Out of America: We have ways of making you cut your lawn

WASHINGTON - The steamy days are here again, and with them the rites of high summer in the suburbs of the District of Columbia. Last weekend we in Washington's 27th, 28th and 29th streets (blocks numbered in the 5300 series) had our annual party.

Block parties are a splendid institution. They are unaffectedly gregarious and informal. In the best American way, you wear a label with your name and address, so there's none of that diffident circling among strangers, as in England. You can meet new arrivals, sound out potential baby-sitters and swap gossip on the peculiar habits of those anti-social inhabitants a few doors down.

But all the while I felt faintly, oddly uneasy. Perhaps it was just a British sense of privacy re-asserting itself, but might not this quintessentially American good-neighbourliness contain the seeds of trouble? Meet, in other words, that no less American institution of the homeowners' associations, or, as one Washington lawyer involved in checking their excesses calls them, 'the KGB'.

The associations start off with good intentions. Usually they are set up by the developer to manage such shared facilities as swimming-pools and playgrounds. A board is elected and a president chosen. But at that point trouble can start. Lo and behold, a virtual new tier of local government is born.

This may be The Sweet Land Of Liberty. But America is also, to many a newcomer's surprise, a land of 'aggressive citizenship', with a pronounced tendency for self-policing to ensure uniformity, order and maintained standards (not to mention property values) in the better residential areas. All too often you can't repaint a door, change your roof tiles or put up a bird feeder without the association's approval. And why should this be so?

My inclination is to blame the influence of the Germans, the largest single group of immigrant stock by ancestry. If you're looking for a foreign parallel for homeowners' associations which turn into tyrants, it's not so much the KGB as the Volkspolizei. Having lived for three years in the Bonn dormitory of Bad Godesberg, I remember the awful domestic implications of Ordnung muss sein: restrictions on when children can play in the garden, when lawnmowers may be used, and parties be held - not to mention the dire punishment which awaits should you fail to clear the snow off the pavement outside your house.

Come here, and it's all strangely familiar: from the bewildering array of street regulations to a tangible peer pressure not to let the neighbourhood down. Of course, making home in America doesn't reach Teutonic levels of conformity, for two reasons. One is the competing philosophy, brought over with the first English settlers and equally ingrained, that a man's house is his castle: if you want to breed crocodiles in your back garden, why shouldn't you? A less expected saving grace, however, is this country's propensity to litigate. In those plush suburban outposts of the capital, you can practically bet one in five householders is an attorney. Their public standing may make politicians smell like roses but lawyers know how to fight.

Across the country a backlash of free spirits is under away. In Hawaii a lady won a legal fight to have her Vietnamese pig classified as a pet. Here a new phenomenon has come to light, of small groups of dissenters, known as 'commandos', who fight their way on to homeowner boards to force changes. In Maryland's opulent Montgomery County, a disgruntled resident spent dollars 20,000 ( pounds 13,900) in the courts to secure a symbolic victory and force members of his local board to disclose their salaries. The latest Montgomery epic involves a private driveway that an association wants torn up because it is a foot too wide. Even Congress is getting into the act: the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled hearings on the whole issue of homeowners' associations. That would never happen in Germany. But as far as I'm concerned, block parties are more than enough.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine