Todd Johnson on Neighborhood Watch

What to do when bad houses happen to good neighborhoods.

Neighborhood Watch
What to do when bad houses happen to good neighborhoods: First, find a hacksaw.
Illustration by Michael White

Speculation—much like the crabgrass in my neglected flower beds—runs rampant in my gossipy burg. “Have you seen their new trim color? What were they thinking?” “Obviously, he lost his job. Just look at his azaleas.” And my favorite: “I don’t like to tell stories so I’ll just say two words: Fore. Closure.”

Gladys Kravitz has nothing on my neighborhood’s window-peeking biddies. Mind you, I say this with much love and admiration. For while it’s true that these fixed-income scandalmongers love a good tale, they’re also the first to notice an unlocked car door, report suspicious activity, and find a lost dog with the unerring accuracy of a NATO missile strike. Who needs a house alarm? These girls are good.

The latest juicy morsel of malice, however, seduced my ear while I was standing in line at the local coffeehouse. The blue-haired brigade huddled together as they do every morning, tongues wagging, heads shaking, and tsk-tsks flying everywhere in between sips of decaf latte.

“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “Did you say stilts?”

Seconds later, I grabbed my skinny mocha and sped off. I had to confirm what the ladies were clucking about. And sure enough, there it was, around the corner from my home. A house. On stilts. Over a creek. In my neighborhood. This wasn’t some gulf shore sea shanty or oceanside retreat. In those cases, stilts are to be applauded, salty water not being house friendly. No, this horror I was gaping at was a two-story, red-brick, cookie-cutter structure in landlocked Dallas. On stilts. Over a creek. In my neighborhood. My head hurt.

It’s not that I’m an architectural snob. What I love about my neighborhood is its diversity: tudors, mid-century modern, art deco, and Craftsman cottages all merrily mix and mingle. But it’s a slippery slope to McMansionville, and this house put us smack on that path. Did I mention it was on stilts?

I asked my neighbors that night what they thought of our latest addition.

“I heard that they bought the land for cheap, and that’s why they built the house on stilts,” said one.

“I hate it,” cried another. “I say we tell them how we feel.” This brought to mind visions of torch-bearing peasants storming the city gates only to be doused with hot tar. I don’t look good in hot tar, I reminded my neighbors.

“Besides,” I said, “it’s already been built. We have no recourse.”

Suddenly, someone remembered that I worked for a house and garden magazine (note to self: don’t invite that neighbor to the Christmas party), and I was deemed the neighborhood’s expert on architectural responsibility and all things stilt-y. I was sent to knock on the door and give the new owners a where-to and what-for. Much to my cowardly neighbors’ dismay (and my relief), no one answered the door. I left my business card but never heard back.

But that’s just as well. While I abhor the stilted giant towering over my neighborhood, I also respect the homeowner’s rights to build whatever structure they wish. Does that make them bad people? No. Good neighbors? Not so much.

Besides, back at the coffeehouse, the blue-haired brigade have already caught whiff of their latest prey. Yes, it’s a newly constructed house. And this time? It has a turret.

Get your pitchforks, neighbors.

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