Thursday, August 19, 2010

Privacy and the Commons: Not in My Backyard?

Recently I have had a spate of guests, one of whom has recently started reading this blog. She had read with great interest my post on the Gateless Gated Community because she, too, goes to Fire Island from time to time. She expressed surprise and some judgment on realizing that my backyard is entirely fenced. The fence is a little over 6’ high on three sides and 4 feet high on the side that faces one of my neighbors. Trees, shrubs, and jasmine vines line all the fencing, and so the backyard is very PRIVATE.

My friend felt that a true commons person would not have a fenced yard, or would at least have low picket fences. My fence, she observed, precludes conversation with neighbors, does not allow passers-by to see beautiful flowers and trees, and gives a message of ‘private: this is for people who live here or are invited here by people who live here and it is not for the public.’ “You are a gated family,” she concluded.

Her words made me think about privacy. There is a neighborhood in Toronto where the neighbors took down all the fences between their yards and now children can run from one end of the block to the other, people can see and greet each other, not just next door, but several doors down. This has led to a feeling of real community apparently, and sharing of barbecue grills, lawnmowers, washers and dryers, bikes, etc. A neighborhood in Berkeley has the same arrangement, so the backyards of two city blocks are open, creating a space that is really more of a park than a huge back yard.

Contrast my neighborhood where every house has a high wooden fence around their back yard, so all socializing with neighbors is in the front yards, none of which are fenced. I defended privacy to my friend: we all need privacy to shower, change our clothes, have sex, etc. Sometimes we just want the feeling of being alone and not able to be observed by anyone even if we are just reading the paper. Prisons punish in part by taking away privacy, so that everything is “gateless.” She said she didn’t really think having a gated back yard is such a big deal, but how far would I go with that? Is a gated backyard simply a smaller version of a gated neighborhood? I couldn’t answer, but I know I am not tearing down my fence.

So, am I a hypocrite? No doubt I am, in many ways. I believe in being kind, but I am often snarky. I don’t believe in talking behind people’s backs, but I do on almost a daily basis. But I am also an introvert. The idea of living in a place where going out my back door always meant the possibility of encountering my neighbors (who I like), or always being able to see what they were up to, fills me with dread. In the early morning especially, I take a cup of coffee outside and sit in my garden. I read and write in my journal, and part of the peacefulness I get from that activity is that I do not have to talk with anyone and I am unable to be observed by friends, neighbors or passers-by.

The commons include common sense. And, hoping that I am not just being defensive, I do believe a gated backyard is very different from a gated neighborhood. I admire the people in the neighborhoods I mentioned, and I think those are great places to raise children. For me, however, being a commons activist requires some private time and space: in part to ponder my private fence.


Frances said...

A good debate question! Interesting and thorny post.

Alex said...

I love my closed off backyard since it allows me to let my cats outside without fearing that they'll get too far out there and potentially risk run-ins with the dogs that seem to predominate in my neighbourhood.

Kim Klein said...

Alex, I have a dog and two cats, and have wondered what people who live without fences to about their pets and pet visitors. Certainly safety of children, pets and ourselves is a commons concern.