That Damnable Wall: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’

A place can be a simple line drawn in the dirt, or, by extension, a structure: a wall, its placeness created by its bulky solidity and seeming eternal position in space and time, a counter-force holding back the sloped earth and coming in close contact with three of the four elements. As it intersects other lines and structures, the wall acts as one part of an ensemble that encloses a measured area and becomes a building, a shelter, a dwelling. A wall can be a starting point or it can be an end, a boundary of a real or imagined limit, or a bitter disputatious marker and symbol of what it contains or excludes. This enormous dumb slab, in a microcosmic sense, like the Berlin Wall – a far more political and economic line than this one, but a line nonetheless.

Since the Norman conquest, determining the metes and bounds of property is a system little-altered by the intervening ten centuries of practice. Nearly a quarter-century ago we purchased a mid-1800s stable as an art studio – at that time, it was being used as a parking garage – a mere half-block from our house. If we had owned the land between our house and the stable, it would have created a mini-estate, but our properties were divided by both a city street and someone else’s yard. We could see the stable’s profile out our window and imagine the once-contiguous landscape.

The building’s form is a simple, straightforward structure: stone walls with 20’-wide spanning trusses, peaked roof, a clerestory of windows on one side – built into a steep hill, so that it always has appeared to have a limp. Adding to its peculiar stance was the upper side’s northeast-facing wall, an 18” thick masonry wall, fifty feet long, visually looming like a giant billboard fallen to the earth, and its bottom acting as a retaining wall that holds back the yard above its grade. Besides the wall’s size, the lumpishness of its uneven surface makes its appearance all the more strange: it widens and thins at various spots; there are unusual pilaster-like protrusions, vestiges of buttresses perhaps; there are distinct sections, almost as if a few different walls were merged together, creating a layered effect with changes in plane. It is definitely a wall with a past.

From the get-go this wall was problematic, since there were considerable water-management problems. Mother Nature provided our first breach in the wall’s well-being, something which had been ongoing way before we appeared on the scene. Moisture entered the wall from both the bottom and the top, largely due to an old porous rubble construction, assaulted by direct contact with ground water for a depth of 4-5 feet at its base, and poorly realized, leaky gutters at its roofline that brought the water inside.

When we took ownership of the place, a pleasant older woman lived in the house with the higher adjacent yard, and she was very amenable to us using her property to get our only access to the wall. We were starting to feel that the wall’s issues were just natural ones, but when the pleasant neighbor’s sister moved in, arriving like the Wicked Witch of the West, one of the first things she spit out at me while shaking and pointing her gnarled finger, was, “That wall belongs to me.” This battle over the wall continued for many years, mostly in the form of snarling, glaring and not speaking, and also not allowing us access to our wall. We never understood any of it. After doing some research, we learned that the neighboring house, the one that the sisters inhabited, and our stable once had been owned by the same family, and at some point the property was divided. Sometime in the 1930s-40s, a house was built attached to the stable (by an uncle of the remaining sisters), and so the wall in question became a party wall. That might explain its thickness and its weird lumpy profile. The battle continued with the Wicked Witch, as she encouraged her few generations of indistinct bloodlines, who had moved in with her, to throw things up on our roof and down into our back yard, causing us to call the police more than once when they tried to climb onto our roof to retrieve their items. We never had any idea of what she wanted the wall for, or why. It was clearly part of our building – our roof sat on it – and nowhere near hers. But for several  uncomfortable years it was a line drawn.

A few years ago, when the brood left the house after the city found it unfit for habitation, there was an attempt by them to put together a scheme with some unsavory investors to rehab the old homestead and build two new houses on the empty land next to our wall. Therein lies the next breach: when the hired-hand surveyors climbed into our backyard and staked it, saying that their property line was on the inside of our wall – inside our building and our yard. At that time, we could have brought in the city surveyors but, instead, we contacted a property lawyer. It turns out that whatever its past was, the fact that we had had exclusive use of it for 21 years meant that we could, essentially, “claim” it by adverse possession. So we did. The brood/investor group still attempted to build based on what were bogus dimensions of the site, but city government stepped in and stopped them. The stoppage led to them losing the entire property to the moneylenders.

The moneylenders didn’t want to be developers, but they considered building the two houses. Suddenly, they were conciliatory and cautious when it came to the wall. While they pondered their next moves, somebody graffitied the wall, since it was exposed to the open, abandoned construction site, and, maybe, was confused as being a part of it. One day, machinery moved in and quickly dug up, toppled and removed all evidence of the previous early-stage construction attempt – poured-concrete foundations and first-story walls. The graffiti, also mysteriously, vanished.

Another year passed, and then, one morning, we heard bulldozers again. Yet another – a third group, we learned – now owned the property, this time people with dubious green cards. After some discussion about the project, we learned that their plan was to build three houses this time – in a space that barely accommodated the originally planned two, and which somehow was approved by the city. (It makes us wonder whether those false dimensions of the site slipped through the permit-issuing gates again.)

So, you guessed it – new battles began over the wall, with the developer wanting to build too close to it, leaving only a two-foot gap. We argued that it had to be a minimum of three, a legal setback for access and maintenance. It is now a few months into the project, and our wall has been used by this new, polyglot, suspicious crew as a place to prop and store things, a surface for workers to urinate against (the builder has provided no portable toilet), a trash heap, a point of contention over drainage issues and, finally, a near coming to blows over there not being enough space to install their housing’s cheap siding without removing our gutter (an impossibility if they had left only the proposed two feet, and a point of chutzpah under any circumstances). The drainage has yet to be resolved, despite the erection of three very tall towers that will, during a rain or because of melting snow, be a source of major runoff – running off right towards our building, right towards that damnable wall.

The saga of the wall is long and contentious; looking at it one would never imagine how much trouble and strife it could generate, how much anxiety we have experienced, how much time and money we have expended on its behalf. The other three sides of the studio building, together, model citizens all, were of no consequence – just this one, impossibly troublesome boundary.  To quote William Cronon, “To define property is thus to represent boundaries between people; equally, it is to articulate at least one set of conscious ecological boundaries between people and things.”

A wall, seemingly, creates a place, and if you are lucky, a sense of placeness with it. In this case though, whatever placeness it possessed, it came with a price – one we never bargained for.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Musings, Small & Great

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