My upstairs neighbor recently fought a protracted battle with my side neighbor over patio furniture. It got ugly. There’s been a low grade turf war in the building for a while now. The key element is never about the items in question. It’s always about control. Both sides have their valid concerns, but at the end of the day it’s all minutiae. The whole time I’m thinking… Do any of these folks have anything real to worry about in their lives?
Quick backstory. Many years ago when my friends and I were a lot younger and poorer (and San Francisco was infinitely cheaper) we pooled our meager resources and bought a small fixer upper apartment building in the Mission. Pre tech. Pre hipster. We each took one of the units and we’ve all been here ever since – now “comfortably middle aged.” Our little group has always had a live-and-let-live approach to management. We’ve been sufficiently organized to get the building through the byzantine condo conversion process, tend to routine maintenance, keep the common budget well funded, take care of mechanical upgrades, and have the building painted a couple of times. Otherwise things are pretty chill. We drift in and out of each other’s apartments for dinner and drinks most nights. Casual. Easy. It’s been our version of Tales of the City. But there’s been a subtle demographic shift in the building of late and things have gotten weird.
One neighbor has always had a penchant for thrift store treasures and gardening. His exuberant style spills out of his apartment into the dank concrete utility space at the back of our building with an ever changing tableau of potted plants and objet trouvé. Some people find it charming and eccentric. Others just see trash and disorder.
This is very much in contrast to a resident who can’t abide sloppiness or a lack of discipline. He keeps to himself. He avoids “complications.” If you look in to his front door the carpet is wrapped in clear plastic like my Aunt Angie’s rococo furniture no one was allowed to sit on. He’s wound a little tight. So now we’re all in the process of readjusting to the new reality of Home Owners Association politics where laissez faire will not be tolerated. There’s a tremendous emphasis on The Rules.
I was dragged in to the fray when several of my unauthorized personal objects were put on a list that needed to be removed from the common areas of the building post haste. My freezer and emergency water tanks were specified as particularly egregious examples of non-compliance. These items were dangerous and part of a hobby that needed to be contained in my personal private space. The earthquake water tanks had been sitting in the back corner of the patio for years without causing any trouble. We’ve had a common-use fridge and freezer in the garage for a over a decade. But suddenly these were problems that needed immediate attention.
If everyone in the building were in line with The Rules we’d be good. If everyone was comfortable with live-and-let-live we’d be fine. But the two don’t mix and the consequences for the future don’t bode well for the building. The tension has drained all the joy out of the place. People avoid each other while taking out the trash or passing each other in the laundry room. There are forced insincere smiles.
My goal was never to fill the common areas of the building with things that torment other residents. Instead, I’ve always been keen on having a generous buffer against unexpected difficulties. Having a well stocked pantry and a big full freezer is a hedge against money troubles. Unemployment could strike, but we’d still eat well. An earthquake could knock out the public utilities, but water tanks and propane cylinders would fill the gap for a while. But these are now sources of conflict.
So I packed up the troublesome items and had them transported to a friend’s house who actually wanted them. We’ve known each other for twenty years and we’re in and out of each other’s homes all the time anyway. Her house is close enough that a long walk or reasonable bike ride is manageable if the roads and public transportation were to fail. Having a ready supply of earthquake water in her back yard seemed like a good idea to her – especially since the tanks were free and I was installing and maintaining them for her. And we recently went in on a bulk farm-direct meat purchase that was straining the little chest freezer in her garage so the upgrade was a benefit to her. She and I both came out ahead with this new arrangement.
The common areas of the building are now orderly, uncluttered, and respectable. But the trade off is that there’s considerably less social cohesion or affection in the building, and now there are nine people who have no emergency Plan B. FEMA and San Francisco city officials recommend one gallon of water per person per day as the minimum required for earthquake preparedness. We no longer have that, although I’ve created a work-around that will provide for my own needs elsewhere. At the end of the day I just don’t want to be here with these people in a crisis.
Think about all the HOAs out there across America. Think about all the municipal regulations that prohibit doing many of the things that would make our communities more able to withstand shocks of all kinds. Think of all the perfectly manicured lawns, geometric shrubbery, and neutral beige paint that maintain respectable standards and property values at the cost of productivity and resilience. Think about how much people distrust each other and can’t seem to co-operate on even basic stuff. So long as nothing goes wrong everything will be fine. Cross your fingers folks, because from where I’m looking the world is a pretty unstable place these days.