Thoughts on defensible spaces and private places
By Anna Daniels
…Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, …
Robert Frost, Mending Wall
A few days ago I realized that every single piece of residential property on my City Heights block, save one, has a fence and or a gate between the residence and the street. The business at the end of the block is also completely fenced.
I only became conscious of this fact after spending a number of hours last month walking along the side streets north of University Avenue a few blocks east and west of 30th Street in North Park. This area looks in many ways like the City Heights side streets off of University Avenue, farther to the east, where I now live. There are the same generic craftsman style detached houses and two story multi-unit apartments and condos, for the most part built more recently.
But these North Park side streets look different aesthetically in terms of the colors of paints utilized and kinds of landscaping; and they look different in terms of overall appearance than the area where I live. I was really struck by the fact that so many of the residences in this part of North Park, close to a busy commercial area, still do not have fences in front of the property.
So why are there so many fences in some parts of San Diego, and less or so few in others? Why are there so many more fences in the mid-city areas than there were thirty years ago, when I moved here? Do fences make good neighbors? Do fences make good neighborhoods?
My house has a fence in front of it. I provided the simple design, Mr. Huerta built it, and then I painted it, with some paint selection assistance and much appreciated gifts of bowling balls from an artist friend. I’ve pulled out a journal entry I made on the subject in 1999:
Defensible neighborhoods? My neighbors and I have put the “fence” in defensible. When my husband and I bought a house in the densely populated, largely poor mid-city community of City Heights twelve years ago, you could count all the front yard fences on our street on one hand. Now they are everywhere–legal and illegal, wooden, cyclone, cyclone with razor wire, brick, iron and cement.
They are a visible accompaniment to the annoying ubiquitous bleats of car alarms, security bars, circling police helicopters, guard dogs and the possession of legal and illegal firearms. They take on a more tasteful guise in the tonier neighborhoods, but San Diego, like its other urban counterparts is replete with an architecture of fear.
I can still remember my resistance to building that fence. For starters, fences cost money, and money was in short supply those first years when we were struggling with our mortgage payments. The all too frequent appearance of strangers on the porch at all hours of the day and night asking for money and the theft of property on the porch started to take its toll on me. I felt anxious leaving the house to go to work and anxious returning home from work, unsure of what would await me.
Once we made the decision to build a fence, to provide a physical and psychological delineation between the private and the public, we had to decide what kind of fence. Would we live invisibly behind a barrier of greenery or wood? The community police at the time counseled us to avoid that approach because we could enter our property and be unpleasantly surprised by someone lurking inside.
We chose a fence design that was open to view while clearly establishing a physical separation of the public from the private. That separation is much more psychological than physical, but it has worked — for the most part.
Fences obviously exist as a form of limited control and crime deterrence. They can also provide a much needed privacy, a retreat from a world that is too much with us. That privacy can be a two edged sword however, isolating us from our neighbors and what is happening on the street. Fences also provide a blank canvas for the creative spirits among us, providing an unexpected source of beauty and delight.
I grew up in a working class western Pennsylvania suburb in the 50’s. All of the front yards had grass and the backyards, also grass filled, rolled into each other in a seamless carpet of green. This was simply how houses were supposed to look at the time. Today, these back yards are all separated by wooden fences, which reflect the more transient nature of residents there and how that transiency is viewed. People come and go rather than buy a house and stay there for thirty or more years.
Perhaps the fence is a manifestation of one way that we accommodate the uncertainty of who we will end up with as a neighbor. My street seems much safer to me now than it did in 1997 when we built the fence, yet I can’t imagine taking it down. Living in a house or apartment with a front fence is simply what we do now.
My house is on a corner lot. People in my neighborhood lack a sense of barriers and respect for the property of others. If I didn’t have a fence they would wear a shortcut across my lawn, allow their dogs to tear up my landscaping and cause brown dead spots with territorial urination. I have a short white decorative wire barrier around the parkway between the sidewalk and the street to discourage dog owners from damaging the landscaping. It is mostly lawn with trees and shrubs as well as bulbs planted in the tree rings. People lead their dogs over the barrier and allow them to defecate and urinate in the landscaping anyway. They express profane hostility when confronted. One woman threatened to return and destroy my plants. People don’t hesitate to steal my daffodils and paperwhites before I have a chance to enjoy them. I have no doubt they’d be in my yard stealing things as well without the fence. Two years ago someone came over the fence anyway and stole 20 years growth of Spanish moss hanging from my jacaranda. I don’t hate people, but to paraphrase Charles Bukowski, I feel a lot better when they’re not around.
Ray, may I recommend some polite yet authoritarian signage to address that issue of dog owners (apparently) purposely violating that sidewalk strip?
By confronting them individually you’ve merely become that mean person they feel the need to take a shot at, while a proper written notice is anonymous enough that it could be anyone in the neighborhood- or the whole neighborhood- looking at them reminding them of a line in society the civilized should not cross.
The other philosophy of posted messages, is that when you’re confronting them it’s natural for them to take the defensive and anything you say goes in one ear and out the other. A sign is information they take in repeatedly, at their leisure.
(It works with roommates who won’t do dishes, etc, just might work in your situation )
Sadly the ultimate dilemma is that strip of land, or parkway (other names in the US,
“planting strip”, “parking strip”, “parking”, “tree belt”, “tree lawn”, “lawn strip”, “devil strip”, “boulevard”, and “terrace”) is still public right of way and they may just be trying to assert their inherent right to the last bit of open space in the city they can. Ironically, just to poop on it. My sympathies to you.
(I think the offerings of baggies is the most thoughtful solution, BTW, and it says “you have no excuse now, or are you really this lazy?”)
Anna Daniels says
Ray- I can commiserate with so much that you wrote. Our neighbors had their caged bird stolen from their porch. They put up a fence. These things all take a toll. Thanks for the Bukowski reference.
I take it the colorful bowling ball topped barrier is yours?
75% Love it… 25% understand why some neighbors may hate it. I think it’s great though it probably sticks out- kind of deserves its own picture next to the word “eclectic” in the dictionary.
I like the white iron one with a fresh coat of paint, and every Halloween I’d put a number of impaled heads on top. And leave them there a few more months, maybe red and white fur hats over the holidays.
Anna Daniels says
John- fences promote discussion about personal taste and the degree to which others share it. That kind of discussion can be illuminating. Thanks for commenting.
I took it as a little deeper and more philosophical than merely discussing art, though that was the scope of my comment.
FWIW that story about Samsay, well you knocked it out of the park.
Anna Daniels says
John- I read your comment as more than a comment about art. It reflected aesthetic considerations and your sense of whimsy.
Glad you enjoyed reading about Samsay! Thank you.
Erin Wilson says
Hey Anna! I just got back from a vacation mostly spent in Grand Rapids, MI. This was the childhood home of one of my best friends, Tracy. She moved to San Diego in 1984 and we’ve been friends ever since. Within the last year, with the economy in the crapper, she had to move back to Grand Rapids and rely on some family support. So, Jonquil and I went to visit her. One of the first things I noticed, from the airplane (!) was the lack of fences inbetween houses. I was actually more concerned by what about peoples’ pets? Shouldn’t they be contained in their own yard? What about people who let their weeds grow willy nilly? Do I have to see and hear their loud children? So, I had a whole different point of view! Great article. I’m interested in hearing more from the community about their fencing issues :)
Anna Daniels says
Erin- life without fences had its problems. There were the Grass Wars. Social opprobrium against the guy who didn’t keep his grass cut and let the dandelions go to seed was loud and salty. There were Ball Wars, when kids would run through flower beds retrieving baseballs, footballs or basketballs. There was a horrid troll on the block who would dart from the house, gather up the ball and never return it. There were Dog Wars because nobody kept his dog on a leash. It was green, but it wasn’t Eden. Hope you had fun on your vacation!
I scanned the article, got a sense of the Anna’s point and quickly scrolled down to look at the various fences in the photos. The one with the yellow fencing, red gate and “bowling balls” on top was my favorite. If you’re going to have a fence…do something with it. Have fun with it. Express yourself (hopefully, in a positive way). I think the neighbors should enjoy it. Oh…and then I went back and read the article.
I’ve thought about the pros and cons of fences before. The article creates a great discussion about something we all see everyday but may not give much thought to.
Anna Daniels says
Jerry- my whole attitude about my neighborhood changed when I decided to paint the fence bright colors and add the bowling balls on the column. I had fun, for starters, tweaking the idea of the cement balls that we frequently see perched on columns. I refer to the bowling balls as an homage to the Brunswick School of Architecture, Pittsburgh Revival Style. “Brunswick” refers to the bowling alleys where people used to spend a great deal of recreational time.
When I was painting the fence, people stopped and talked to me. I had a wonderful opportunity to get to know people in the area, and they would always tell me parts of their own story. I started to genuinely enjoy the people around me. People started to leave bowling balls on my porch.
Kids still walk by and giggle at the boliches arriba– the balls at the top. The sound of their laughter makes me happy.
Thanks for your comment Jerry.
Interesting, Anna. As a native Californian, I am used to seeing fences everywhere. When I was transferred to Maine the first thing I noticed that there were no fences anywhere. And what did I have in my unfenced yard on a daily/weekly basis? Moose, eagles, woodpeckers, bear, etc. Although it was exciting and I took loads of pictures, I never felt safe letting my dog roam on our property – along the Kenduskeag Stream. There is something to say about fences – but more to say about wild life.
Anna Daniels says
Judi- were there fences when you were growing up in Los Angeles? But back to the bear… we never had bear in our back yard, but we did have snakes, deer, pheasant, racoons, skunks, bunnies, chipmunks, a dwindling song bird population and once, a vole. I still think about the vole…
Anna, I love the article and the pictures! One of the top priorities for my home is to build a fence — I seriously can’t wait. I don’t want anything massive or crazy, I’m not looking to block out my neighbors from my life, but I just want something to corral the dogs and discourage solicitors. I would love to be able to keep the front door wide open on summer days and not have to put up a baby gate, and I haven’t found a screen door that adds to the house in an aesthetic way.
Dave Rice says
Quite the thought-provoking article, as everyone else who’s already weighed in proves. Thanks, Anna!
I grew up and spent my early adult life in the suburbs – no fences in the front yard of either of my two houses there, but I didn’t do a lot of living out front, either – nor did any of the neighbors. Our backyards were walled-off fortresses where we could control the comings and goings of family and friends.
In city life I’ve been in apartments for most of the last seven years – my front yard is a parking lot, but my backyard is walled off by a 6′ wood fence – I often joke that I live in a fishbowl, as I spend most of my nights outside writing while the neighbors in the 2-story set of units behind me have a view of pretty much nothing but my 15′ by 20′ “tank” with a small shed and strip of garden down one side.
But I wonder if this is the best way – I’ve seen photos of my home before I moved in, and what’s now walled off for my exclusive use was once a common area with a barbecue and table for the complex, as well as a swimming pool that’s since been filled in. My landlord bought my mother-in-law’s complex a couple years back, and the first thing he did was rip out all of the common area landscaping, pour several tons of concrete, and build a maze of fences splitting the common grounds up into private chunks (the city quickly intervened with a wrist-slap, I believe, when he tried to erect a 6′ wooden wall extending out to the sidewalk from the front units, perhaps such a thing is permissible elsewhere but frowned upon in OB). I wonder if there’s any value left in common space, or if the “give me mine” mindset dictates that instead of a big shared lawn a 6′ by 10′ private “yard” is really more desirable to most folks these days. And I wonder what that says about us.
Anna Daniels says
Dave- you point out something important–the dwindling of the commons. The replacement of common areas with atomized, fenced individual households mirrors a broader social trend. Is this driven by financial/developer interests or the desires of the people who live there? Landscaping, turf, and common areas have associated maintenance costs. Maximize profits by cutting those costs. Over a period of years and decades, that is a substantial cost reduction.
Social costs are quite another thing. How do you get to know your neighbors if you never run into them? Where can kids play outdoors safely? It is clear what separates us. What knits us together?
John Lawrence says
There is something nice about the east coast where one yard with trees and green grass flows into the next sans fences. It seems to signal neighborliness. But out here there’s a whole different ethic about fences. I really like the colorfulness of yours.
Jay Powell says
Anna: From number of comments, you really struck a chord there! I remember putting up the picket fence and gates along the one block frontage of houses and apartments on Highland which is now location of Rosa Parks Elementary and shared park. When the school district and city decided to build the school and park, we “recycled” the fencing and replanted it as part of the pilot Teralta Quality Neighborhood Improvement Project. I think some of those fences are still there!
I was just looking at the plan for that project which is headed by a commentary entitled “Resident Forward.” Here’s a couple of excerpts: “What does it mean to be a resident of City Heights? How can we design and implement projects which meet our need for a safe, quality living environment while retaining our uniqueness?…Our vibrancy and diversity must be expressed creatively through artwork and landscaping…. In order to accomplish these goals we began looking at the public right of ways as the focal point of serving these resident needs. We ‘own’ these areas by virtue of the taxes we pay. The responsibilities of ownership without local control is no longer an acceptable practice to us. ” “Sincerely, (signed) Anna Grace Daniels, Resident”
Back to the Future. – Your friend, Jay Powell
Anna Daniels says
Back to the future indeed Jay. While writing this article I thought about those picket fences and edible landscaping. Thanks for that blast from the past.
I live in City Heights too and am considering putting up a fence because I’m tired of picking up the trash and dog poop people leave on our lawn. Love your allusion to Wordsworth, by the way!