That Ugly Piece of Land

For all the years we’ve lived in our house, the lot diagonally across from us has been an eyesore. Originally a small farm, at one time another structure had stood on that largish, now-urban piece of land; today, only a house, one of the oldest in the neighborhood at nearly 150 years, and a similar-age former stable (now, since moderate gentrification, an artist’s studio) remain, acting as two sides of a frame around the plot, the other two being sidewalk and intersecting streets. The land – maybe 70‘x 66’ – is, essentially, the house’s ample side yard.

For a while, when an elderly woman lived in the house, there was at least an attempt at keeping up the yard. Grass grew patchily on most of it, and the woman had a neighborhood man (in some way related to her) cut it, as well as occasionally trim the scruffy bushes that grew wildly in and around the once-beautiful, classic cast-iron posts and rails that bordered the property. But there was also an improvised barbecue pit – literally a pit, dug deeply into the ground. And a ramshackle, lean-to of a shed housed an old yellow dog named, ironically, Champ (the first in a series of poor dogs over the years, one of whom had the good sense, fueled no doubt by desperation, to slip his chain, dig under the gate and race into the night, never to be found).

“The Idiots” moved in after the old woman got sick and died. “The Idiots,” as we came to call them, were composed of the old woman’s sister, the sister’s grown children and an assortment of kids whose parental lineage would give pause to scientists doing genome mapping. This crew hissed and ranted in frustration and bigotry, making no friends except for the paranoid zombies they sold drugs to. And, under their stewardship, the yard went to hell: it became a dust bowl, as most of its grass died or was worn away, and what remained grew as crazily as its untending and untended humans; the graceful fence was torn down and pillaged, replaced with chain link; trash, broken toys and detritus of all sorts were strewn all throughout the yard; and cars, dragged in, unworking, were left there, the silent victims of the elements and the house’s perhaps mentally disturbed and certainly surly teen boy, who would attack them with baseball bat or an axe, smashing them into ruin when he wasn’t otherwise occupied in hacking at the bare earth with whatever destructive implement he could find.

The people were horrible; the yard was terrible.

And yet …

After police raids, foreclosure pressure, housing-inspector revulsion and several ownership changes, what sits there now is an earthmover that has scraped the land raw into a simulacrum of the lunar surface and scooped out a network of trenches in preparation for the construction of three new houses – a foolish project of truly pedestrian design, built unnecessarily in an economic climate that predestines its doom.

As I try to picture that trio of sticks and stucco creating a wall of residential impermeability, I find myself experiencing something akin to nostalgia for that ugly, gap-toothed yard. It had some, if not much or lovely, greenery. It had a rolling contour and non-uniformity. It provided, if not the open space beloved by environmentalists, then a sense of welcome, air- and light-filled elbow room. It said: Not every square foot of a residential community needs to or ought to be covered with the fruits of a design-built imperative, not every square inch needs to host development. What will be lost is standing on a sidewalk with ground-level all around you; where there was a breeze there will be a curb cut, a garage door, a three-story cliff face and the hum of air-conditioning units. What that homely piece of land said was: Even an unkempt, ignored, even abused space has something of communal value to offer, if only to be a landmark and a bit of shared history.

Once the houses are built, no longer will I be able to glance out my window and see the lumpy and irregular wall of the former stable, the elegant hawthorne and redbud trees in its backyard, the houses and chimneys beyond – the art of years-long, organic, unplanned growth of a human-scale settlement.

Often, one will not realize that a place has placeness until it is a casualty of “replaceness.” One can frequently not see the art until it is succeeded by the artless. Already, with its terrain stripped and full of ditches, that old, ugly, rotten piece of land, with its genuine “beauty” and rarity, has become something I miss, even as the genuinely crass pushes it out of everything but memory where, oddly, it will only grow in my affection, and be a place I recall not just with fondness, but with the weight of a keeper of the keys to things past and gone.

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Filed under Musings, Small & Great

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