Our whole legal system is set up to define a method and means to determine who wins and who loses–that’s why our Anglo-American system of jurisprudence is called “adversarial.” Sometimes a zero-sum conflict is inevitable. But if it is not, then the other (better) method to conflict resolution should be explored–the non-zero sum option, that produces winners and a sense of peace all around; and sometimes produces a bounty of fruits and vegetables and a nice landscape, to boot.
When we first moved into our 1200 square foot bungalow, our next door neighbor’s home looked a little run down, but nothing a paint job and a new roof wouldn’t have cured. He was one of those people that would always leave you hanging, feeling dopey, in the middle of a wave, or other salutation, by ducking his head down and scurrying out of view. In the nine years that we lived there, with nothing but his driveway to distance his home from ours, we never spoke.
As time marched on his roof developed deep sags, which later turned into big holes, and the elements had their way with his home. After a massive ice storm in the winter of 2007, when half the limbs of our city’s trees popped like gunshots and crashed down on whatever was below them, our neighbor vacated his home, covered in the massive limbs of the massive trees that surrounded it.
The next spring curiosity got the best of me. At the risk of being arrested for breaking and entering, I made a way into his house to have a look around. The truth is, I was more scared of the family of raccoons that I knew lived there than I was of being arrested for entering a rotting hovel of a once, otherwise, attractive and well-built bungalow.
I wish I still had the photos. There was not a room in the house that wasn’t exposed to the limitless sky above. Half the floors were rotted and you had to take care where you stepped for fear of suddenly finding yourself in the crawl space or the basement. The North wall was hanging at an angle away from the house, and the kitchen cabinets were in the process of succumbing to gravity, barely attached to the wall that had been their home since circa 1920. Our neighbor had strategically placed PVC pipe all throughout the house to hold the roof up in various spots, and plastic bins covered half the square footage of the house to capture rain, all full of rancid water and very soon, mosquito larvae. There was one spot where a person could luxuriate without coming into direct contact with rain, and it was occupied by a recliner with a pillow and a blanket on it in the corner of what would be the dining room, left by the neighbor when he moved out.
With a digital camera loaned to me by a neighbor I took a dozen or so photos and attached those as exhibits to a letter addressed to the city’s code enforcement division. Three days later there was plastered to the front door a Notice to Abate Nuisance. The result would be, if my neighbor did not do it himself, that the city would raze the home for him and condemn the property as its own.
Ideas and plans began to hatch among a few of us on our block. Wayne and his son David, both in the construction business, expressed an interest in taking ownership of the lot. Chris and Maggie, across the street, had the idea to use the cleared lot as a community garden. Wayne and David, if they were to obtain a fee-simple title to the property, were fine with the property being used as a community garden, the idea being that at least it would be used for some purpose other than being a massive weed patch, and would serve the purpose to prevent soil erosion.
I checked with the county clerk and verified that our old neighbor owned the property outright, free and clear of liens. I located our neighbor in exile across town and wrote him a letter with a quit claim deed enclosed.
In the event that you would desire to be alleviated of the burden, and concomitant liability that ownership of your property represents, please sign the enclosed deed and have it notarized. If you would like, come to our office and my secretary will be happy to notarize it for you.
In forty-eight hours Wayne was the proud owner of one nasty house. A few months later the home was razed, the basement was filled in and an empty lot was all that was left of a home grossly neglected. That was about two years ago.
Yesterday I paid a visit to the garden. There are cantaloupes, beans, squash and enough tomatoes growing to feed an army. At the back of the lot is a patch rich with the smell of herbs. And in the middle is a small wild flower patch. Throughout the two platted lots that make up the property are picnic tables and chairs for people to just hang out, and have a picnic if they want.
Chris told me that the property is currently listed, probably for more than it’s worth. Nonetheless, the intention is there to sell it for construction of a home. It would be a shame to see the green oasis in the middle of this urban quarter of our city go, but whatever happens, it’s better that a new house or a garden be there than what was before it.
Ultimately our neighbors, up and down the block, were happy to see the dilapidation abated and removed. Property values throughout the neighborhood would stand to benefit as a result. One set of neighbors came to own a piece of property. All the neighbors got a community garden. And one man got rid of a bad liability that would have legally haunted him had not others stepped in and relieved him of it.
Personally, I would prefer to see it remain a community garden.