Sunday, January 8, 2012

Good Fences Don't Always Make Good Neighbors

Did I handle this right?

We live in an "up-and-coming" (as the realtor described it) urban area. For the most part, it's a nice neighborhood, but it's not without its problems. We live in a city where (like many American cities right now) the population is declining, the housing market is atrocious, and the city budgets are tight. When we bought our house, several other houses on the block were also for sale. Over time, many of them did not sell, and the owners decided to rent them out instead. While I (having recently been a renter myself, among other things) don't have anything against renters, most of these landlords don't seem to be really good at (or particularly care to) screen tenants. It's such a problem that our neighborhood has started a landlord training program. We also have a nuisance property reporting system that has been used to get some tenants evicted because their suspected drug activity, constant noise disturbances, and general disruptions were negatively impacting the neighborhood.

The house next to us has been vacant for a while. Two months ago, a new family moved in. I can't tell exactly how many people live there, but there are at least three adults, two or three teenagers, and four or five young children. When I wave, smile, or say hi to them, I am met with glares. They fight in the street every day, often in the middle of the night. I largely adopt a "live and let live" attitude toward neighbors, and have never called the police for a noise disturbance or anything.

But, in the past week, we've been noticing a lot of trash in our backyard. Our yard has a six-foot wooden privacy fence around it, so it was very unlikely that this trash was blowing into our yard. Yesterday, we noticed that several of the children were outside in their backyard playing with toys, old couch cushions, and pieces of plastic. Later, our yard was filled with (now badly chewed, because we have two boxer mixes) plastic guns, toy cars, bags of trash, and a couch cushion. When I picked up the toys and went to throw them away, I saw that the alleyway with the dumpster was filled with the other stuff they'd been playing with. The Yard Waste Only bin was crammed full of plastic bags and toys. My gate was blocked with an old couch and rolls of carpet.

Since I hadn't seen the kids throw the bags over the fence, I didn't feel like I could go talk to the adults in the house about it. Today, I was cleaning out my car and, when I went to take the trash to the dumpster (which is behind my house, through the backyard), two of the kids were playing in the dumpster (yes, in the dumpster, and one of them was barefoot). These were two boys, about seven and five, probably.

As soon as I came out, one of them got scared and said "Keep that dog in your yard. I'm scared of him." Ah-ha, I thought to myself, so that's why they're sacrificing toy guns and cars--to throw them at my "scary" dog.

"He's not going to hurt you," I say, "and there's a fence. He stays in the yard." Then I throw my bag into the dumpster--which they've now climbed on top of--and pause. "Have you been throwing toys and trash into my yard?"

They freeze. Stare at each other for a second and then start stammering "No, no. We haven't."

"Really," I say, "Because there are an awful lot of toys in my yard. I wonder how they got there. Do you think someone threw them at my dogs?"

"It wasn't us," the older boy said. "It was the little kids. But I'll pick the trash up."

"That's okay," I said. "I picked it up. Do you think you guys could do me a favor? Could you tell the little kids not to throw stuff at the dogs anymore? It scares them."

"Okay," said the older one.

"The dogs scare me," said the little one, "and he bit my finger."

"He did not!" The older one stood up straight. "He's lying, just like he always does."

"Well, he's never bitten anyone, but it makes him sad if people throw things at him." Then I told them the dogs' names, and talked about how they needed the time outside to run and play, just like the boys liked to run and play outside. They told me their names, I told them mine, and I told them it was nice to meet them. This whole conversation took place with them on top of the dumpster.

As soon as I got inside, two women (probably late teens or early twenties) came running out of the house and started talking to the boys, probably asking them why I was talking to them. I don't know if this was the right way to handle this, but these little displays of disrespect drive me crazy, so I felt like I had to do something.

On a semi-related note, I'll eventually be blogging about the very serious debate my husband and I have every day (and we're both torn, so it's not like this is a debate with clear opposing sides) about whether we should continue to live in the city or move to the (sigh) county. I'd be very happy to hear how other people have handled this decision.


  1. Many people don't take the time you did. Those kids will remember you treated them with they'll probably be nice to your dogs now :) City living is tough. We made the run to the suburbs. For us it was a good choice, but I'm looking forward to your piece about the city/country debate.

  2. I think you handled it well, I don't think I would have been as nice! We are trying to move to the country currently so you know my stance...

  3. Totally agreed with Kelly that the kids will remember how you treated them with respect. I can't say what other influences they might have on them, but addressing the situation with them respectfully was certainly a positive -- and, if my experience is anything to be believed, a positive that goes a long way.

    As for city v. country, my choice is simple -- My kids (my students) are in the city. I need to be able to travel by bus. I cannot afford property in the country if I wanted to. So. ;)