‘Creative acts like landscaping can take on deeply social meanings, just as deeply social and political acts can manifest themselves in the landscape.’
With the rare appearance of the sun, I left the front door to my newly-rented Northeast Portland home wide open—so newly-rented, in fact, that the front lawn was still nothing more than a gnarled and neglected patch of waist-high grass. Which is why I shouldn’t have been too surprised when my newly-acquainted neighbor walked straight up the front path, up the two steps onto the porch, and said, “So when are you going to take care of the lawn? If you want, I can put you in touch with my guy.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I tried to muster an answer, something to the extent of “poor college grad without a lawnmower,” but I think I just came off as a tool, and thankfully before I embarrassed myself any further she had walked off back across the street to her own (well-groomed) front yard. Still chewing my words, I looked out on the haggard brownish-green rectangle that I called my own, and then further out onto the cul-de-sac in which I now lived, complete with decaying basketball hoop and parked black SUV.
Ironically, I had moved to Portland from Montclair, New Jersey, an upper middle-class suburb of New York where I spent most of my childhood and (sadly) postgraduate days. Montclair was a place defined for many by its abundance of cul-de-sacs and well-manicured lawns, a place where if you stood in the right spot at sunset, you could convince yourself that you were actually in any one of the neighboring suburbs, and that those suburbs were actually Montclair.
My parents’ lawn, though, stood apart from the immaculate neon-green carpets, boasting three quirky (if not overgrown and always-dying) home gardens. The irony, then, was that I had moved from an off-beat, ex-hippie habitat in the wealthy suburbs of New Jersey to what might be the most stereotypically suburban locale one can find in off-beat Northeast Portland—a cul-de-sac where children play basketball and parents, I am reminded, take damn good care of their lawns. [Caveat emptor: While all my neighbors keep their front lawns tidy, at least two of them have chickens running helter-skelter in the back.]
My memories as an adolescent boy in Montclair revolve around my friends and I fighting some imaginary fight with authority. This, I’m sure, is not a unique feeling. We cast ourselves as the rowdy rebels, locked in a mythic cage-match with the twin demons of establishment and discipline. Inspired by the songs of Bruce Springsteen, our chosen weapon was a true symbol of disobedience: illegal fireworks. With Saturn Missile Batteries and Starball Contributions in hand, we prowled our suburb like nocturnal jaguars, seeking out the most manicured and expansive of lawns and setting them ablaze with shrieking bottle rockets and twirling smoke bombs.
Light the fuse and run: as we howled and danced wildly from the crime scene, we fantasized the shock on our victims’ faces as they stepped bleary-eyed out of their front doors in pajamas and bathrobes and beheld the miserable, smoking wrecks that had become of their precious, precious lawns.
This was, of course, a scripted social drama, written and performed for our own self-satisfaction more than it was a well-conceived act of political defiance. We fancied ourselves heroic Davids to the suburban Goliath, but to our parents we were probably just “boys being boys” (a regulatory construct in its own right). In the end, us boys all “did the right thing” and went to college.
In college, though, I was introduced to the writings of Michel Foucault, who shed a little light on my juvenile inclination to blow up lawns. As citizens, he argued, we are subjects of power or “docile bodies,” upon whom social discipline is imprinted, and by whom social discipline is performed (Discipline and Punish, 1975). The regulating and disciplinary force that maintains social order is the gaze, cast from one subject to another, which essentially says, “Hey, better tidy up that lawn, it’s starting to look a little unruly.”
I don’t mean to suggest that I was some suburban wunderkind, understanding complex social theory well before my time and using it as a justification for my adolescent urge towards destruction. No, I think I set off fireworks mainly just to satisfy an adolescent urge towards destruction, and to fight the social authorities responsible for, say, convincing my dad that the lawn needed to be mowed and I was the one to do it. Performing that chore for me became synonymous with performing the middle-class values of self-discipline and social order, values that as a teen I could only help to fight.
Maybe what I’m suggesting is that somewhere deep down my instincts were right—that it’s often the same forces that compel us to regulate our lawns that also compel us to turn a cold shoulder to the homeless because they’re an “eyesore” or feel insecure about that nonwhite family moving into town.
In other words, social maintenance is the antithesis to change. What separates me from you is that I have a good clean lawn and you don’t, and either you fix up your lawn ship-shape (and assimilate to the orderly, upper middle-class way of things), or you won’t be welcome here (in the upper-middle class) anymore. The military imposes haircuts on its soldiers and towns impose grass-cuts on their residents.
Societies maintain social order, Foucault argues, by creating “panopticons” or all-seeing eyes, points through which the efficiency and ruthlessness of the social gaze is intensified. This model originated in medieval prisons, in which one guard could effectively and efficiently regulate the discipline of all prisoners by standing in a tower built at the center of a circular prison yard. From that tower, the panopticon, he could survey the entire prison and gaze upon all its subjects (Foucault 1975).
Suburbs are filled with mini-panopticons—they’re called cul-de-sacs, and they’re “a great place to raise kids.” Why? Because from the front porch of a house on a cul-de-sac, one can see the whole neighborhood, not just the houses immediately adjacent and across. One can keep a close watch on their kids as they learn how to ride a bike, or on their neighbors’ activities, or on their neighbors’ lawns. Cul-de-sacs are safe, observable, known entities, cut off from pedestrian and car traffic alike. Living there, one has little reason to fear the unknown and dissimilar.
Enter Portland, a city that has been stereotyped in pop culture as the land of rampant liberalism, urban gardens, and young people explicitly seeking to avoid the discipline of a 9-5 job. What land if any, I thought, could be further from the ordered New Jersey suburb of my youth? At least this was the explanation I gave myself after stumbling over my words and watching my friendly, concerned neighbor return to her side of the street.
I was peeved, not at my friendly neighbor, but at my own stupidity. Of course this type of thing happens in Portland. It happens all over the place. THAT’S why it’s called a panopticon. Also, who am I kidding? The lawn looks like a briar patch.
Determined, however, I took the issue to my friends Ted and Alec, who had recently completely upheaved their front yard, grass and all, in the name of a sustainable urban garden. Where once sat a polite grassy rectangle, now lay 15 small mounds of dirt with a gravel trench snaking in between. In one sense, this was a picture of disorder: straight lines replaced by curves, a flat plane of grass replaced by a three-dimensional landscape. This urban garden, I thought, is nothing if not a radical reinterpretation of an ordinary, docile yard.
But the social complexities at play on this plot of land were no less dense than those of my hometown suburbs, and after talking and working with the two gardeners I noticed a few similarities. “To maintain a plot like this,” Alec told me, “takes discipline. You need to be here to water the plants at the right time, you need to be strict about harvesting at the right time during the right season.” I think what he was trying to tell me was that this garden was no freak show. It was as carefully considered by its creators as a professional suburban landscaper laying down a white picket fence.
The garden was radical, yes, but it was radical within the context of middle-class values, like self-discipline and mastery. In a sense, it was an appropriation of disciplined values toward a more progressive end. Ted and Alec, like me, came from middle-class white backgrounds, but whereas I, as a youth, sought to symbolically attack those values, they, as adults, had found a way of reorienting them.
Portland, like anywhere else, has social norms that are maintained by authorities and citizens alike. These norms are flexible sometimes, and rigid at others. Ted and Alec, for example, flipped one set of norms on its head by destroying their front lawn, but at the same time performed another set by turning it into an expert garden. Urban gardens are radical appropriations of, as Foucault might say, docile space, but caring form them often requires a Foucaultian attention to discipline. At the end of the day, their radical garden was always within the limits of their rectangular plot.
My relocation from Jersey to Oregon has focused my attention on the norms of each place. Being away from Montclair has allowed me to see more clearly the space my parents carved out for themselves with their quirky suburban gardens, while coming to Portland has also shed light on how such a “progressive city” can still maintain traditional social structures.
A lawn is one place where social structures and creative individuality collide—square plots of land often beget unruly gardens, while unruly gardeners often perform “square” values. Indeed, individuals are not as distinct from place as we often like to think. Creative acts like landscaping can take on deeply social meanings, just as deeply social and political acts can manifest themselves in the landscape. Further still, seemingly mundane acts like mowing the lawn are often imbued with political tension.
And if you’re wondering, I borrowed Ted and Alec’s lawnmower.