Los Angeles Stories

Jumping through hoops in a nasty neighbourhood
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"Welcome to my nightmare," says a plaintive Lynne Henney, as we step over the threshold of her stunningly beautiful house with panoramic views of the Santa Monica mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

It should be a dream home, but after six years of feuding with some extraordinarily vituperative neighbours the walls are full of mould, the polished wooden floorboards are buckled and cracked and much of the shelf space in the upstairs office has been given over to thick ring binders chronicling an ever more tawdry and expensive legal battle over the most trivial of issues: a children's basketball hoop. The Henneys thought the hoop, which they set up on their driveway like millions of other American families, would be a harmless diversion for their two sons, aged 12 and nine. But they didn't count on the Olesons next door, who have been in a state of virtual warfare with them since they first met, or their other neighbours, the Mitchells, who like them so little they have a surveillance video camera trained on their front door and a high-wattage security light flooding their back patio every night.

The neighbours went to their residents' association, which in this exclusive part of the Palisades Highlands reserves the right to regulate everything from tree varieties to verandah shades. And the association decided to sue – on the grounds that the basketball hoop had not been approved in advance by the architectural review committee. (The fact that 20 other houses also had hoops did not seem to deter them.) The Henneys are not unreasonable people, so they offered to remove the hoop rather than fight, only to be told they would have to pay $12,000 (£7,500) in legal fees already incurred by the residents' association. That didn't seem fair, so the hoop stayed and battle was joined. Now, almost two years on, the costs on the two sides have inched towards $50,000, and the hoop is gaining notoriety as a symbol of everything that American neighbourly living should not be.

When the issue was covered in the local paper, the Palisadian Post, the Henneys enjoyed an outpouring of sympathy from readers they had never met, including some who drove by the hoop and ridiculed the notion that stray balls were hitting other people's cars and windows. ("It would take a missile-driven basketball," one wrote.) But the residents' association has not relented.

Perhaps the Henneys' biggest mistake when they arrived in 1996 was to imagine they could foster a sense of community in the super-rich Highlands. If anything, neighbours were treated like enemies for blocking ocean views or causing minor irritations with the way their maids parked their cars. In no time, the Olesons were suing the Henneys for building over their property line (they hadn't). They would also habitually leave their sprinklers on so long that they created vast pools that flooded the side of the house. That was when the mould problem started. An engineer later reported that the whole row of houses was in danger of "slope failure" because of water saturation.

Suits and counter-suits followed in rapid succession, and the atmosphere turned to pure poison. And there is no escape. With their house half-ruined, there is no prospect of selling even if they wanted to.

Rather better news for the political progressives of west LA, who have been mourning the loss of the radical Santa Monica bookshop Midnight Special – described in this column last summer. Despite economic difficulties and America's recent lurch to the right, the shop is about to reopen, right around the corner from its old premises. "These are very dangerous times to be without every possible avenue of real information," says the owner, Margie Ghiz. Plenty around here would second that.