Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, September 25, 2009

Struggling for the front lawn

House in Bellflower: the forbidden front lawn. Personal archives.
Two different front lawns in Bellflower. Personal archives.

Communication has verbal and non verbal components. If we can decode the non verbal information, cultural patterns will be revealed to us. Those patterns can be expressed in clothes, houses design, food, music, and so on. People’s gardening is another cultural manifestation, which becomes very important when it is the front American lawn. Americans do not need to follow the City Hall design guide lines to read the environmental cues in the neighborhood. The neat front lawn somehow communicates an expected behavior, and the struggle begins when the behavior is out of the common rules.
Amos Rapoport was an American architect and anthropologist, who wrote about an interesting case in the suburbs of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in 1972. “Given the local climate, and the particular orientation of her house, a woman decided that she would have her vegetable garden in front –where a lawn is normally to be found in Anglo -American culture. The Municipality was outraged, and many special council meetings were held. Court actions took place and the case eventually reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court”. (Rapoport, The Meaning of the Built Environment, p. 129). At last, the woman was allowed to grow her vegetables. This case shows us that the front lawn is much more than a piece of grass and that there are feelings involved in its arrangement.
The picture I show here belongs to a house in Bellflower, Southern California. It is interesting to observe that native species are freely grown everywhere, specially cactus, the Mexicans’s favorite. What makes me think the homeowner is -or was- from a Mexican family. I found it fascinating, and astonishing if I compared it with the rest of the houses front garden layout. A couple of months after taking my picture, I went back to the place, and to my surprise, the plants were completely removed, new grass was planted and of course, the trees were still there, but neatly trimmed.
There are two possibilities here: the house was sold or a neighbor called Code Enforcement inspectors. Though, there is no specific regulation on the front lawns, but as a silent Code, “everybody should have the same lawn for the benefit of the City”.
We had a similar “ Wisconsin” case in my childhood barrio in Gran Buenos Aires. Our old Italian neighbor across the street, also decided to grow vegetables in the front lot. With the great difference, I mean huge plants of corn!. All neighbors could live with it, until she used fertilizer. As I remember, everybody thought there was a dead animal somewhere….Nobody needed to go to the City Hall and complain. It was a matter of rights. Her right ended at the neighbors’ right. A few knocks at her door, and some angry words were enough to resolve the situation. She never planted the corn again, but we have never seen the “expected” garden, only loose earth….

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