“I just wanted to let you know, if you think you’re having a private conversation - you’re not. We can hear every word you say.”
The woman mashing her fist into the screen of my lanai isn’t quite my grandmother’s age, probably only a decade or so older than my parents. I tell my friend on the phone I’ll call back.
“Hi?” I say.
“I’m Kathy,” she says, “I live over there” - she gestures across the lawn.
“On our lanai, we can hear everything you say.”“Thanks,” I say, “Thanks for telling me.”
“We don’t mind,” she says, “I just thought I’d let you know.”
Neighbors have been on my mind. Not just because of that conversation, but because some of my most frequent personal encounters in these pandemic days are with neighbors.
I moved, not that many weeks ago, back to southwest Florida. My current digs are in a small condo complex, as close to the water as you can get without seeing it. The brackish scent of the mangroves - a little muddy, a little like rotten eggs - washes over me every morning as I leave for work.
Across the street, there’s a trailer park. Matchbox homes, stacked one after the other. I love walking through and looking at the front gardens. Only a few people appear on the streets. Sometimes an old woman barks at me, shepherding her dog to the other side of the sidewalk. If she has her dentures in, I can understand her a little better. I often see people on bikes, clothes sweat-plastered to their bodies.
The flora and fauna are more consistent Many plastic beasts, plaster ones too, sit sedately out front of these compact retirement dwellings. Some of my favorites are the choir of bowtied penguins, the spread-eagled bald eagle, the haughty concrete lions - and the faded green metal rottweiler.
Robert Champion of Studio Tarn in Australia wrote a thoughtful piece about neighborhood gardens a few weeks ago - “The Value of Front Gardens in a Pandemic, and Always”. Preston and I were able to talk with him as part of a series of conversations that we’re planning to release later this summer as a podcast (Growing in Mind). We talked about how front gardens have the potential to be social space - Robert’s term is “a gift to the neighborhood” - but are often only realized as extensions of the facade.
In conjunction with that conversation, I watched the Hitchcock movie Rear Window - and was struck by how it presents the spatial setting of urban life. The movie frames the condition of “being a neighbor” as a constant dialogue of seeing and being seen.The protagonist, Jeff Jefferies, is an adventure-craving photographer who’s been confined to his apartment due to an injured leg. He’s forced to shelter in place as he heals, staring out the windows. He watches his neighbors - a young blonde dancer, a romance-hungry middle-aged woman, an elderly lady who suns herself in the public garden, a lonely male songwriter. Eventually, his 4am feelings lead him to believe that he’s witnessed a neighbor in the act of cleaning up after a murder. The way that lived space is presented in the film - through windows, with reflexive actions of seeing and being seen, creates a tension that feels very 2020.
The pandemic and political climate of this year have reinforced my awareness of the way that physical space sets up conditions for human interactions - especially with strangers and distant acquaintances. Now, every social encounter feels charged.
I read City of Quartz (thanks, Chantal, for the recommendation) a few weeks ago - and it was wild to hear about how architecture and landscape architecture were changed following the LA riots of the 1980s. Design supporting social insulation, especially for the middle and upper classes, was a direct response to the tensions of the late 80s. The mushrooming of gated communities, malls, and private schools - with the defunding of public spaces such as schools, libraries, universities and parks - was the response of developers and decision-makers in the 90s and 00s. Places were - and continue to be - designed to avoid “desirable” users having to be exposed to anything that makes them uncomfortable. Will we do better this time?