Controversy is rocking our neighborhood these days. Someone knocked down a house here seven years ago, and built a ridiculously huge and garish palace in the middle of our community. It prominently features three garage doors as its major archeological features, and is now (un)affectionately known by the locals as the Garage Mahal. We’ve had a few more knock downs since then, and some new houses built in their places. To some of us, these developments represent a basic (though sometimes unfortunate) exercise of personal property rights. To others, each home lost is a bright star of our heritage, cruelly snuffed from the sky; each new build just one more step toward a neighborhood of soviet-era concrete tenements. It’s a fine neighborhood and all, but I’m telling you, I don’t think it’s worth the bloodshed that’s coming.
So the City has proposed to make our neighborhood a Local Historic District, which would make it harder to build additions, and almost impossible to knock a house down. Ever since that became clear, everyone has lost their minds. In their occasional lucid moments, both sides have good points. The preservationists are concerned that one of the few old neighborhoods in Salt Lake that has survived largely intact is now seeing some evolution. There are homes here that do stand out in Utah, (though they would be utterly commonplace in most other states). Some of the new construction is a little jarring, and people get upset when builders push them around and place their outhouses too close to the adjacent property lines. One of the leading proponents of the historic designation appears to have come upon her activism largely because a new house went up next to her sister’s house and blocked her sister’s light. On the other side are most of the younger families who hope to add on to their houses one day to accommodate growing families. Standing furtively behind them are more than a few ambitious builders who look at the floor and shuffle their feet when their obvious motivations are pointed out.
People talk about the good of the community a lot. Surprisingly, people with bigger houses seem to think the community will be best protected by not letting very many other houses get too big, and people in smaller homes believe the best way to preserve a neighborhood is to let it evolve the way it wants to. Every argument is filled with subtext (that lady is obviously a staunch liberal from out of state trying to carve out an un-Utah in the middle of Utah; that guy is clearly a Mormon trying to preserve a critical mass of kids to keep youth programs afloat). Alliances are drawn along familiar lines of income, religion, political philosophy, and self-interest, but not a single one of those elements has come up one single time in any public discussion. We talk about dormers and roof lines as a way to work out our own mixed up feelings of contempt and community and in-groups and out-groups. And we spend a lot of time reprocessing the code to try to figure out what was really said.
Macy appointed me as our family representative to go to all the neighborhood meetings. I go to as many as I can, but I do it under my own false pretenses. The reason to go to these meetings is to be heard and to participate in a serious process that will effect some 1500 families. But underneath all that, I could never miss these meetings, even if I didn’t care at all about the outcome. There’s just way too much drama to stay home. People shouting at their representatives, at city staff, at each other, over the true energy efficiency of wood windows and the actual effect of guidelines on seismic retrofitting– that’s just irresistible. Ulterior motives are pointed out and dire futures predicted. It’s very serious stuff, but it’s so much fun! One guy got up and accused the city staff (who advocates for the new designation) of misleading the crowd. The dowdy lady heading the presentation took the mike back and coolly told the rest of the audience that she has a history with that guy, and she’ll handle him later. Her hand in her pocket appeared to be clutching something very like brass knuckles. The crowd wants to vote and the bumbling city council man gets up and and does everything he can to get them NOT to vote. People shout him down, everyone’s angry, everyone’s bitter. And the vote comes out exactly split down the middle.
On the way out of the meeting, I stop to chat with a small group of grumbling men, a few of whom I know. They’re arguing about how best to kill this proposal. One guy has a lightbulb go off in his brain and says “hey- this is about rights! We need to call in the ACLU. They’ll help!” Another guy dismisses him. “Listen- I have a lot of political knowledge. I know how this stuff is done. And I also happen to know many people at the highest levels of the Tea Party. I’ve told our council man that the Tea Party is getting very interested in this issue, and he’s shaking in his boots now. Once the Tea Party gets involved, this thing will die instantly.”
I start thinking about the highest leaders of the Tea Party marching along in unison with the ACLU, squaring off against the preservation crowd, who may soon call in MoveOn and the Club for Growth for backup. And I instantly make up my mind about the big question in my mind: Yeah, I’m definitely going to have to be here for the next meeting.