A few years ago, several of us met on a thickly littered block and spent a few hours picking up trash. A man came running out of a house yelling, “Why are you picking up that trash?!” I responded, “Because it’s here and affects everyone.” He offered a response that has remained with me: “Don’t do it; my landlord will take care of it.”
The trash was in the public area, and didn’t necessarily come from that particular residence. On any given day, my neighbors and I can pick up garbage tossed from cars (Wendy’s, McDonalds, and Burger King containers; condoms, plastic gloves, filled diapers, shirts, underwear, socks, as well as the typical papers, broken lighters, and even the rare bag of marijuana).
This man opened several questions, including: Who ‘owns’ the litter in front of my residence (yard, sidewalk, and street); Why are or how disconnected are residents from their actual neighborhoods? I mean living within the walls, but not really seeing as their responsibility the yard, sidewalk or street beyond their physical walls. I won’t even venture into why people don’t act more responsibly about disposing of litter.
Several years ago I was union-organizing in Anoka County. As I door-knocked in Ham Lake, Champlin, and Andover, I was amazed at the sanitized sense of neighborhood. Spacious front yards met the curbs; no sidewalks encouraged walking through the area. Residents drove into their garages and left their vehicles only once inside the garage. Over and over residents told me they seldom interacted with their neighbors, and never spontaneously. Each house seemed more like an individual fortress rather than linking to a community. Front yards were pristine, even quite boring. The few flowering plants were mostly low maintenance; certainly not the full gardens we see in Dayton’s Bluff as we enjoy a sidewalk stroll. Primary to all of this, I view the front of the house as the connector. The yards where I was door-knocking were space-keepers, creating impersonal, privacy space between those within and the world outside.
In my neighborhood of Dayton’s Bluff, porches sometimes are used, it seems, as extended rooms. Sidewalks are well used by all ages of pedestrians. My intersection is always alive to varying degrees. In 25 minutes this particular evening, I counted 29 cars going through the intersection of Fourth and Bates; eleven pedestrians, two with dogs, one car made a U-turn, three went through the stop signs. Earlier there had been five bikes and more U-turns. Who looks after the block? All neighbors who choose to make an active, not just monetary investment in our neighborhood.
I’ve noticed that when residents pick up litter, less litter is discarded…whether people notice or start caring, I don’t know. One of our kids once saw a drug bag tossed under a car during a police stop; I’ve been told that a littered street makes it easier to lob out drugs when a police stop is likely. Who is going to look through all the litter? When people use porches and front yards, they create a presence, an eye on the neighborhood, but also a safe place for kids. When people greet passers-by, they make a connection. A simple ‘hi, good evening, nice evening’ is all it takes. These front yards become place-makers.
My theory is that by using front porches and yards, whether dressed with colorful flowers or a collection of mountain-kitsch, residents claim the streets and identify the quality of life they expect from other neighbors and passers-by. Place-making is an investment each of us can make.
Related article: PLANET POLL | What do you do in your front yard?