Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Property boundaries

Having grown up with, and always lived in, a neighborhood with sidewalks, I could hardly imagine when I moved here what the consequences would be of living in a neighborhood without them. Even on our dead-end street, however, walking seems more hazardous than it should. This affects local culture more than I'd like it to: I can probably count the number of walkers from the girls' (700 student) elementary school with my hands and no more than one foot's worth of toes. We live closer to the elementary school than I did when growing up, and yet we rarely walk there either morning or afternoon.

On Monday afternoons, I pick the girls up straight from school (other days they go to their wonderful afterschool program), and they are walkers on those days. Walking actually brings them home sooner than the bus. But the crossing guard is a grouchy woman who seems not to want children to walk, and so we have taken to avoiding her. Rather than go along the roadside, Emily and Hazel walk through the school athletic fields and then cut through between two yards.

It is a nice little walk. But it breaks one of the cardinal rules of my own suburban childhood: don't go in other people's yards without invitation.

In principle, we have permission. Once, early in our time here, I did knock on the door and ask the neighbors if it was OK, but I can't remember their names and I still feel like I need to be super-careful to preserve the privilege. I probably shouldn't feel guilty at all, because our own yard has the semi-official neighborhood trail leading to the pool from all streets uphill. Ours features a concrete paver pathway (pavers donated by our next door neighbor) with mulch I spread for our own benefit and to suggest a welcome to pedestrians. Occasionally we worry about security - our hammock and tire swing were cut down late in October, 2 years ago. But mostly, I'm really glad to encourage walking, and to be a friendly face to neighborhood teenagers who pass through in groups and greet me politely if I'm out in the yard.
These unofficial, common law pathways seem to follow one rule: they occur on the boundaries between properties. Property boundaries are interesting to me, because weeds of all sorts are often tolerated in them, because they seem to be our only neighborhood paths, and because, unfortunately, they seem to attract trash. If you look in the multiflora rose (officially illegal in our township) on the left-hand yard in the photo, you can see a sun-bleached cardboard beer case. The empty bottles are resting inside. This particular spot is actually a meeting of three property boundaries: two homeowners, plus the elementary school.
The weeds, of course, hardly bother me, though multiflora rose is the worst of them, both because it is invasive but also because its spiny shoots grow over trash and makes cleanup painful. Other weeds, though, are the plants children can play with, without bothering anyone's garden, the forts children can hide in and the trees which might one day become climbable. I'm also grateful that property boundaries offer rights-of-way, making walkable routes in a suburban landscape with no official sanction of foot traffic (even the crossing guard seems more a deterrent than a sanction).
But the trash is a problem I can't figure out how to fix. In a state with deplorably low landfill tipping fees, you would think proper trash disposal would be accessible to all. But a drunk teenager typically doesn't just bring home the bottles and expect praise from her parents for recycling, and the ubiquitous disposable packaging which carries our food hardly seems worth the chase when it blows away from our hands or the garbage can. Pennsylvania's wild spaces are thick with trash, far more than the Arboretum woodland near my childhood home in Lexington, Ky. and far more than any of the parks we frequented in upstate NY. Pennsylvania's wild spaces are filled with trash of a volume almost like I used to see off roadsides in 1970's and 1980's rural Kentucky, where signs which said "NO DUMPING" were almost always the backdrop to an unofficial garbage dump.
But at least we can walk there. And if I just remembered to carry rose-nipping clippers and a garbage bag with me more often, I could maybe make at least one or two of these paths look a bit better, like a place I'd want to go walking with my children.

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