The weather has finally warmed up in my locale, which has given us more chances to get outside. My Mrs. and I took advantage of a nice, warm day for a walk. Which gave me time to decide that my neighborhood is more American than it is Chinese. This probably makes no sense to you, but give me a minute.
Our neighborhood was built in the three or four years either side of 1960, in an area that previously had been farm and woodland. “Out in the suburbs” development in that era tended to look quite different from development closer to the city. And certainly different from development today. The lots were large, usually something around two or three lots to an acre, and curbs or sidewalks were not part of the package.
In fact, we were built right next door to a country club, which had really been out in the country when it was built in the 1920s. It is now surrounded by mature development, making it more of a “suburban club”. You have to go miles and miles to get out to one of those isolated country clubs now.
The “blocks” in my neighborhood are long, and a walk around one is pretty close to a mile. Add in some hills and we get a good workout in our “walk around the block”.
My first thought was that I have spent almost all of my life living on the west side of the street. The house of my childhood was situated such, and after several years of student and temporary arrangements my first home was on the west side of the street as well. My Mrs. had a longer stretch of variation (with a second family home on the south side of a street) but has spent the bulk of her life this way as well, living in a continuous state of western-ness since 1987.
This means that the morning sun shining in the front of the house and the evening sun shining into the back has been the norm for me for almost my entire life. Would it do me some good to move to the east side of a street to see how the other half lives? Perhaps. If it helps, our current house changed things up by swapping living room and kitchen from front to back.
Another feature of our neighborhood is that it comes from before the era of buried storm sewers. Originally there was a shallow swale or ditch running parallel with the road, a few feet in from the edge of the pavement. And under each driveway was a large metal pipe which allowed storm water to flow downhill to the major drainage ways that run towards a nearby river.
Over the decades a wide variety has developed as to how each homeowner has chosen to deal with this storm water ditch. Some have buried drain pipe under the entire frontage of their yards so that the front lawn is flat all the way from the house to the street. My house got this treatment, one that required a nasty bit of excavation some years back to replace some collapsed clay tile.
Others have kept to the original arrangement, with varying degrees of care in maintaining water flow. Some parcels allow water to flow as it should, while others look like amateurish models of dam building.
Still others have come up with alternative ideas like areas of crushed stone or large rocks covering the first ten feet or so from the street, with either natural drainage or some kind of pipe underneath. In other words, there is no uniformity.
I read a blog post recently about the current trade conflict between China and the US. The author suggested that the conflict goes much deeper, and displays two different cultures’ ways of looking at the world. China has been a very top-down and orderly system while the US has been very bottom-up and democratic, with the kind of resulting disorder you might expect. That post can be found here, if anyone finds the topic of interest (with a hat-tip to Jim Grey at his blog Down The Road).
My neighborhood, it seemed to me, is the embodiment of the classic “American Way”. There is a neighborhood association, but it is very weak and has no teeth. People do pretty much what they want and their neighbors usually deal with it. Some lawns are manicured to the highest levels while others are downright unsightly. My own is in the broad middle, if you really want to know. In short, we rely on our neighbors to exercise self-control and good sense.
One time, when I was on the Association Board, a neighbor of mine submitted plans for an addition to his house. This was called for in the By-Laws, and this homeowner was going to follow the rules. Except that his addition did not comply with the rules in that the structure would come far closer to the neighboring lot than was allowed. He could have just gone ahead and built and nothing would have happened – I am unaware that the Association has ever tried to enforce a rule like this. But he submitted a non-conforming plan. The plan was rejected – because how can an Association actually approve a plan that blatantly fails to comply? When there is a lawyer on the board, I mean. That neighbor has refused to speak to me ever since, although he went ahead and built his addition exactly as proposed.
There are places one can go, however, where an Association Board will decree the color of your house, the design of your mailbox and whether you can park a pickup truck outside overnight (if at all). Is it a coincidence that all of these neighborhoods are much newer than my own?
All of this made me wonder if there has been a shift in the prevailing attitudes of we Americans from the generation who was building their 2,500 square foot “dream homes” in the late 1950s and the more recent generations (mostly “boomers”) who have built enclaves of enforced conformity? And does this mean that our society has been moving more towards a Chinese outlook on life than a traditional American one? And, does this also mean that younger folks who are buying houses in the inner city and painting them purple are turning back to a more classic Americanism? All good questions.
Those who love the structure and order would never be happy where I live and I do not believe I would be happy in a neighborhood of their design.
In terms of choosing a place to live we are fortunate to have the freedom to settle under a system that makes us the most comfortable. In matters of geo (and even national) politics, finding that balance can be more difficult.
Photo credit: I have no earthly idea how this picture of a planter made from a tractor tire wound up in my collection. While I am pretty laissez faire about how to keep a lawn, I do not believe that a painted tractor tire would ever make the cut. I believe that my Mrs. would have a stronger opinion. So it is certainly not from my own yard.