y'all are going to do back here that you don't want them to see? And what bad thing would happen if y'all did it, and they saw it?
Over the years, I've collected some old turn-of-the-century fence designs. Every one I've found is a low, open fence. Most of them have a fancy arbor over the gate, so people will be drawn to the gate, and into the yard. Once inside the fence, a visitor would usually find a front walk, leading to a big front porch. The connection between the house and the street was gentle and welcoming. This is in sharp contrast to modern McMansions, which have no walkway from the house to the street, a puny front porch, and a half-hidden front door that nobody uses.
I know, I know. All these changes to houses and neighborhoods have logical explanations. We lopped the front porches off the houses because once air conditioning came along, we didn't need the porches anymore. But when we lost the porches, we lost the connections between the houses and the street. With the porches gone, there's no good place to have an informal visit with the neighbors, enjoy a glass of lemonade, and learn which kids belong to which house. These days, you either have to wave at the neighbors from a distance, or make an appointment to visit when the house is clean and quiet.
When we attached the garages, we made it easier to get the groceries in the house, and keep rain off our heads and snow off our cars. But we lost a daily ritual of neighborly contact. No small talk in the morning while we're on our way out, and no chit-chat in the afternoon when we're on our way in.
When we built the decks and fenced the backyards, we completed the process of holing up. No more spontaneous neighborhood ballgames. No more unprovoked invitations to a cookout. It's a cryin' shame, for this simple reason: If you're ever going to love your neighbors, you're going to have to spend a little time with them first.
There is hope. Remember the tidy little village where the Jim Carrey character lived in The Truman Show? The place where Truman spoke to his neighbors every day, coming and going? That place is real. It's Seaside, a planned community in Florida. It's not perfect. It's just a little bit anal-retentive, but it is a giant step in the right direction. It's the kind of neighborhood where you don't really have to say every morning, "And if I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night." Chances are, if you see the neighbors in the morning, you'll see them again, and exchange a few kind words with them, before bedtime. I say there's a lot good, and nothing at all bad, about that.
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