Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Urban Wild West: Great Whites and Fences and Gangsters, Oh My!

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:`
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors?..."

"The Mending Wall" - Robert Frost

Most joking aside, I've actually quite enjoyed the last few weeks. The department is in transition, having been newly created in January; naturally there are lots of kinks to iron out. I am making friends, networking, and getting a great glimpse into the world of urban planning and neighborhood revitalization. There's much to learn, and as I round a corner I didn't know existed, I find more and more that I didn't know that I didn't know. It's dwarfing. I've spent hours researching everything from broadband grant initiatives to municipal codes for real property ordinances to fence height regulations to back alley dumping and graffiti "abatement." (I like that word. It sounds so much more professional than "stop it.")

The director of the department, Greg, is one of those dynamic people that you can't help but like, even when you disagree about everything. He's outgoing, funny, and an absolute genius. All in a very understated way, which is, I think, one of the most admirable of human qualities. We went to lunch the other day (He pays this unpaid intern with mexican food, which is glorious); over a bowl of throat-excoriating caldo, we discussed the recent municipal code violation citations that had been issued within a particular downtown neighborhood. The issue is this:
Chain link fences aren't supposed to exceed 3 feet tall. The purpose in regulating fences is actually to discourage fences in general. But everyone in the neighborhood has a fence. So what? The problem with the prevalence of fences is this: there are so many subconscious, subtle messages that a fence may send to the community. Think about it... are there fences in your neighborhood? Why or why not? Do fences enhance the aesthetics of a community? Even the most ornate and majestic wrought iron fences communicate a clear message: keep out. In the case of the neighborhoods in question, there are fences beautiful and ugly, solid and dilapidated, but they are all fences. These people erect them to keep their families in, and their surroundings out. This poses a problem for neighborhood revitalization; if we want to bring people into the area to live and raise their families, we want the streets to send a message that says "Come on in. Relax. No one is going to carjack you." Fences don't exactly put off the "relax, stay a while" vibe. But for some neighborhoods, it's not so simplistic.

This was the point of contention that Greg and I reached: He argues that the residents should be required to bring their fences down to regulation size because the presence of high fences sends a message of insecurity to prospective buyers, driving down property values and discouraging young professionals from relocating. This contributes to a desolate vibe and a generally ominous, off-putting community demeanor. His argument struck me as eerily similar to a scene from the movie Jaws:

 If you recall, the town of Amity's 4th of July celebration is just around the corner when an awful, grisly shark attack occurs off the coastline. Because Amity's summer tourism generates so much vital revenue, the mayor decides that he can't afford to close the beaches because of one shark attack, no matter how deadly. In order to coax the public to enter into the festivities (and the water), he convinces some of the locals to set an example by going swimming, knowing that the town risks losing a substantial amount of money if the tourists don't have a greater sense of well-being. By pressuring the hesitant and nervous locals (who know better) into sacrificing their better judgment for the sake of economic profit, he endangers lives.
In this neighborhood analogy, the shark is replaced by the prevalence of gangs. There are single houses inhabited by gang members who terrorize entire neighborhoods of law abiding citizens, citizens who are too afraid of retaliation to do anything about the bullies. I asked Greg what he suggests these people do? He answered by giving an analogy. He asked what sort of characteristics set apart the settlers of the 'wild west,' making them capable of pioneering when others failed. I replied that they were hardy and ready to fight, not easily intimidated, and determined to survive. I asked him if he would have the residents sit out on their porches at night with shotguns (I personally like that approach)? Thats the Davy Crockett thing to do. Well, he was surprisingly open to the idea. But we don't live in the Wild West. There aren't supposed to be marauders roaming around terrorizing the womenfolk and shooting up the saloons. We live in cities with police forces that are supposed to deal with the bad guys so we don't have to do it.

And so my issue is this: Why is it that the City whose police force fails to adequately protect them from aggressors, is the same City that penalizes them for fencing them out?

In this specific instance, the city appears to be fining residents and forcing them to lower their fences because it is simpler, and more financially lucrative, than eliminating the need for fences in the first place (i.e., cracking down on crime) which is also the city's job. In this case, I say they owe it to the residents to make the neighborhoods safe before they penalize them for protecting themselves.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the fencey type. I don't like the idea of merely keeping corruption at bay. I loved the movie "Gran Torino" (am I the only one who thought it was pretty hilarious except for the ending?). It illustrates the problem perfectly; sometimes corruption comes right into your yard and picks a fight, demanding to be addressed. Without getting into the conversation about just war, pacifism, and hawkishness (another topic for another time), when do you say enough is enough? A defensive battle is, tactically speaking, often easier to fight, but is it always the most conclusive? When do you tear down your fence and take on the encroaching neighborhood bully, reclaiming your territory? How does a Christian approach it, when faced with obvious evil and injustice? I don't know the best way to handle it... but I do know that the worst thing we can do in the face of injustice and evil is to look the other way out of indifference or fear.


Trevor said...

Holy moly.
From Hawkishness to big words like abatement. A Jaws movie reference to droppin some serious theological science on us.
I expected nothing less.

I can't wait for your just-war post.
You're freakin brilliant.

orangeweezel said...

I agree - - you're freakin brilliant.

This post raises the question of person freedom and how far government should invade our lives. Getting rid of the crime sounds like a better plan to me