Thursday, August 13, 2009

There goes the neighborhood...

My mother and a few of her neighbors spent about three years working with the Planning Board, the Historical Society and the City Council in her community to get their neighborhood declared “historic.” The homes in the neighborhood are old, most are relatively small on nice lots, and now the law says that nothing on the front of the house can be changed. This prevents what is common in other neighborhoods in this town: adding a second story or building out to the full footprint of the lot.

This effort was a huge fight. People opposed to historic designation called the group my mother spearheaded “the gang of eleven” (there were originally eleven of them), and accused them of being anti-individualist, anti-free speech, dictatorial, communist, socialist, conservative, NIMBYs, and various other self-cancelling insults. The people in favor of historic designation argued that they wanted to preserve character of the neighborhood, people were free to remodel inside their house or even add on to the back of their house, but that people pick neighborhoods to live in because the neighborhood as a whole has a personality of sorts, and that personality is apparent in the fa├žade of the houses and needs to be preserved.

For me this struggle raised a lot of issues related to the commons. On the one hand, property that is owned by a person or a corporation is not part of the commons, and the owners do have a lot of freedom in the use of that property. Certainly the inside of any building can be decorated or maintained (within the boundaries of health and safety) any way the owner wants. Messy or neat, shag carpet or wood floors, lots of books or none—are completely the prerogative of the residents. But the minute other people can easily see someone else’s property, the lines become more blurry. In many communities, there are laws that mandate that people must maintain their yards to a minimum standard, not allowing weeds and trash to accumulate. Many towns don’t allow you to park your car on your front lawn. The lines become clearer where the private property meets public property, so for example you can’t paint the sidewalk to match your house.

But what is the obligation of current residents to honor the intent of the people who originally built the homes or to respect the residents who buy or rent in a neighborhood because they love the overall look of it? And what is the obligation of the neighbors to honor each other’s wishes to change their property to better suit their desires? These problems are best solved in the commons of conversation, with each side seeking to understand the other and perhaps offer compromises that make sure that everyone gets some of what they want.

The problem with most conversations about public and private – whether property, faith, health care, or whatever – is that there is no real conversation. There is slotting people into categories: conservative, old, young, transient, shallow, liberal, racist, patriotic and all the opposites and degrees of these. Then there is the search for appropriate insults to try to stifle dissent. To me this is most evident in the right wing media but even as I write that, I know I have fallen into the slotting trap, and perhaps people with more right wing views than mine find the liberal media intimidating or name calling.

I think the “gang of eleven” won their struggle for two reasons: 1) They did not give up. Many of the people that opposed them moved over the three years they fought for historic designation. 2) (and more important) They never responded to the name calling in kind. Privately they may have. But publicly they were always civil and cordial, and to this day remain friendly with neighbors that disagreed with them. They were also very clear that they wanted a conversation about the nature of their neighborhood and held many neighborhood gatherings to that end. I think they won a number of people over to their side by their willingness to look at all the gray areas that were involved in establishing the kind of historic designation they sought. I learned a lot watching this struggle, and I only hope I put into practice in my own public disagreements.

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