Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

The removal of the construction fences around Crossing 900 and the addition of them to the 815 Hamilton project got me thinking about fences. Thinking about fences led me to the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors.” It came readily to mind, so clearly I had heard the phrase before, but it occurred to me that I didn’t know from whence it came. According to Wikipedia no one really knows who first said it, or when, but apparently its most notable use is in the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost.

In Frost’s poem, two neighbors are performing an annual ritual: walking along a stacked stone wall that separates their farms, replacing any stones that have tumbled from the wall throughout the past year. The narrator questions the need for the wall and thus the need for the annual repairs. His neighbor’s only response? “Good fences make good neighbors.”

I think that the sentiment is right, although perhaps it should read “Good fences can make good neighbors.” And that first use of the word “good” is pretty important: the fence should be necessary (something that the narrator of Frost’s poem questioned about the wall between him and his neighbor), practical (ideally), and attractive.

My wife, Nancy, and I have lived in our Redwood City home for more than 25 years now. Over that time we’ve reconfigured our front fencing on several occasions. When we first bought the place it had an eight-foot-tall, six-foot-thick prickly hedge paralleling the sidewalk, plus tall wooden driveway gates that together prevented a passerby from getting more than a mere glimpse of the house. At least it was practical in that it could help keep our one-year-old son away from the street. However, it made us feel walled in. And it wasn’t terribly attractive; none of the neighboring houses had anything like it. Once we could afford it, the very first thing we did was hire a crew to rip out the hedge and tear down the gates. Nancy and I can still remember seeing neighbors standing on the sidewalk, clapping as the hedge came down. Their approval wasn’t why we tore it out, but we did endear ourselves to the neighborhood by removing that particular fence.

Of course, we still needed to protect our growing son (and his brother who came along about fifteen months after we bought the house) so we added a low picket fence around the front lawn, providing a safe place for the kids to play while giving the same level of visibility that every other house on our block enjoyed.

Years later we did a major remodel that freed up space in the back yard; we no longer needed the front yard as a play space. Accordingly we removed the picket fence and joined our neighbors to the west in having no front fencing of any kind. While I can appreciate a nice picket fence, I am glad we no longer need one in the front. I find that our house feels more open and welcoming with no barriers between it and the sidewalk, and it is just one less thing to maintain. Of course we do have a fence enclosing the back yard. That fence gives us (and our neighbors) privacy and keeps the animals and children in their proper places. Although I must say we still get regular visits from neighborhood cats, and the squirrels use our fence as a sort of expressway…

One of the houses on the corner of Hopkins Avenue and Nevada Street was recently rebuilt pretty much from the ground up, and although they didn’t add a fence around the front yard, the side patio and yard are enclosed by a fence of a type that I haven’t seen around here:

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It looks more like cabinetry than a fence! That thing must have cost the builder (who is building the house for resale) a pretty penny. And it will take some regular maintenance to keep it looking like that.

Lately I’ve been paying more attention to the different styles of fencing people use as I walk through Redwood City’s residential areas. We have plenty of the traditional styles, of course, but a couple of years ago a house on Myrtle Street was rebuilt in a more modern style, and the fence that they put up caught my eye:

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I’ve seen other houses since that have put up a similar style of front fencing, so although it isn’t my favorite, others do seem to like it. Personally, I much prefer the rather artistic fence that was put up on the neighboring house:

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We have a remarkable diversity of fencing styles in Redwood City, from fancy ones like the above to run-of-the-mill picket fences, chain-link fences, and metal fences of the type you might find in Home Depot. And then there is this house at the corner of Edgewood Road and Warwick Street, who shows us that a fence can be practical in more ways than one:

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Yes, those are books. What a great idea to combine an attractive, functional fence with a Little Library!

Most front fences seem to be symbolic, or perhaps exist for aesthetic reasons: many don’t bother with gates or have such large gaps that they would be entirely ineffective in keeping a dog or a child from wandering to the sidewalk or beyond. Thus, while they may be attractive, they are neither practical or necessary.

Construction fences, on the other hand, are never attractive (in my view), but are usually both practical and necessary. I’m not sure when they came into regular use, but residential and commercial construction projects now not only employ chain link fencing but also privacy fabric, which frustrates my natural curiosity. Growing up, my parents would often stop at idle residential construction sites (typically, on a Sunday). Not only was there no privacy fabric, there was no chain-link fencing keeping us out. We’d all wander through the project, trying to figure out what each room was for and imagining what the house would be like when it was finished. Our parents would admonish us to be careful, of course, and although we never had any accidents, if we had gotten hurt my parents would have assumed full responsibility; it would never have occurred to them to blame the builder or property owner. Unfortunately, in our current litigious (and theft-prone) society, construction fences are apparently necessary.

The fences may be necessary, but for people like me who try to keep an eye on the projects going on behind those fences, the privacy fabric is downright annoying. While I can understand that the fence itself helps to cut down on theft and vandalism, and reduces or even eliminates liability from casual sightseers, I’m not entirely sure why they bother with the privacy fabric. After all, the project itself is not any big secret, and persistent people like me can usually work around the fabric somehow. It just makes my job more difficult. It has taught me a new skill: I’ve learned how to take pictures blind, holding my camera high over the fence!

Fortunately, if I’m passing a project in the middle of the day the fence is often open to enable vehicle access, giving me a clear shot of the project. Earlier this week I was walking down Edgewood Road and I was rather taken by this particular remodel:

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Who doesn’t love a good tower? I assume that the tower contained a spiral staircase in the original house, and was a feature that the homeowner just couldn’t bear to part with. For the curious, here is a picture of the house shortly before most of it was torn down (thanks to Google Street View):

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For all I don’t like about privacy screening, it does have one positive aspect: that green fabric gets my attention almost as much as a dumpster or a Porta-Potty. This week I wandered downtown to check on some recently approved projects, and while walking down Winslow Street I immediately noticed fencing up around the parking lot where the 550 Allerton project has apparently gotten underway. Circling the block to the Winslow Street side of the property, I was delighted to see that the construction gates were open wide, affording me a terrific view of all of the activity on the small lot:

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Ultimately this site will house a six-story office building. From the rendering it appears that there will be one underground parking level, one surface parking level, and five stories of offices above that. The developer plans to squeeze 150 parking spaces into the two parking levels; in order to make that possible all parking will be by valet only. Although six stories, this building fits well into the neighborhood: it will sit immediately adjacent to an existing four-story office building, and as you can see will be very close to the five-story, 133-unit apartment complex being built at the corner of Brewster Avenue and Winslow Street.

Finally, look at this fence:

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I presume it is to keep people out of the planter boxes, but I don’t find it very attractive and suspect it may not really be necessary. More importantly, though, is the fact that Paradise Kebab House on Broadway near El Camino Real is no longer, soon to be replaced by Zadna Mediterranean Food. This transition is particularly timely the discussion that took place around my post Building Character: for those of you who were asking for good falafel, perhaps this will be it.

Whether or not a fence makes one a good neighbor, I find fences to be interesting additions to many of the homes in Redwood City. And I do see the necessity for them around construction projects, although I wish that they didn’t block my view! Construction fences act as a bit of a beacon for me, though, guiding me to new material for this blog. So I guess that in that sense they are “good” fences. Let’s just hope that the projects that grow up inside those fences result in good neighbors for those of us who live and work in Redwood City.

8 thoughts on “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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  4. What I love about the fence configuration of our current house is it provides adequate protection from deer and for rabbits and chickens. However, the fences serve to only partially enclose our space, rather than define a property line perimeter. We’ve gotten to know our neighbors very well, in part because the property line to the south is not entirely fenced. It makes for chance meetings between us; which have led to us helping each other with yard and home projects, shared meals, and even a small amount of shared gardening!

    Frost’s fence, like our picket fence growing up, were perfect in that they served to keep grazing animals (and children) in their proper spots. However, they were not so high as to prevent neighbors from seeing one another and sharing space together. This sort of relationship is, in my view, essential for building the kind of communities that are stronger and safer for everyone in them. Fences should be high when privacy or protection are desired, but we should remember that low fences (or no fences!) are what create community.

    • Absolutely! Tall fences simply serve to pique my interest; I want to know what is behind them! These days Google Earth can often let you see just that, although I rarely use it that way since I do believe that people deserve some degree of privacy. Thanks for the great comment, and sorry for not replying sooner; I thought I had replied to this already…

  5. I appreciate your mention of our Sunday forays into construction projects. They were interesting and fun to explore and you’re right – if anything had happened it would have been our responsibility. I’m sad that this kind of exploration is no longer available to kids.

    • The middle school on my commute to work is being rebuilt, and it is terribly sad that I can’t go explore it! They even keep work lights on at night (and presumably post a guard) to dissuade marauding teens from hopping the chain link perimeter.

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