A little over a month ago our back fence fell over. We’d been talking about replacing the fence – it was not in the best shape, we have dogs, our property backs up to a small city park- but its collapse took us by surprise. After talking to a couple of contractors, we accepted a bid and then waited for them to get to work and then to finish. The net result was we were without a back fence for about five weeks.
In the day-to-day, what we mostly felt was stress in the way that this changed routines for and with the dogs. You cannot, of course, explain to a dog why they can’t just go outside like they used to, and now had to be on a leash whenever they wanted or needed to go out. But after a few days they seemed to make the adjustment.
After the fence was finally completed a couple of a days ago, I felt a great relief and was happy to let the dogs back into their yard on their own terms. However, in the day or so since, I’ve also had a different reaction: I miss seeing the park and street from our back windows.
Even before the fence went up, I’d started to get used to the openness and ready access to the park, as well as getting to see how well used the park is, getting to know some of the other neighborhood people with dogs. Now, I have a feeling of being cut off from a part of the neighborhood, which is related to, but not the same as, the countervailing feeling of privacy that we’ve reclaimed.
I also noticed a sense of heightened anxiety, at least at first, which is, I imagine, similar to what social scientists who have done research on gated communities have found, which is that living in gated neighborhoods can increase one’s sense of insecurity (see, for example, Setha Low’s Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Routledge, 2004). Not knowing what was happening on the other side of the fence, and putting our padlock back on the side gate into the yard, made me, at least momentarily, aware of “outside” as a source of threats.
Of course, this is not entirely hypothetical in our case. Our house was broken into a couple of years ago, over Christmas, and, according to the police, the park provided an escape for the thieves. The old fence had a back gate, which we opted not to replace in the new fence. After the burglary, one of the changes we made was to padlock the gates to the back yard, which made the back gate inconvenient to use and, in the end, expendable. In any case, access to the park via a gate is not a substitute for the openness I became accustomed to over the past few weeks.
Our prior experience with our house being broken into initially made not having a fence anxiety-producing, particularly as we left on a trip just a day later. That feeling was fleeting and the period of not having a back fence will likely bolster my sense that, despite the one incident, we don’t live in an “unsafe” neighborhood. Drunk students yelling late at night or setting off fireworks is far more likely to happen on a daily basis than is actual crime. A dog or two wandered into our yard during our fenceless month, but, as far as we can tell, no people.
I’d be interested to live without the fence for an extended period to see how my feelings might develop over time and what implications that might have for how we use and design the backyard, but the reality is that that would not be ideal for our dogs. We’ve had dogs in apartments, and there is no question that simply being able to let your canines out in the yard is far nicer than walking them out on a leash on a regular schedule. More to the point, our dogs, and one in particular, love their yard. She will explore, sun, and patrol for hours on a nice day. She could not do that without the fence.
Having our backyard open to the park highlighted one of the paradoxes of property ownership in the U.S., which is that being near public amenities like parks and schools add value to private houses, but, mostly, Americans also want to be clearly separated from such spaces. The value of such places likely comes from the way that they act as checks on further development than as public space (how many people want ample yard space or private pools, where it makes sense, instead of using parks or public waterways and beaches?).
Obviously, I’m conflicted on this matter, too. But, now that the fence has been restored, I can reflect on how this episode and how there might be different ways to imagine, and mark off, the private space of a house from the public space of a park or the street. I talk about these themes a lot with many of my classes, but mostly in the abstract and from safely within the bounds of dominant practices. The chance happening of our fence falling down disrupted that sense of “normal” and gave me an opportunity to think through these questions in a uniquely concrete and personal way.