The strange case of midnight renegade oleander gentrification camouflage

To disguise a neighbor's less-than-pristine house, she planted a hedge on the other person's land!

By Cary Tennis
March 27, 2008 2:57PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

We live next door to an elderly lady who owns her home, and has for well over 40 years. The home has fallen into serious disrepair, and neither she nor her very ill live-at-home son can keep up with the maintenance.

A few times, when we first moved in, we offered to help, but they almost always vehemently (but graciously) refuse our help. They did let our tree guy work on one tree that was on their property but hung over ours. I think they agreed only because this was a shared problem and not solely theirs.


From time to time, she and her son apologize to us for their yard and house being so messy, which really makes us feel bad. We have assured her over and over that we are totally thrilled to have them as neighbors. I hate that she is ashamed enough to apologize for her own house. There really doesn't seem to be much we can do other than be friendly, help when she'll let us, and stay out of it otherwise.

This elderly lady has an extremely limited income. She is not white (and most neighbors are). Her hearing is nearly gone, which makes it tough to get her attention by knocking at the door. We see her son more often, and talk when we do, but he periodically checks into the hospital for weeks on end.

We really could not care any less about the state of their house. Well, we'd like it to be nicer, but for their sake, not ours. The couch on the front porch does not bother us.


It really does bother some people, though! Our neighborhood has been transitioning for years, in a process of slo-mo gentrification, but has a reputation of being quirky and live-and-let-live. In other words, don't move here if you don't want to have neighbors with couches on their porches.

The across-the-street resident recently took it upon herself to send her gardener across to the older lady's home and have him plant a row of oleanders across the whole front of the house. These are plants that can grow to be house-size themselves.

My husband commented on the new planting to the son, assuming he had done it, but the son asked my husband if we had any idea where the plants had come from. We've dealt with other issues with the gardener-sending neighbor, so had a hunch.


My husband asked if she had done it, and she not only said yes, and not only admitted she did it without asking the elderly woman, she asked if we wanted to chip in for the cost of the plants! My husband told her that, in fact, we would not like to subsidize her unauthorized trespassing. She hissed something about property values and huffed off. She clearly doesn't think she's done anything wrong.

I want to dig these oleanders up and plant them on the eastern side of the house, so at least they shade her in the summer, or pour gas or bleach on them to kill them. I want to replant them in the tacky neighbor's yard. I just don't want them to grow and provide the screen the tacky neighbor hopes they will provide.


The son hasn't been around for the past week -- we are waiting to see him and ask if he wants our help replanting them in a better location. Meanwhile, they grow and develop stronger roots. The gardener has even been back to mulch. What if he is fertilizing?

My husband tells me I just need to drop it. I can't. I'm irrationally angry. The plants are a visible symbol of someone else's intolerance. Is there anything I can do? I'm sure the elderly lady is mortified and knows exactly why the tacky neighbor planted the plants, and also sure that she's not going to leave her house and do anything about it.

I have this vision of calling the police to report illegal shrub planting ... doesn't seem like the most productive route to take, does it? Is there anything I can do without being intolerant myself? Do I really need to drop it?


Class Enemy of Renegade Oleanders

Dear Class Enemy of Renegade Oleanders,

Thank you for a charming letter. It is a perfect portrait of low-intensity class warfare. It is like a little short story from the South.

Those oleanders are rich with meaning. The neighbor across the street is symbolically shielding her eyes from the facts: that the people who were in this neighborhood before she was have different ways and different standards and different concerns, and that people do get old and lose their ability to maintain their homes, and they do lose their vitality, and their hearing. She is trying to camouflage that.


And there is great income disparity in America. The way capital moves is often cruel and disruptive. There are those who can take advantage of it and those who get screwed by it. She is trying to camouflage that.

And we do not care very well for our elderly in America. People get left behind. The movement of capital disrupts communities and families. We do not try hard enough to keep things together. We do not value community as much as we might. We value money more than community. And some people simply don't have the money to keep up their homes the way we would like them to. She is trying to camouflage that.

She would like to camouflage all of that. And she knows that if you have the power and the money you can -- you can camouflage what you don't want to see. And you don't even have to do it yourself. You can have your gardener do it. You can have your gardener plant the camouflage. And if those whom you want camouflaged are powerless, you can even plant the camouflage on their land, not yours. You can box them in and make it look like they boxed themselves in.

Yes, it's pretty offensive if you look at it from the standpoint of class warfare.


On the other hand, plants are nice. Hedges are nice. And people are people. I'm sure the old lady knows what's what. She's lived there her whole life, right? She's seen this whole thing happen. She knows what's what. I like to think she maybe watches Barack Obama on television and thinks, well, maybe something is going to go right before I'm gone.

There will always be busybodies planting oleanders in other people's yards. So yes, if you can, let it go. Let it go, let it go, let it go.

Of course, if you can't let it go, and if you really want to show solidarity with your next-door neighbor, you can plant your own line of oleanders in your own front yard. And you can put an old couch on your porch. That will show the woman across the street where you stand.

Stuff like this really puts you to the test, doesn't it? Is there a silver lining? Well, it does take a lot of nerve and cunning to do what she did. She might be on the wrong side of the fence, so to speak, but she's got nerve and cunning. And though she's trying to camouflage who's across the street, she's certainly not camouflaging herself. Maybe in time you will come to appreciate this neighbor's brazenness and gall, if not her politics or taste.


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