Civil Liberties

Garden Gnome Politics

The age-old battle over landscape expression


Reconnoiter a few suburban subdivisions these days, and it'll be clearer than ever that there are two Americas. One decorates its front yards with giant patriotic teddy bears and halfburied zombies. The other has to get approval from its homeowners association (HOA) to change the color of its front door from beige to light tan. While the first America is especially visible between Halloween and New Year's Day, it does not require a special occasion to express itself. For those with the unfettered freedom to landscape, lawns are like blogs, only with weeds.

The urge to make a statement via maniacally groomed sod and a urinating terra cotta tot is as old as America itself. Yet this is the age of the planned development. With restrictive covenants designed to keep exterior spaces as aesthetically neutral as a pair of Gap chinos, these communities monitor chimney finishes and driveway accent lighting with the exacting, merciless scrutiny of the So You Think You Can Dance judges. And if you break the rules, justice can be equally harsh. In one legendary case, a California man lost his home after his HOA sued him for planting 5,000 rose bushes on his four-acre property without the proper approval. In another, a Florida couple racked up $3,400 in fines for displaying a pink flamingo in their yard. With property values at stake, it's hard out there for a garden gnome.

The American front yard was a contested territory long before the rise of the HOA. In his influential design for Riverside, a planned suburb outside Chicago that was developed in the late 1860s, Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned the front lawn as a democratizing, unifying element; walls were prohibited, and every house on a block would be knit together by a common expanse of unbroken, park-like turf. It was privately owned but also public space. Those who failed to keep the weeds at bay risked ostracism by their neighbors.

Along with its communitarian ends, however, the lawn functioned as a space for individual expression and one-upmanship. Formal landscaping was mostly an invention of European aristocrats, after all, and while Olmsted may have seen a democratic utopia in fields of unfenced grass, that didn't stop status-seeking suburbanites from attempting to create their own mini-Versailles. In today's world, where self-expression is the reigning ethos and the imperative to dramatize informs even the most mundane aspects of life, the HOA ideal of tightly regulated window treatments is remarkably out of step with how we otherwise live our lives. Indeed, in the performative, self-aggrandizing MySpace era, the whole point of existence is to demonstrate that our metaphorical grass is greener than our neighbor's. So why shouldn't we be able to do that with our actual grass? And our lawn ornaments too?

These days, no other institution asks such questions more persuasively, or at least more ornately, than the Design Toscano catalog, a quarterly compendium of marblesque statuary aimed squarely at cul-de-sac Medicis who, like 15th-century aristocrats, are less interested in protecting property values than in standing out from the rest of the block with eye-catching "statement pieces."

In its early years, Design Toscano's mainstays were medieval gargoyles and classical statuary, products embedded in the lawn ornament canon for centuries. But these days the company plays to more novel tastes as well. The cover of its spring 2008 edition, for example, features a trio of meerkats, standing at attention in typical meerkat fashion, painted realistically, and looking about as lifelike as three creatures made from "quality designer resin" can look when the price tag is kept below $100. "Prepare to turn some heads!" the copy advises, following up with a guarantee: "Garden Décor that Leaves a Lasting Impression."

The catalog hits on other common garden aspirations—the drive to beautify one's surroundings, the desire to create a space for contemplation and repose—but the potential to provoke a strong reaction from others remains a running theme. "Imagine the look of surprise when neighbors see this more than yard-long croc peeking from your flowerbed!" reads the copy for an item known as The Swamp Beast. Elsewhere there are promises that T-Rex dinosaurs, Roswell-style aliens, Bigfoot, and even the head and hands of a "life-size, gray-toned zombie" will "delight passersby," make neighbors "do a double-take," and "leave your guests in awe!"

Compared to the average hydrangea, a three-foot unicorn "exquisitely hand-painted in the soft palette of the dream world" certainly qualifies as a statement. Ultimately, however, Design Toscano's wares are scaled rather modestly. Bigfoot measures a mere 28.5 inches high; if he were standing alongside Hollywood actor Verne "Mini Me" Troyer, Sasquatch would be looking up at him. Even a "monument-sized" Buddha is just four feet tall.

For those who prefer pieces that inspire whole speeches, rather than just a statement, airblown inflatables are one answer. Once the exclusive domain of down-market car dealerships and temporary pumpkin patches, these nylon phantasms now turn suburban blocks into impromptu acid trips, especially around the holidays. Look, there's Giant Blow-Up Garfield giving a present to Giant Blow-Up Jesus, while Dracula and Mickey Mouse look on in approval!

If a couple of flamingos can generate thousands of dollars in HOA fines and a few thousand unauthorized rose bushes can lead to homelessness, what, one wonders, is the penalty for such grandiose tackiness? Public flogging in a tasteful, matte-finish pillory that color-coordinates with the surrounding architecture? Luckily, some brave souls are willing to risk their well-being in the name of individual expression and the notion that the places where people live should look like places where people live. Even more than a Design Toscano space alien, giant inflatables reject the impulse to render every gated subdivision as static and lifeless as an architectural model. They don't just demand attention; they demand comment, even if that comment is an irritated aside about good fences—and maybe the occasional blow dart-making good neighbors. They are, in short, an effort to communicate.

In neighborhoods where architectural control committees enforce mailbox homogeneity, streetscapes
essentially communicate one of two messages: The Smith family is either abiding by the community's covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or it isn't. In neighborhoods where giant cartoon cats hover over front lawns, a much wider range of discourse is possible. To exploit the possibilities, you can even hire an expert to temporarily turn your lawn into a "greeting yard" that celebrates a birthday, a newborn, an anniversary, an engagement, or some other event. All over America, lawn greetings entrepreneurs are ready to rent you a massive fiberglass stork or a few dozen bright yellow smiley faces to help you celebrate the most personal and important moments of your lives with that guy two houses down who you're pretty sure steals your Sunday newspaper on a semi-regular basis.

Just as greeting animations can turn MySpace strangers into real-life best friends, however, a lawn greeting can do the same in suburban neighborhoods. At a time when we're intimately acquainted with the lives of bloggers we've never met while knowing nothing about the people who live next door, an ostentatious display provides an obvious and convenient entry point. When people put up a lawn greeting, neighbors have a pretext to act neighborly. They bring presents, offer congratulations, and eventually have more to bond over than the fact that all their garbage cans exist in perfect aesthetic harmony with one another. The communities that allow displays of human expression to exist in the form of designer resin aliens and inflatable tiki totem poles may not be the best places to sell a house, but they aren't bad places to live.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.

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  1. Your right to swing your monstrosities ends where my presbyopia begins.

  2. [airblown inflatables]... Once the exclusive domain of down-market car dealerships...

    It's wacky, waving, inflatable arm, flailing tube man!

  3. man, Baked, you're on a roll! woo hoo! 🙂

  4. I bought a house last October. While it wasnt a requirement, there was much rejoicing over the fact that the house I liked best wasnt in an HOA. Just a nice bonus feature.

    I can point out the negatives. Not long after I moved in, a storm knocked down a large tree in the large back yard of the lady across the street from me (she is on the corner, so my front yard faces her back yard from the side). She got around to having it cut up and taken care of last month. That wouldnt have been allowed in an HOA. You know what? So what? It wasnt my yard, not my problem. Eyesores are a risk when you purchase a piece of property. That should be priced into your offer.

  5. There was this suburb subdivision in North Jersey that used to, and may still, completely go to town with Christmas lights each year. It was a pretty wealthy area with larger lots, and people would run lights everywhere, all trying to outdo each other.

    Anyone remember that?

  6. The neighborhood adjacent to mine in Brooklyn, Dyker Heights, is also famous for its Christmas, er, exuberance.

  7. Without lawn tackiness my once favorite sport would be non-existant. Anyone ever heard of Gnoming?

    When I was high school gnoming was trooping around neighborhoods at night to see who could capture the best (most rediculous) lawn ornament. Then the trophies were strategically placed around the school to the delight of all.

    aww, gnoming. Bless the people who make it possible.

  8. I guess I gotta move. My neighbors just don't seem to appreciate my 63 Buick lawn ornament.

  9. There's a guy in my hometown who's decorated his front yard with a 30 foot concrete whale in front of a proportionally huge American flag.

  10. Anyone remember that?

    i do. it was up somewhere by oradell, iirc.

    one of those folks had a private lake and everything.

  11. Yeah, that sounds about right, dhex. It took us about half an hour to get there from Oakland, which works with Oradell.

  12. You want to live in a static boring homogenous community where personality displays are forbidden by contract? Go right ahead, you boring twit. Wait for the grim reaper in your apparently soulless community.

    Back in the day, my wife and I decided to add a flower bed because we only had 5 or 6. The border of the bed was these things that we got for next to nothing by scrounging retail shops. It turned out to be colorful, tacky, tasteless and soooo cool, neigbors and strangers stopped to chit chat about that and other landscaping flourishes we'd incorporated.*

    We did the porch up for every major holiday, and lit it with black lights for Halloween.

    * She was the master gardener and art director. I provided the proverbial strong back and weak mind and an occasional idea.

  13. Make that resale shops vice retail shops.

  14. How about the classic negro stable-boy ornament? These little men used to form invisible force fields over the neighborhood where I grew up. As if to say, "you're not in the ghetto anymore. Watch your back."

    Then, one day, the invisible force fields stopped working. First, a house was bought up by a black college professor. Then another by a black lawyer. Then one by a black police officer. Panic set in. The neighborhood was clearly going downhill. Slowly, all the little black stable boy ornaments started to make a retreat. They disappeared from the front lawns in my neighborhood, sometimes to be spotted 15-20 miles away in a newly constructed exurb. But mostly to be never seen again. I wonder how much of them ultimately fell victim to the HOA.

  15. we don't have an HOA, but live in an understated neighborhood nonetheless. We only have a 14" gargoyle which was intended to add a touch of mystico-religious drama to our driveway entrance. But now the dog uses it as a scent post.

    this article lightened my mood somewhat. thank you.

  16. Once, home shopping, a realtor bragged that the HOA for the first house she showed us assured our peace and quiet by banning backyard windchimes.

    We passed on both the house and the realtor.

  17. "The other has to get approval from its homeowners association (HOA) to change the color of its front door from beige to light tan." ...honestly...
    Its FAWN, and it can only be bought at one local retail outlet at outrageous prices. I can live with that - its the chocolate trim that makes me die a little every day.

  18. """The neighborhood adjacent to mine in Brooklyn, Dyker Heights, is also famous for its Christmas, er, exuberance."""

    Seen it a few years ago.
    Exuberance is an understatement. It's amazing how much they put into it.

  19. How about the classic negro stable-boy ornament?

    Yeah, how about them? I used to have a neighbor (a black guy, thanks for asking) who had one in his front yard. Repainted with pleasing pale peach flesh tones.

    I thought it was hilarious.

  20. Design Toscano? What? No URL?

    The cover of its spring 2008 edition, for example, features a trio of meerkats, standing at attention in typical meerkat fashion,

    Meercat Manor. OTOH, I checked. They don't have skunks.

  21. I've always liked Pat Murphy's short story A Flock of Lawn Flamingos.


    [Oh, yeah. I moved. Life is good.]

  22. The local HOA tightly regulates lawn art, coming down hard on anyone with a pinwheel. All signs, etc, are explicitly banned.

    However, the yards remained littered with declarations that Suzie is a cheerleader at the local highschool, or that Bobby is on the football team.

    These appear to get an unwritten waiver.

  23. Having lived in HOA and non-HOA neighborhoods, I can definitely say I prefer broken-down cars and lawn gnomes over window nazis. The palce I lived was so restrictive they regulated the size and shape of the grass patches (they had to be extremely small because of the zero-scaped southwest style), they regulated to extremes the species and colors of flowers and plants you could plant, and they could even control the things you had in your backyard, even though the back yards were surrounded by eight foot high brick walls (and about the size of a postage stamp). Fines were ridiculous - a weeklong visit from a family member resulted in $200 for having a car parked on the curb instead of the tiny driveway. I still haven't paid, which apparently means I owe late fees (hah!).
    An HOA takes a property and turns it into a rental. You lose the right to do what you please on your property, you consent to be spied on by neighbors and SS in their little white vans (conspicuously parked outside offending homes to gather evidence), you consent to be fined arbitrary fees by people who don't share your tastes, and even consent to relinquish ownership of your property if you repeatedly fail to comply with guidelines. Yes, you can be evicted from the house you own for having pink curtains. You also can't sell your property to anyone who doesn't agree to abide by the same guidelines.

    Yes, it's a contract entered into by consenting adults but at some point, as these things spread and become more pervasive it gets harder and harder to find a place to live without some sort of intrusion on your own property. In some dark Orwellian future you may be given the choice between doubled commute times, higher crime and lower property values vs. "consenting" to basically give up all the rights you gain from owning a property while maintaining all the obligations - and a whole ton more. That sounds a whole lot like coercion to me.

  24. One of my favorite cocktail party conversations starts with asking whether a person has ever read the CC&Rs (codes, covenants and restrictions) for the development where they live. I've been doing this for, oh, about five years. I have NEVER gotten an affirmative answer.

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