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.

Recommended daily reading – 10 January (first of the new year late edition)

With the start of the term, I have not had much time to make new posts. Here are some items I have cataloged:

From the world of comics:

  • On Okazu, Erica Friedman has the results of an informal poll concerning “what women want” from the comics they read. The short version: it isn’t that complicated, not matter how mysterious and alien many of the folks at DC and Marvel like to imagine women and girl readers to be.
  • On Techland, Douglas Wolk does some quick analysis of Diamond’s numbers related to the bestselling comics of 2010. It’s interesting to note the extent to which the trade paperback and long form book sales were dominated by independently published titles.
  • On Comics Alliance today, Laura Hudson looks at comments made by the owner of the Heavy Ink comics store regarding last Saturday’s shootings in Arizona and the response by creators such as Gail Simone and Nick Spencer. Anyone who takes this moment to advocate more shooting of public officials clearly has both political and personal problems beyond the scope of comics, but I also think that this episode is an illustration why it is never possible to compartmentalize these kinds of questions as if “comics” and “politics” are separate matters.
  • Via girlsreadcomics on Twitter, is some really cool Amanda Connor art.

In academia:

  • Via Dean Blumberg on Twitter, is a link to this article on the growth in certificate programs at institutions of higher education in the U.S. The article notes that much of this growth is at for-profit schools, but that public institutions are also offering more of these credentials. As someone in the liberal arts, I have my doubts about the value of these programs in the long run, and am concerned that they represent a further degrading of higher education to a kind of narrow vocational training. My institution confirms the trend identified in the piece. Thankfully, the article leads with questions about the value of these certificates to students.
  • At ProHacker, Amy Cavender relates some of her experience trying to teaching an intro level class without resort to a traditional textbook. Her efforts, and conclusions, mirror some of my own.

Finally, Dwell has started a project to map “The World’s Best Public Spaces”. Check it out and contribute if you have a favorite.

Recommended daily reading – 22 December

A few interesting links before I begin working on a new “Worlds in Panels”:

Marguerite Reardon, yesterday on cnet, has a good overview of the new FCC rules regarding net neutrality. In the end, this looks like one of those political compromises that can be cast as the ‘right’ solution because no one is happy with it, but, in fact, no one is happy because the decision makes little sense as an approach to the problem at hand.

At The Unofficial Apple Weblog is speculation as to whether Apple will be a target of “Anonymous” now that the company has pulled the WikiLeaks app from the store. I am disappointed that this choice was made, but have long given up the illusion that just because I like their tech and design sensibilities that Apple is anything other than a profit-maximizing, risk-averse corporation.

In the cities and design realm, on Lost Remote, I saw this piece about interactive bus shelters in San Francisco. The article is really just a ‘teaser’ about the project, but I am certainly intrigued by the possibilities of using public space like this for social interaction and play.

In comics movie news:

  • At The Wild Hunt, Jason delivers the best response I have read to the racist furor over Idris Elba having been cast as Heimdall in the upcoming Thor movie (link via Ragnell on Twitter).
  • And this casting news, from MTV’s Splash Page, is something I like.

Finally, a Christmas memory from Kate Beaton.