Out of America: We have ways of making you cut your lawn
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Wednesday 30 June 1993
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.
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