On back fences and public space

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.Peanut Park

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.IMG_2253

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?).

IMG_2257Obviously, 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.

My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.

I’d review THE BOURNE LEGACY, but I didn’t see the movie I was meant to see

It is easy, maybe even fair, to see The Bourne Legacy as cynical, as superfluous, or as a sign of ‘what’s wrong with Hollywood’, but, equally, I think that writer-director Tony Gilroy, who also scripted the films in the original trilogy, had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with this extension of the franchise: dig deeper into the intertwining of science, the state, and private enterprise, explore certain aspects of the risk society as experienced by many in post 9/11 America, trace the lines of economic globalization through one particular industry. However, I feel ill-equipped to move beyond these initial thematic observations because the film that I saw at the Regal Cinemas on ninth street in Corvallis this past weekend was so poorly projected that it is impossible to separate my response from the problems with the image.

The flaws in projection were noticeable from the first preview and advertisement: text and background elements were blurry, giving a fuzzy impression to the whole. In addition, the image was small, with empty screen space along both axes. It seemed as if everyone in the theater was taking note of these problems, and one patron in front of us eventually got up to complain to theater staff. When s/he came back, they told their companion that they had been informed that there are different projectors for previews and the film. So, we waited.

When the movie proper started, nothing changed. The same patron got up to point this out to staff and after a few minutes, someone did enter the projection booth. The size of the image was adjusted to fill the width of the screen, but not the length. The problems with image quality also remained. Eventually, I went out to the lobby to talk to someone about this problem and the manager went into the theater with me. We watched for a few minutes, and while s/he acknowledged that s/he could see the blurriness, s/he also told me that the there was nothing anyone on staff could do about the problem. An outside tech would be needed to make the necessary fixes. S/he also told me that the empty screen space at the top and bottom was left to preserve the wide screen presentation.

One thought that I shared with Anne-Marie was that the image looked how a 3-D film looks when you remove your glasses. After doing some research on this topic, it appears that there may be a reason for this.

Last year, Ty Burr, film critic at The Boston Globe, conducted an investigation into reports of overly dim projection in area theaters and discovered that in many places the problem was use of 3-D hardware configurations for 2-D movies. While dimness is the predominant issue when this happens, in a follow-up piece by Roger Ebert, the word “muddy” is also used to describe the effect, and this is a perfect word for what we were viewing on Saturday.

One of the hints that Burr gives for determining whether a theater you are in is using the 3-D set-up for a 2-D film is to look for two beams of light coming from the projection room, which there was during our screening of The Bourne Legacy.

According to Burr and Ebert, the powers that be at many theater chains have determined that changing the projection hardware is not worth the time and effort between films or screenings. And in the broader picture, the shift to digital has accelerated the de-skilling of film projection. Indeed, I have my doubts that the theater manager had any clue as to the nature of the problem, nor any sense of urgency about correcting the issue. After the film, the patron who made the original complaint advised the manager to look at the film during the closing credits where the flaws in the image were most visible. S/he nodded and proceeded to sell popcorn to the next group of customers.

It seems likely that the issue of image quality and that of image size were unrelated, unless the muddiness was more an artifact of compression than hardware configuration (or some other bug in either hardware or software). But assume that what the manager told me is true, and that the unused screen space was the result of, essentially, letterboxing to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film. The entire time I felt as if I was watching a really big television, and not a movie in a theater. The unused space made me conscious of the screen in a way that the makers of films like The Bourne Legacy undoubtedly do not want for viewers. If this kind of presentation is going to be a feature of digital projection, that would seem to have profound implications for how movies are seen and read. The immersive experience that defines mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and moviegoing will become more elusive, and the separation between home viewing and theatrical presentation will narrow even further, and not because of an increase in the quality of what can be viewed at home, but from making the theater experience more like being at home.

The irony here is that Regal has started to run this promo during previews, the main point of which is to see movies in the theater because watching them at home diminishes the work.

We were shown this promo not once, but twice before The Bourne Legacy.

Later that night, feeling like more of the same, we watched The Peacemaker (1997) via Netflix streaming. Image quality was better and, in context, the blank spaces on the screen made sense and are a welcome adaptation to smaller screens. I do believe that even the most small scale and intimate of films made for the big screen are ideally seen in the theater, but that ideal is undermined when exhibitors don’t take their responsibilities seriously.