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The Rules

by claudia kousoulas on April 8th, 2010

Where do you park your car? Of course, in front of your house. What would your neighbors say if you parked in front of their house?

How quickly do you shovel your sidewalk after it snows? Do you shovel your steps and the elderly lady’s next door?

If there is garbage on your street, do you pick it up, even if it’s not yours, even if it’s not in front of your house?

Remember why the big fat Greek wedding family was embarrassing? Not because they cooked a lamb on a spit (though that’s a little weird), but because they cooked it in the front yard. They broke the unwritten rule of suburbia, cookouts happen in the backyard!

The appeal of suburbia is its rules. Early suburbs weeded out the rule breakers with money—you had to have a chunk of cash and maybe even a car to make suburban living feasible. The rules got really strict in communities with convenants. “Some of your best friends” couldn’t live next door. We laugh. We’re sophisticated now, we would never tolerate such exclusive behavior in our communities in this enlightened era.

But leave your garbage can at the curb all week and see what happens. Paint your house pink and you’ll end up as a community curiosity, maybe even featured in the local newspaper.

The rules of suburbia make it quiet, safe, and—as confirmed in any piece of pop culture—dull.

You want to raise bees, keep a chicken, or hang your laundry to dry, forget about it. There is bound to be a law. But if you want to plug in a nine-foot high, inflatable plastic snow globe on your front lawn, no problem. You can buy it at Costco, it must be okay.

Thank you Costco

And people may take pride and possession of their properties, but they don’t necessarily use them, as discussed is this UCLA study. They are too busy working to keep up with the Jones’.

What are the unwritten and written rules in your neighborhood? What is the physical and social infrastructure that keeps you mowing a lawn and driving to the local pool, when you’d really rather be harvesting vegetables or riding your bike?

8 Comments
  1. Grenier permalink

    Is it true you can’t raise bees, or a chicken in Montgomery County, Md.? You can certainly hang out your laundry–at any rate, we do, and no one seems to mind.

    The general point about suburbia is still basically valid, to be sure. I know, for example, that I can’t open any sort of cafe in my home–we are supposed to sleep in our suburban homes, and drive to work elsewhere. The picture of suburbia is pretty and quiet. The gnawing question is whether dullness is its only flaw …

    We all know, for example, that the zoning paradigm instilled ‘separation of uses.’ But what economic liberalism instills in reality is separation of persons, or what, in philosophical language might best be called ‘the invention of the (isolated) individual.’ (Think in terms of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, the destruction of the commons, village culture, etc.)

    In the present context, one might then say that suburbia is part of the institutionalization of the individual, the enforcement of social fragmentedness. But it is only part, and not the central part in this process. The fact that each suburban house sits alone in the landscape, and that each person drives their separate way to their distant work, is not what created our fragmented lives. There are deeper forces at work.

    But we are not only fragmented in suburbia. We are also integrated into the national/global economy (think 270 Technology Corridor, which is prioritized precisely because it is oriented not to the local economy, but to the global market).

    What we need is a localization of our economic and social lives that manages to still be open to the world. A bit more spiritual depth would also be nice.

  2. elza hisel-mccoy permalink

    My understanding is that chickens need to be 40 feet from a building with people in it (house, office, etc.). Some folks in Takoma Park, who back onto Sligo Creek or other woods, can do it. There was an article in Urban Farm magazine in the last couple of months which gave tips on getting your civil servants to change the rules. Apiaries, I further understand, are not so restricted, but may want to be kept out of the way of passers-by. There are several local beekeeping organizations that run classes and have other info.

  3. Brains from my father permalink

    Here on Thayer Avenue we have someone who raises chickens, and some folks that like to run their remote controlled electric toy car up and down the street, a landlord that installed a fence with the wrong side facing out, and a house that also functioned as a church on the weekends. I often leave my trash cans out over the weekend and no one has said anything to me. I appreciate the “live and let live” atmosphere on the block. The spirit of the block may be on the tacky side, but it’s a far cry from little boxes made of ticky tacky.

  4. joe alfandre permalink

    Claudia –
    Are you willing to be a rule-breaker? Then give me your best 10 that need breaking in the MoCo suburbs. Here are mine:

    No off-street parking; anywhere.
    Connect the wedges to the corridors: NOW!
    Do a general plan using only surface parked strip centers.
    Do a sector plan, any sector plan using a blog.
    Give the Planning Department authority over school boundaries.
    One Thursday a month, don’t let anyone into the MROauditorium
    over 35; and let everyone who made it in vote.
    Make Callum an exclusive czar for a week, a month, or a year.
    Hire Michael Oher and a pulling guard for Rollin.
    Give Jacob the Commissioners’ office, a computer, Elza and
    Josh, three days, let them balance the budget.
    Keep everybody working by shifting them to in-home care
    providers for elderly subdivision-dwellers who have stayed put
    in their purchases made in the 60’s rather than move to active
    adult like they’re supposed to, until two things happen: the
    recession ends, or Medicare does what it should and helps
    them slip comfortably into their next phase. Both in five years.
    Then fix the subdivision.

  5. Brains from my father permalink

    We have a live-and-let-live attitude here on Thayer Avenue. There’s a man who raises chickens in his front yard and some young men who like to race their remote controlled car up and down the street on sunny days. A few years ago a landlord put up a fence with the wrong side facing the street. This afternoon my battery powered lawn mower ran out of juice when I was half way done with the lawn. I guess I’ll finish mowing sometime this week. The block may be tacky but it beats little boxes made of ticky-tacky.

  6. claudia permalink

    Attitudes (and rules) will differ in every neighborhoood and people generally know whether they are Takoma Park people or Olney people. Think of the divide in attitude between metro-area residents who live in VA v.MD. You can never quite put your finger on it, but it’s there. And one man’s ticky-tacky is another man’s stake in the American dream.

    I guess I was thinking about how infrastructure (social and physical) forces us into certain behaviors–front yard is lawn, backyard is barbecue. We have an elementary school up the street, but becuase of school/work starting times, I used to drive my son to pre-school care and he’d be bussed to school. Crazy! (and, by the way, the school was absolutley dead all summer, no garden, no camps, no summer programs) Why can’t we line up what we have to use it more efficiently? Often because of our rules and assumptions about suburbia.

  7. claudia permalink

    Every neighborhood has it’s own rules and most people know if they are Takoma Park people or Olney people. Or think of the metro region’s divide between Maryland and Virginia. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there.

    I guess I was thinking about how infrastructure (physical and social)forces us into certain behaviors that we don’t always examine. My son went to an elementary school within walking distance, but because of school/work starting times, I would drive him to pre-school care and he would be bussed to school. Crazy! (And by the way, the school was absolutely dead in the summer–no garden, no pick-up games, no summer programs) Why can’t we line up what we have to be used more pleasantly and efficiently? Because the rules of suburbia sometimes limit us.

  8. Perhaps the world will cleave between those who shave and those who don’t. The chicken free suburb in all its patrician glory can be a wonderful place. Its Bohemian counterpoint may be extolling a different ethos, but spatially and within the larger metropolitan area both tend to behave in similar ways. One is just made up of smaller, less tidy increments.

    Our fondness for imposing rules on others reaches a conclusion in proliferating HOAs, but these are quite soul-less places–nothing at all in common with Chevy Chase or Coral Gables.

    I recall an incident over a decade ago, when a prominent Cabinet member (of a agency with a particularly keen interest in creating rules and enforcing them), bridled at restrictions placed on her suburban property, “who gives you the right?” restrictions that were placed by a different but well meaning public priority.

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