Monday, January 14, 2008

Prisoners of Suburbia

I have a friend who lives just on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, in a state that has that uniquely Southern blend of red necks and blue blood. That probably has nothing to do this story, as I've seen the same thing happen in coal mining towns in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In fact, the point of this story is that it can and does happen anywhere. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

She lives in a bedroom community of cul-de-sacs and picket fences, starter homes and soccer moms. Nice place. Quiet. People are neighborly, but generally keep to themselves.

Then the Bad People moved in.

In this case the Bad People are the scions of a local restaurant magnate who bought his twentysomething sons a house - most likely to get them the hell out of his own house. They are not a young couple just starting out. They are not cul-de-sac and picket-fence and bedroom community material. They are hellraisiers, all-night-partiers, tear-around-the-neighborhood-while-drunks, wannabee drug dealers - or possibly the real deal - , punks with no respect for private property and no concern for disturbing the peace. And, thanks to their well-connected father and family (or is it Family?), they have no worries that local law enforcement will present them with any significant problems.

Oh, neighbors have complained, complained about their drunk driving and their parking on other people's lawns, the beer bottles tossed everywhere, the vicious Pit Bull who got through their broken fence and ripped the guts out of a feeble, one-eyed, elderly beagle next door. They've complained to the local Homeowners Association, which collects fees and dictates rules and regulations and totally refuses to take any action against these individuals. They have complained to the police, and have had their vehicles vandalized (with an industrial-strength oven cleaner - the sort of thing that might be used in the restaurant industry), their gardens destroyed, paving blocks heaved through double-paned bay windows, SUV's revved outside their doors in the middle of the night. The neighbors have been on the receiving end of terroristic threats. The police refuse to do anything - including sending the occasional patrol through the neighborhood - until the neighbors have collected evidence proving that these things are being perpetrated by the individuals in question and are not just random, unconnected actions.

This is not a unique case. Similar situations have played out everywhere. A crack house or a drug dealer or a house occupied by an illegally large number of illegal immigrants appears in the middle of what was once a fairly pleasant residential neighborhood. Neighbors are terrified, police are seemingly unconcerned; those who make a fuss get their tires slashed or their porches torched for their trouble.

What can be done?

The way I see it, there are several options. Each one comes with its own problems.

1. Do nothing. Hope the problem will go away, hope things will get better on their own. It won't, and they won't. But you can always keep hoping.

2. Move. You will find that once Bad People have moved into a neighborhood, property values will go down, so you may not be able to get a fair price for your home. And who is going to want to buy it? There's a very good chance that as each home in the neighborhood is sold, more Bad People will move in, and things will get worse for those who have chosen to stay - or do not have the option of leaving.

3. Stay and fight. Usually this option requires getting the local media involved, and managing to hold their attention for more than two or three days. Sometimes this works; often it doesn't. Always there is a price to be paid, as you may find yourself villified by the very organizations you're trying to prod into action, and may find your brake lines cut or your house burned down with you and your children inside it.

4. Surveil. For those who choose not to move, a security system almost always becomes a necessity. Sometimes surveillance systems can be rigged to monitor criminal activity on the streets outside of your house. Of course, if the police do not want to get involved - if, for example, your neighborhood has been declared a sacrificial site, a place where a blind eye will be turned towards criminal activity in an effort to steer criminal activity away from other neighborhoods - you may find it difficult to get anyone to take any action. And making an audio record of things that go on in the streets is, in some cases, considered a criminal activity in itself. (At least, this was true some time ago.)

5. Hire private security. This is an extremely expensive and somewhat risky proposition. Private security firms, as I understand them, have no more rights to act against observed criminal action than any other private citizens. While their presence in a neighborhood may help to quell criminal activity, they can also have a chilling effect on the everyday lives of residents in the neighborhood. And hiring a private security firm that is trustworthy, reliable, and effective can be a bit of a trick. If you have a Homeowners Association that does more than just collect dues and threaten people who leave their Christmas lights up too long, this might be something for them to pursue.

6. Burn them out. No, that's not really an option. Forget I mentioned it.

Most people, I believe, choose options 1 or 2. Some choose option 3, and spend the rest of their lives having to fight - unless and until they choose to move. So what's the answer? I don't know. I've never have had to deal with this myself - not yet. If you have, I'd appreciate your input.


anne said...

Ugh. What an awful situation.

Unfortunately, I have no solution for you.

But one observance. Regarding the comment about family,I doubt it is the Family that they are connected to - at least the mob usually kept the nighborhoods like neighborhoods.

I hope things work out for your friend.

supertiff said...

i've never owned a house, but when BG and lived in our last apartment, we had--as best we can tell--about 14 migrant workers living underneath us. in a 2 bedroom apartment.

they did landscaping in the summer, and left the apartment empty in the winter.

in the summer, they would wake up at five am and start pumping techno music REALLY LOUDLY. i guess they were trying to get themselves amped for the workday ahead, but i actually had a glass of water vibrate it's way off of my nightstand.
more than once.

we didn't say anything for a while, because 1) we were afraid to look racist if we went to any sort of authority (although, i assure that we hate all people who play loud music at that time) and 2) we are two girls: what are we going to do: walk down and knock on the door of an apartment where we know there are 14 big, burly men residing?

eventually, we did just that.
at 5am.
(mind you, loud music is a HUGE problem for people who don't get home from work until 3:30am and are expected back at 10am)
anyway, some guy opened the door and stared at us. and we were like 'hello. we live upstairs. we were wondering if you could turn the music down a bit, because we're trying to sleep.'

at that moment, i'm not even kidding, some pizza menus and whatnot FELL OUT OF THE MAILBOX that shared the same wall with the apartment in question, that's how loud the music was thumping.

and the huy looked at us and said: 'i don't hear any music.' and then he slammed the door in our faces.


they moved out a few months later, thank god.
still, it was of their own accord. and that was in an apartment community--a well respected one, at that. you'd think there would be some protection, but no. i can't even imagine what it's like for home owners.


hedera said...

Actually, there is a method that's been used in some urban areas. I don't know how it would work in a case where the problem people own the place and the police refuse to respond. Usually the police are better than this. Photograph everything, and then sue them for maintaining a public nuisance. But everybody has to sue them. Drown them in public nuisance lawsuits. I don't know if it'll work but at least it's an idea.