20080924

A Band on Vehicles

A few weeks ago I noticed my neighbor's car, which had been stored at the back of the driveway between our houses since I'd moved in, was gone. It was a fairly nice car that I admit to coveting, if only because it sat there unused for so many months. When I next saw my neighbor, I inquired about it. The reply was the kind of vague answer neighbors often give.

Then several days ago, looking at the post on abandoned vehicles at We Fight Blight, one entry somehow caught my eye. There I found my neighbor's address and vehicle. The car had been determined abandoned and moved.

So I left a comment on the blog post. I was alarmed specifically about the removal of my neighbor's vehicle, and generally about removal of vehicles from private property.

Generally I support this program. A month ago, after learning of it from We Fight Blight, I called in an unfamiliar vehicle that had sat unmoved in front of my house for a week and a half. But I am vexed by the lack of distinction between vehicles parked on private drives versus public streets, and the seeming failure to account for the condition of the vehicle.

In response to my comment, We Fight Blight wrote that I did not identify the vehicle, so it was hard to know which one I was referring to, but that is part of the point. I am concerned our neighbor may now think I reported it (whom else would have?). And because I am aware of the program and the situation, I fear in discussing this with my neighbor I would only look more guilty. But that is truly a minor personal problem.

What bothers me is the attitude taken in the original posts and the response to my comment. It is one of self-righteous assurance, without a trace of doubt that what is being done is anything but completely correct. Given the nefarious purposes for which labeling something blight has been used in the past (see urban renewal, Robert Moses) I would expect more deference. After all, it is hard to imagine anyone interested in these issues to be unaware of the history of the term, and the awful things done to cities and their inhabitants by its abuse a half-century ago.

So I admit to having briefly cringed when I first saw the use of the word 'blight' in that blog. But I generally found it moderate, though the tone noted above did appear on occasion. I have no doubt the author has anything but the best of intentions for North Oakland neighborhoods, but in some of the language you hear the songs of the past: community standards, public health hazards, property values. I fear it begins to go beyond concern for neighborhood and into intolerance of difference.

And that frightens me. Because one of the great things about living in a diverse urban neighborhood is difference. And while sometimes I don't like living across the street from screaming kids, tire of the rubbish the neighbors down the block leave in the gutter, and wish some would take better care of their yards and bring in their trash cans, I understand that this is part of it. And I fear if those things were gone I would lose something else too.

I don't have the answers to all these questions. I certainly don't think cars should sit on public streets for weeks on end, but I also don't think people should be forced to move decent-looking cars from their own driveway, just because they aren't used on a regular basis. And, because of the subjectivity that would be necessary, it is probably difficult to write an abandoned vehicle ordinance that takes into account the condition of the car.

But my doubt about the correct response, as compared with the self-certainty exhibited by those who claim blight, is disconcerting. In the end, this seems a short road to approving a palate of acceptable paint colors for houses, banning laundry lines, or deciding a neighbor's proposed addition doesn't "fit in with the character" of the area. And then it would be no longer be a city neighborhood, nor one I would want to live in.

And because I'm not sure I even completely trust my own words here, I end this post with those of German filmmaker Wim Wenders,

"Every kind of urban planning, by definition, tends toward some kind of homogeneity. The city contradicts that. The city defines itself through oppositions; it wants to explode."

1 comment:

austinjohn said...

I wish we had some sort of law about abandoned vehicles here in Austin. The live and sort of let live private property ethos lives large in Texas. However, I can see how such ordinances can be difficult to draft. Generally, I feel that any car sitting on the street unused for more than a week should be subject to such laws and get towed.
Cars in driveways or yards that are visible from the street are a more delicate matter. I think a strong case can be made for enforcing their removal, since some people have a hard time parting with broken cars and such vehicles may be visible blight. The best safety mechanism is to exempt all cars on private property in view of neighbors if they have current tags. The currency of the tag ensures that the owner has made a good faith effort to maintain the vehicle and intends to use it or repair it at some point. Otherwise, they ought to store the thing out of sight for both their neighbors' sake and to preserve the car for future restoration.