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Sep 2001 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Don't Fence Me In
By Jill Hampton

When I was ten we went on a family vacation "back east" to Ohio. Five weeks driving across America not only taught us how small the back seat of Mom and Dad's car was, it gave us a new perspective on life in other states as compared to our own. One thing we noticed was the lack of privacy fences once we hit the Midwest.

not a fence in sight In the subdivision where I grew up, everyone had a six-foot tall, wooden privacy fence in the back yard. Some families even had split rail wooden fences between front yards, or chain link enclosing the entire front yard.

These families were not seen as really different. Then I moved to the Midwest.

Since we both tend toward the fence idea, it seemed ironic my husband and I found a house in the City that not only had the requisite short chain link fence on one side of the yard, but no fence at all between us and our westerly neighbor. The fence that used to be there, we were told, was torn down in the forties.

As a transplant in Missouri, I often ask my co-workers and friends about the culture and traditions here. Some people have never thought about some of the questions I have pondered myself. One of those questions was on the politics of fences.

One woman I worked with was horrified at the thought of us erecting a fence in our new back yard. Never having run into this philosophy, I was quite puzzled. I then began asking more "natives" about the customs of St. Louis fences.

I have learned much about the philosophies of the back yard and how to behave when everyone can see everyone else.

typical South City backyard view I have learned from practical experience, you can't run out to dump the trash in your pajamas, or let the dog out. It never fails: when I do try to get away with this little maneuver, I see one of my older neighbors. Do you wave at this point and try to act nonchalant? Do you just ignore them and hurry back inside, hoping they didn't notice you aren't dressed at 10:00 am on a Sunday?

How do you have guests over and enjoy the back yard? Several neighbors are tee-totallers and we enjoy cocktails with our friends. Do we have them over anyway and just look like boozers to the neighbors?

Well, I was told, there is a delicate little dance you will learn (they assured me) where you will use your back yard, but not really look at anyone. You can sit in chairs, but you should really face your house when you do, so as not to appear to be paying undue attention to your neighbors. You can wave at the neighbors, but only when both of you are doing something more "public" (it's NOT acceptable to wave when the other neighbor is cleaning up after the dog, for example).

These rules were way too complicated, I complained. I want to USE my back yard, not skirt around it.

Oh, but that's how you live in the City, I was advised.

Some of the arguments I have heard are: you will be cutting off your neighbors if you put up a fence, you will have an unsafe backyard if you put up a fence, you will make the entire neighborhood unsafe if you put up a fence.

All of these are actually pretty funny, because most of our neighbors rarely use their back yards — I suspect because people CAN see into them. Back yards are simply the way to get to the alley or to your car. As for safety, since most people don't use their back yard, if one house got robbed, no one would likely even see it. We have very few problems in our alley, so our fence would not create a sudden rise in "alley crime."

So we haven't installed a fence yet, but can finally afford one. In preparation, we have been dropping hints to the neighbors on either side for months. They are non-committal, but one is certainly not pleased with the idea. In fact, the great coup on the alley last summer was when one house put up an extraordinarily high and ugly fence. The aesthetics were not as bad to most of the neighbors as the fact that one of the women could no longer look down the alley and wave to us all.

Hmmmmm ...

Further "research" on my part has gathered new information on this topic, and I have discovered my husband and I are no longer alone in our desire for a wooden wall.

I have never lived so close to other people. Our houses are only about eight feet apart. As my mother says, when the neighbor sneezes, you say bless you. We already keep the shades pulled so as not to see into the other's house. I am not really shy, so I have no problem talking to the other people on our block and across the alley. I really don't see the addition of a fence as a detriment to communication.

Of course, one cannot help but think of the Frost poem and the "Good fences make good neighbors" line. But really, sometimes they just might!

Woof! We are tired of the little dances in the backyard, the seeing each other but not always acknowledging it, looking at the strewn toys in the yards, not going outside because one family is having a party. All we want is a place to go outside and "get away" from everyone, without having to go to a park. Why can't we have drinks with our friends, or sit and talk, ... or even make out if we wanted to (we are married, after all). I would feel weird even giving my own husband a peck on the cheek out there the way it is right now.

So it seems the quirkiness of the City poses this unique problem, and also offers the solution.

Since we all live with partially exposed basements that require us to go up several steps to get inside, we all have those back porches attached to our houses. Another person, in a similar quandary, pointed out to me you can still maintain contact with your neighbors while on your porch, then descend into the fenced shelter of your yard at your will. She even said she gets along with her neighbors better now that she has her fence. We plan to call for bids this fall. Hopefully a fence will start our spring off right next year.

It's all about politics in the neighborhood. We will install the fence, but to alleviate the fear of crime, we will place motion sensor lights in the dark corners between the houses for our neighbors, along with path lights on the sidewalks.

I have a little garden planned, with a fountain and raised flower beds, and we will probably replace the garage at the same time. What a transformation!

The neighbors? Well, we'll invite them to the yard-warming party. On second thought, they won't like to see our friends drinking, so maybe we should have a tee-totalling get-together just for them.

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