The New Urban Criminal: Martha Stewart
(Oregon Planners' Journal, August/September 1996)
By Richard H. Carson
There are days when I wonder how the inmates ended up running the asylum. This was especially true after I read an Oregonian Forum page article called "Exile in Eden." The article begins with the absurd premise that along with backyard gardening "...often comes the unintended isolation that contributes to the breakdown of the community." Yes, working in your garden is a social problem - a social problem like crack houses, gangs and prostitution.
And who supports such a preposterous thesis? The article presents us with a local landscape architect who says, "It's almost scary how rarely people know their neighbors." I'll tell you what's scary - landscape architects running down their own profession. Next thing you know they will all quit their "scary" jobs and become social workers.
The article goes all the way to Maryland to bring us an anthropologist who says that, "For us, the front yard is like a person's face the lawn and borders are like clothing." Luckily he didn't carry the analogy on to tell us what the backyard is like, but I am sure it isn't a pretty picture. I respectfully suggest this person needs a meaningful life. The day a person's front yard looks like a face is the day I get work in electrolysis.
Finally, the author brings us face-to-face with the new urban criminal. The article trots out a Beaverton lady whose crime was planting a "15-foot high shield" of Arborvitae to screen her from sweet and loving neighbors. As proof of her crime, the article quotes her as saying "I hardly go anywhere anymore, I love going home." Forgive her, for she knows not what she does. She probably bowls alone too. Besides, she can't fool me. I saw the movie The Godfather. I know that people who work in their gardens are mafia dons and worse. And I know how to root them out. I know exactly where to find them. Oh yes, they are easy to find. They are not too bright, these backyard gardening freaks.
They buy truckloads of animal excrement and have mounds of the disgusting stuff dumped on their driveways.
They learn this nefarious craft by subscribing to such dangerous publications as Martha Stewart's Living and Sunset.
In the spring they go to those horrible gardening centers and hang out around the seed packet displays. They have no shame.
One of our strengths as Americans is our love of innovation. However, this preoccupation with change means we also go over-board at times. We create socially worthless innovations like the pet rock, the Brady Bunch and disco. What we have here is a clear case of mass hysteria - a kind of urban planning double talk. People start to mindlessly throw around catchy new buzz words because they think they are being socially innovative -- phrases like neo-traditional, urban village, high density and community building.
I agree that life is "frightening" and "scary" at times. Personally, I think sitting on the front porch drinking lemonade and having some "drug challenged" punk fire bullets into you, your family and your house is scary. But then I am just an urban planner who has lost his way. I ask you - in all seriousness - what sane person wouldn't want to be in their backyard?
The only thing that I see leading to the "break down of community" and human "isolation" is when rational professionals start running around saying the sky is falling. No wonder I am in my backyard. If you had a bunch of nuts like this for neighbors, you would be to.
When the politically correct Torquemada's of urban planning come for me, I will speak in my own defense. When asked why I was working in my backyard garden, I will stand and say in a clear, strong voice, "My wife made me do it."
Richard H. Carson is the Director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.