There Goes the Neighborhood
[If profanity offends you, do not read any further…the ending will only disappoint you.]
We live in an interesting neighborhood. A post-WWII suburb dotted with small houses built in the 1950s, slowly being overtaken by major development companies leveling these outdated dwellings and erecting zero-lot-line mega-homes in their place. There’s a small grocery store, deli, and other local vendors that draw loyal supporters with their nostalgic value. There’s a park… and residents are campaigning tirelessly for another one. It’s a place where yarn bombs on street signs meets a trail of mini Sutter Home bottles consistently littered in the gutter. There’s a newsletter and a listserv (which my husband teases me mercilessly for subscribing to and has nicknamed the “henhouse”) that informs and advertises…and occasionally lectures. But I haven’t really gotten to know any of my neighbors, aside from the ones I can’t help but see over our chain-link fences in the backyard. As a renter, I don’t really feel compelled to worry about our curb appeal or neighborhood traffic studies or how to fight property tax increases, although I probably should. One of these days we might be homeowners, right? Probably not in Austin.
One of those community issues that comes up from time to time is graffiti. It’s reported through our various community channels because there are volunteers that selflessly devote time to cleaning it up. No disrespect to these folks, but personally, I’ve always liked graffiti (the artistic variety anyway). Maybe because I’m such a fearfully law-abiding citizen that would never take part in such an activity myself. I grew up in a small, rural town where kids who thought they were part of some sort of gang went around sloppily tagging supermarket curbs with a couple letters and numbers. Not very impressive. Things changed when I took a high school trip to Italy. The layers upon layers of graffiti intended as a tribute to love (or star-crossed lovers) in Verona.
Our tour guide in Rome said that it was common for graffiti there to have political meaning, both in ancient and modern day Rome (although that was 1997, so social media may have eclipsed that form of expression). I don’t speak (or read) Italian, so I can’t say whether that statement is accurate, then or now.
When I moved to the “big city” for college, there were large expanses of colorful lettering and varied designs on display. Sometimes, if traffic was particularly slow, I’d stare at the graffiti on bridges, on-ramps, freeway signs, buildings, boxcars, and speculate about how the taggers (artists? hoodlums?) managed to get to some of these locations in the first place.
Here in Austin, the line between graffiti and art is blurred as well. When I first moved here and lived closer to Town Lake, the words and images on the pedestrian bridges and those on the distant train bridge became familiar.
There’s the bright, beautiful wall I park next to when I get my vehicle inspected on North Lamar. I think at one point the 1st street pedestrian bridge was painted over and replaced with sidewalk chalk…that was a little weird, but I guess it was for a good cause. And by weird I mean strange, foreign, unsettling…not TrendyAustinWeird. TrendyAustinWeird graffiti comes in the form people who pose for futureprofilephotos in front of a wall that claims to “love you so much…” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
How does graffiti tie in to this little story of our neighborhood? When we moved into our current house a couple years ago I remember a fleeting mention of traffic calming measures. I followed a link to city plans and saw a traffic circle slated for installation right at the intersection down the block from us. I couldn’t find a set date for when this would take place and after living and driving in the area for a few weeks I saw no reason anyone would ever do such a thing, so I put it out of my mind. Last year, traffic calming sprung up all over the neighborhood in the form of medians, speed humps, and yes, a traffic circle on our street. It became a reality. Heated battles ensued all over the listserv. (I know, firstworldproblems.) I heard (so it’s unsubstantiated) that the original plan was to take back some of the easement of the four corner properties to widen the area for the traffic circle, but residents protested so they didn’t. But they also didn’t reduce the size of the circle. The end result: an incredibly tight turn for anyone driving something other than a Car2Go. Not to mention only one side of one of the streets has a sidewalk, making it dangerous for pedestrians, especially if they have pets or strollers.
Roundabouts are great…in Europe…or in major traffic areas where people might be able to look to the example of others and figure out what to do and how to yield. In our neighborhood, it’s just a confusing mess. And the habitual speeders it was meant to deter? They just drive right over it like a speed bump. Why the city didn’t just add two more stop signs to make it a four-way stop, I will never know. Neither of the streets go directly through to any other major streets (Anderson, Burnet, Lamar, or 2222).
Graffiti may be a criminal defacement of public property. It may get our neighbors up in arms about derelict children wreaking havoc in our streets because they’re out of school right now.
But this week someone summed up my feelings about the traffic circle perfectly, in the form of graffiti. Some of their other choice phrases included “Locals only” and “Hell No,” so I have trouble piecing together their entire manifesto, however, one particular statement was right on in its truth and simplicity: