In Praise of Disorder

Loose chickens in Houston

A neighborhood whose demographics fall somewhere between the extremes of the crack den and the country club presents just the right level of civic inattention to allow the urban homesteader to get away with many of the illegal projects profiled in this blog: greywater, backyard poultry, and front yard vegetable gardening, to mention just a few. Ideally you have a balance between order and disorder–neither gunfire nor the prying eyes of city inspectors. Where I’m staying in Houston, with its flocks of loose chickens, packs of feral dogs, and broken down bungalows seems just about right. Our neighborhood in Los Angeles is seeming less ideal with the news from Mrs. Homegrown Evolution, that we’ve earned our first citation, an indicator that our neighborhood is tilting dangerously towards the country club side of the demographic equation.

Nine years of dog ownership have gone by with no problems until this week, when a new neighbor decided to report our dog and several others in the neighborhood to animal control for barking. We have to buy a $100 dog license (while not a Ron Paulista, I tilt libertarian enough to not want any stinking licenses), and wait fifteen days to see if we need to go to a hearing, all for an elderly and well behaved Doberman who spends most of his time indoors, has no access to the front yard and goes promptly to sleep at 10:00 p.m.

Thanks to an alert teen just down the block, we know the identity of the uptight yuppie who ratted us out. Now the neighborly and gentlemanly thing to have done would have been to come over, knock on the door and have talk to us face to face. We’d be happy to work something out–keep the front window closed perhaps. Most of us on the block know each other and have never had any problems getting along. But it’s also Los Angeles, a car-centric city where people lead lives of isolation and rage, locked in metal and glass cages, braving hellish traffic on the way to twenty hour a day shifts churning out sitcoms and bad movies. Los Angeles has the community spirit of an anonymous internet chat room, with meaningful dialog replaced by never ending flame wars.

It’s also America, where the majority of the population is clinically depressed. And one of the indicator behaviors for depression is an irrational fixation on minor annoyances, like barking dogs, leaf litter, raccoons and group bicycle rides. Go to any neighborhood meeting, and you’ll see medicated NIMBYs lashing at all of life’s minor indignities.

Our homes and neighborhoods need the liberation that comes with a creative and healthy level of chaos. Visionary Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who passed away recently, conceived his life’s work when faced with the task of making safer streets in a small Dutch town that had run out of money. He fixed the problem with the radical idea of removing almost all the traffic lights, signs, curbs even the lane stripes, creating a concept known as “shared space.” Monderman asks, “Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People . . . have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

When we have to think for ourselves, we cooperate, solve problems, and come up with creative solutions. A healthy dose of chaos is always the best place to start.

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  1. Well said. It’s a sad comment on today’s society that when some minor problem comes up, their first thought is to call the police. If your dog had attacked someone, I could understand, but in this case your neighbor should have come to you first. The police have better things to do than worry about your elderly dog.

  2. Hi, I live in one of those older ‘in between’ neighborhoods in Houston. The neighborhood is small and surrounded by old small businesses, so it’s hard for developers to modernize us very much, although a cheaper builder did fit in some homes with teensy yards into a few fields. There’s a mini-ranch (we get their horse manure sometimes), and a few open fields next to where I live; I’m hoping the owners never sell; I like having the fields there, except after rains when the cottonmouths come out.

    The mini-ranch area is grandfathered, but the rest of the neighborhood is subject to regular city ordinances. I grew up here, and then moved back about 10 years ago, and most of the time there’s been little incidence here, except for the time we had an over-zealous city inspector hounding all of us a few years back. I heard rumors someone threatened him; until I heard that, I wondered why he suddenly backed off when he was so frothing at the mouth at first LOL

    I see roaming dogs on a regular basis, and if they don’t threaten me (including riding my bike), any neighbors, my pets, or jump my chain fence to try to get to the rabbits, I’m fine with them. I used to have fence jumpers myself, and some of the single dogs have been friendly, then disappear back to their homes in a little while.

    But if any jump my fence, threaten me or my family or my neighbors, I’m usually packing at least one legal weapon once I hear any unknown barking close by. And I get almost as pissy if I’m growled at in my own front yard, even if I know the owners!

    But the growling incident was discussed with the owners, who we’re now friendly with. One fall they wanted their trees cut down, and we wanted firewood (the former owners put in a small fireplace for some bazaar reason, so why not LOL). So hubby and I had their blessings on all the border trees, and cut down three. We had free fires that year, and saved money on heating (yes it gets down to freezing occasionally).

    Since this is a greenie blog, please remember this is a Gulf Coast city, and there’s hurricanes and tornadoes to consider. I prefer smaller fruit trees and crepe myrtles, not only because they give fruit or look pretty, but because they’re not big enough to crush a home.

    There was a former neighbor that I tried to work out a problem with (not dogs), but they didn’t like to play nice. Heck, I called his business phone to tell him when his front tree fell on his house, argh. Once I even got into a screaming match with them. I never had that happen before; it slipped up on me before I realized it. So the next time they did it again, I called the police on them, and didn’t request anonymity. They were miffed, I told them get used to it since they don’t care about being neighborly. That was when people from many blocks around started being friendly with us (the ones that didn’t live here a long time and already know me). People still grimace when their names are brought up.

    But for the most part, with the exception of extremely unneighborly people and threatening dogs, you summed up our neighborhood in your post. And caused me to write a book, ha ha.


  3. Last fall I came home to one of those unlicensed dog warnings on my door. I was worried that somebody complained about my dogs. I talked to the folks at the dog shelter I volunteer at and found out that the county goes door to door and rings the doorbell. If they hear a dog and the house doesn’t have any licensed dogs, they leave a warning. I licensed two of my three dogs — the licenses were cheaper than the fines.

  4. Survive LA/Homegrown Evolution folks: Yes, fixation on minor annoyances is an annoyance in and of itself – it’s also worth noting that clean, clear, clutter-free, orderly ways of living are among the best markers of a civilization at its high point. Zen Buddhist Japanese culture, the Dutch or the best of the comfy, tidy English ways come to mind. Sure, let’s have a little chaos. Never hurts. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and don’t excuse slovenliness or trashiness on the grounds of “creativity.” Please.

  5. I had to laugh when I read this post. Living in another car-centric megopolis (Phoenix) in a neighborhood much like you describe, I’ve had my fair share of citations (mostly zoning). Fast forward a few years down the road and PRESTO – my house is now drawing record crowds for tours sponsored by the Phoenix Permaculture Guild. Suddenly I’m a boon to the neighborhood instead of a bane. In the last rounds of someone calling the city for weeds in everyone’s yard (hey – it’s spring after a wet winter in Phx – there’s weeds!) I didn’t even get a citation. Saddly many elderly (and sickly) residents did – however some of us pitched in to help clean up their places before they were fined.



  6. Wow! I’ve felt so alone for the past 3 years (well, not so alone, I’m married) living in the old town I grew up in, that seems to have gotten too yuppie for its britches. We actually live in the house I grew up in, that’s been here for 65 years and several years ago they tore down two houses surrounded by 4 acres of woods to build 50+ condos complete with a HOA that seems to agree that our dogs should not be allowed to bark. Ever. One of whom has called the police on us several times.
    Down with the tight wads. I’m sorry for your experience, I know the pain.

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